At first, I thought perhaps it was food: Curly French fries, chili dogs, icy-cold root beer floats, tiny glasses of tomato juice, pizza covered with a thick layer of mozzarella cheese and topped with spicy sausage, hot tea in a glass, Chicken Kiev, cranberry kissel.
Then I decided it wasn’t the food, but the ambience: The metal trays clipped to the car window, the dazzling array of choices in a cafeteria, countless clusters of faux grapes suspended from the dining room ceiling, outrageous year-round Christmas decorations.
Or perhaps it was the architecture.
No. No. And no again. The subject was right here in my hands, not stowed away in my memory. The subject was postcards. Restaurant postcards.
They were no doubt an economical way to promote your establishment, and, perhaps, like decorated matchbooks, postcards were also proffered with the hope you’d take these free souvenirs instead of stealing an ashtray. Prohibitions against smoking in public places have made personalized restaurant matchbooks (and ashtrays) a species on the brink of extinction. But why are postcards of restaurants a vanishing breed, too? Are they too expensive to produce? Have high postage rates discouraged would-be postcard senders? Have texting and e-mail made us forget about the joys of handwritten messages? And what role does digital photography play in all this?
When I was growing up, postcards served a wide variety of functions. First, there were the postcards depicting buildings and scenery in a way you could never hope to emulate with your clunky Kodak. Vast panoramas; images of famous structures like the Eiffel Tower, uncluttered by errant tourists; hand-tinted images of places you could only afford to photograph in black & white. These weren’t sent to friends and relatives, but added to scrapbooks about your trip, or carefully tucked away. Memories preserved and shared.
Then there were the postcard equivalents of trading cards. Photos of cute dogs and kittens. Roy Rogers and Trigger.
Finally, there were the “Having a wonderful time. Wish you were here” images of places you’d visited: tourist traps, state capitals, zoos, and restaurants. BuschGardens. The Swan Boats in Boston. Monkey Island at Henry Vilas Zoo. The Italian Village. Piper’s Garden Cafeteria. The Russian Tea Room.
In 1898, the U.S. Postal Service authorized the mailing of penny postcards: one side had room for an address and message; the other side featured drawings or photographs. My photograph of Four Men Wearing Hats is in the form of a postcard. There’s a square shape in one corner and within it are the words “One-Cent Stamp Here.” This feature tells us the postcard was no doubt created between 1898 and 1952, the year that saw the demise of the penny postcard. The standard (6″ x 4.25″) postcard rate was raised to two cents in 1952: Today it’s 26 cents.
Some of my friends and relatives still send postcards, but the kinds of free postcards once given away by restaurants are no longer easy to find. Three years ago, I paid $1 for a flimsy postcard of Redamak’s, a hamburger joint, in New Buffalo, Michigan. I mailed it to myself as a souvenir.
Three months later, however, I discovered free postcards at the Algerian Coffee Stores in Soho, London. Even though airmail postage was 43 pence, I mailed lots of those postcards to my friends and family (and kept one for myself).
If it weren’t for old postcards of restaurants, I’d have a difficult time remembering what many of them looked like (both inside and out), or learning what some legendary establishment that vanished before I was born looked like in its prime.
Some photographers, such as roadside architecture enthusiast Debra Jane Seltzer still take excellent interior and exterior shots of restaurants, but those images are going on Flickr, not postcards. Most exterior shots of restaurants I’ve seen recently, however, seem to emphasize usual architecture or signage. The interior ones show brilliant images of food, or “I ate here!” images that emphasize the “I” instead of the “here.” As far as I’m concerned, I’d much rather have a photograph of the faux grapes hanging from the ceiling of the old Lombardino’s in Madison, than an image of the guy I took to TWIRP eating pizza.
As a child, I loved cafeterias because they seemed to offer unlimited choices. As an adult, I try to limit my choices; but given a blank page, I sometimes can’t resist prattling on and on, long after my readers are stuffed with my meandering memories. That said, I think I’d best halt this stream of consciousness, scan some postcards, and post the whole casserole of goodies for your edification and enlightenment. And if you have the time and inclination, please do let me know what you think of this adventure in dining, or share some memories of your own: That’s the reason for the comments option.