Monday, February 21, 2011
It's All In The Cards
I collect postcards. The older the better. I have hundreds -- from beautifully lithographed Victorian penny postcards to quirky mid-century cartoon cards and photo cards featuring 1960s tourist attractions. The graphics are amazing, the supply plentiful, and the best thing -- most are inexpensive.
I search gift shops, truck stops and antique malls, looking for more unique paper treasures. I love to read the names and messages on the old cards, and to note the postmarks. A recent trip to a nearby antique mall resulted in the purchase of three vintage cards for a total price of $.91. Quite the deal!
One of the cards features a black and white photo of a man in a suit and black bowler hat standing among a flock of ostriches. What an unusual image! I had to have it.
The accompanying caption read, "Ostriches at South Pasadena, California, at the Ostrich Farm." The message said, "Cora: Here is something that will interest you. Here grows your feather and right now. Have seen these and many more; 6-8 ft. high. Can carry a man all over lot. Mable." The postmark was Venice, Calif., Nov. 17, 1909, 8 a.m.
I examined the card again at home, and then curiosity led me to do a web search for ostrich farms. Here's what I found --
Clothing styles and trends have come and gone for centuries. In the late 19th century, many clothing items in the U.S. and throughout the world were adorned with ostrich feathers. Demand for the feathers was so high that an enterprising English businessman named Edwin Cawston purchased about 50 ostriches and had them shipped from South Africa to Texas. From there, the birds were loaded on a train and transported to a newly-incorporated area called Pasadena, California -- just a few miles from downtown Los Angeles.
Unfortunately, only 18 ostriches survived the trip, but there were enough to eventually populate Cawston's farm with more than 100 birds. His became the first U.S. ostrich farm. The ostriches were raised for their feathers, but that left Cawston with a lot of large birds on hand and not a lot to do with them while they sprouted new feathers.
But necessity, the old adage says, is the mother of invention. Cawston opened his farm to the public as a tourist attraction, and for the next 30+ years crowds flocked to the farm.
Transportation to the ostrich farm wasn't a problem. The farm sat close to a trolley line that ran from Los Angeles. Guests staying at a nearby hotel frequently visited the farm, too. And the attractions Cawston offered were unique. Where else could folks mix and mingle with ostriches, ride on their backs, or take a ride in an ostrich-drawn carriage? Seems pretty tame compared to today's amusement park rides that reach 60-mile-an-hour speeds and twirl riders like socks in a clothes dryer.
Cawston was an innovative marketer before Walt Disney was even born. He sold souvenirs like ostrich letter openers and -- get this -- more than two dozen different picture postcards. Countless visitors paid admission fees to his farm and posed for family photographs in his ostrich carriages. Cawston made a small fortune.
Cawston Ostrich Farm no longer exists, but ostrich farms are plentiful in the U.S. Ostrichland, U.S.A. in Solvang, California, welcomes guests in much the same way as Cawston Ostrich Farm did decades ago. Ostrich feathers, again a popular commodity, are used in clothing, floral arrangements, Mardi Gras masks, fans, and quill wedding pens. Ostrich skin is tanned and used to make boots, purses and wallets. And ostrich meat is described as America's new red meat -- low in fat and cholesterol.
So that's the story behind my 102-year-old postcard purchased for $.25. It's an example of marketing genius. It makes an interesting addition to my postcard collection, and it makes me smile.
Old postcards, along with other paper ephemera, are a popular segment in the antique market. Thankfully, the supply remains plentiful and affordable.