My Great-Grandfather's Postcard Collection

A few weeks ago, I went on vacation with my immediate and extended family. It was a wonderful week on the beach and the time away left me feeling rested and peaceful. While there, I was given stewardship of my great-grandfather Harold's postcard collection. The collection includes (by my count) 641 postcards from within the USA and 621 postcards from international locations (including Hawaii and Alaska due to the time period). The collection is housed in a wooden box with two compartments. The postcards from within the USA are housed on the left side of the box and are organized alphabetically by state. The right side of the box is organized by country, with the names written on a set of card stock dividers that have been badly degraded by time. The postcards themselves are in impeccable condition, considering their age. The oldest cards are postmarked in the early 1920's, and a few late additions reach into the 1960's.


I never had the chance to meet my great-grandfather, as he passed away 14 years before I was born. I really haven't known much about him at all. Holding his postcard collection in my hands has been the catalyst for an expedition into the past, into my ancestry, to meet Harold and get to know the original Snail Mail Superstar in my family. Everyone in his life (including his wife) called him by his last name, Steinke. I will continue the tradition from here on out.

As you can read in the inscription above, it was Steinke's goal to collect one or more postcards from every country. I treasure this returned and battered postcard because it's a window into how Steinke reached out into the world to meet people and build his collection. He was 16 when this  postcard was sent. From my research on Ancestry, I can make a few meaningful connections here. In 1921 when this postcard was sent, Steinke's father, Emil, was working in a typewriter factory. I can picture Emil bringing home a typewriter for the family and showing his curious son how it worked. I can picture the glint in Steinke's eye while thinking of all the possibilities, and landing on his plan to travel the world and bring it home with just a postcard and a stamp. His dream started with this simple, typewritten postcard. He understood the power of snail mail. Steinke grew up and worked with typewriters like his dad. He sold Olympia typewriters for many years and eventually started his own office machines business. A snail mail lover and an entrepreneur. I like the cut of his jib.


As you can see in this follow up postcard, people heard about Steinke's project and they wanted to be a part of it. They were, in fact, "very anxious to join." Many of the postcards in Steinke's collection are blank. There are many doubles and multiples, especially in the Washington DC section. I can only speculate on his intentions, but I imagine that he sent a lot of those overseas for exchange. My favorite examples in the collection are those with messages, stamps and cancellations. Steinke has postcards in his box addressed to everyone in the family, not just to him. It's like they all knew he collected them, so they'd send them to each other and then give them to Steinke when they were done. This habit gives me the immense pleasure of reading examples of how they all communicated with each other. I get to see a glimpse into Steinke himself in his postcards to his brother Stan, his father Emil, and my own Grandma Jean.


Between the first postcards in the collection and the last, Steinke met his wife, Georgia, had three daughters and raised them to love sending snail mail. I know, because his daughter, my Grandma Jean, taught me to love snail mail. She sent letters for every day I was at camp, sent me cards from my dolls in character, and wrote beautiful letters on behalf of Mrs. Claus. She showed me her love in myriad ways, but the magic of snail mail stuck. When I feel lost, I've always returned to it, like my North Star, or like it's in my DNA. I'm learning that perhaps, it is. 


I can only infer the sentimental meaning that will follow this sentence, but it feels right. Steinke strikes me as a young man who dreamed of seeing the world. He must have grown up hearing about places in Europe from his dad, Emil, who came to America from Germany in the 1880's. His collection includes beautiful postcards from all over, and I picture him opening his mailbox to find a 4" x 6" window into a place in the world he longs to see for himself. But the postcard collection also encompasses a few more modern cards, written by Steinke to my Grandma Jean in 1961 from locations all over Europe. Revealing the dry humor that is certainly a part of our family legacy, he wrote: "This is the darndest country. Everyone speaks French." I never met Steinke, but after just a few short weeks of research and reading postcards, I recognize him. He's like me. I'm just at the beginning of this journey, but I already feel anchored in my family history in a way I've never felt before. 

There is so much more I could say, and I will share eventually... I'm working on something special and I've already written 4,600 words! In the meantime, I need your help. I've started my own postcard collection, and perhaps my own great-grandchild will read it someday and learn about this moment in time. I would LOVE for you to send me a postcard. On it, please tell me about the person who taught you to love snail mail. I'll share them here, and we can all celebrate the magic of our snail mail predecessors together!

Here's the address:
Snail Mail Superstar
c/o Constellation & Co.
1900 W. Nickerson St. #101
Seattle, WA 98119
United States of America