Donald R. Brown and the Institute of American Deltiology

History Works profiles individuals whose professions enhance Pennsylvania’s historical and cultural assets through diverse disciplines such as preservation, restoration, conservation, research, documentation and interpretation.

Donald R. Brown may well be the Dr. Albert C. Barnes of the postcard world. An ardent deltiologist, he promotes postcards as resources for the scholarly study of society, culture and heritage. In 70-odd years of collecting postcards, he’s amassed an unrivaled private collection, housed in his Institute of American Deltiology (IAD), an incorporated nonprofit foundation, museum and research center in his native Myerstown, Lebanon County. More than 3,100 individuals have visited the IAD since Brown opened it in 1993.

Now an octogenarian, Brown is slowly transferring the bulk of his collection to the National Trust for Historic Preservation Library, which is owned, maintained and serviced by the University of Maryland Library system in College Park. The first delivery in 2010 totaled 65,000 cards (southern and western states). “And you could barely sense a vacancy in Myerstown,” Brown says. The six New England state collections left in 2012. The transfer of the Pennsylvania collection will begin in 2015, with the geographically arranged western third of the Commonwealth. It may take another decade before the entire transfer is complete. Six van-loads – some 300,000 postcards – have left so far, with the help of two indispensable volunteers, John C. Fralish Jr. of Carlisle, Cumberland County, and Donald L. Rhoads Jr. of Lebanon, Lebanon County. Brown’s partiality to the Pennsylvania “real photo” collection may keep those cards in Myerstown “until I leave the planet,” he admits. In the end, perhaps 1 million of his postcards will be catalogued online.

A career librarian, Brown found that many small and most large libraries contained picture postcards in their local history or art collections, but a recognized national research center focused on the “humble postcard” was lacking until 1982, when the Lake County Discovery Museum at Wauconda, Illinois, accepted the family production stock of Chicago’s Curt Teich Company, America’s largest postcard printer between 1898 and 1978. That collection is now some 3 million cards strong. Early on, Brown considered donating his collection to that museum, though he recognized the need for a similar postcard archive in the eastern part of the nation and so began his own institute, first in an 1849 building – his “house of cards” – and now permanently in the National Trust Library. Thanks to his IAD collections and other sizeable donations, the National Trust Library collection will be the nation’s second largest public postcard repository.

For several decades, Brown has donated many of his duplicate Pennsylvania cards to the Pennsylvania State Archives, which has organized them in Manuscript Group 445. He received recognition for his work in 2006 during National Postcard Week, which has been celebrated on the first full week in May since 1984. He was honored with a state proclamation for helping to preserve Pennsylvania’s heritage through postcards. That followed the Capitol Preservation Committee’s unveiling of a second set of four commemorative postcards that highlighted the Capitol’s centennial restoration project. Brown, a guest speaker, exhibited in the rotunda a collection of 140 historic 1906 Capitol and Capitol Hill postcards.

In 2013 Brown published Myerstown and Eastern Lebanon County in Arcadia’s Postcard History Series. The book relies on text and real photo postcards (1905-60) to teach local heritage.

How did you get started collecting postcards?

The postcard bug bit me on August 20, 1943, at 2:15 in the afternoon at 440 North 7th Street in Lebanon. A shoebox of picture postcards – which included tall buildings in Pittsburgh – surfaced as my mother and aunt divided the belongings of my grandmother. The image of the picture postcard had already been registered with me in the 1930s. I recall receiving postcards from my missionary-oriented aunt in Japan in the late ’30s, showing Japanese children playing unusual games. I recall the beautiful colors of those cards, which I carefully saved.

What kept you collecting?

By 1946 I had influenced my friend and west-side-of-town neighbor, and we were exchanging postcards of the Lebanon Valley via the mail with dozens of collectors through membership in the Post Card Collectors Club of America. By 1947 we formed a postcard club and sent away for cards to F.W. Woolworth stores. That friend, Raymond J. Phillips Jr., has since sent me at least 15,000 postcards from his world travels and his own collection of about 20,000 cards. I considered myself an official collector the day I received a membership card from the Post Card Collectors Club of America in October 1945.

Where did you find postcards, or did they find you?

In the 1940s postcards could be found on racks at every five-and-dime store, at many drug stores, at Hershey Park’s store, at museums and places like Roadside America in Berks County. The Post Card Gazette had ads by dealers, and I learned of Elmer R. Long’s Stamp Store on Market Street in Harrisburg. He also sold postcards. Then I learned of a postcard producer and dealer in Harrisburg, J. Paul Walmer. The five-and-dime stores in Lebanon also carried racks of comic postcards, many featuring World War II subjects. Motels and restaurants then thought of having postcards made of their establishments. Salesmen from postcard firms traveled, trying to convince business owners to produce a postcard.

How did you amass so many postcards?

How could I not? When I traveled with my relatives through the Great Smokies and the South, I begged to stop at every town’s five-and-dime. I ventured into dozens of small towns in eastern Pennsylvania and discovered that drugstores and five-and-dimes in Boyertown, Robesonia, Hummelstown, Columbia, Manheim and Lititz had racks. Ray and I then pestered our local druggist to have a set made of Myerstown. He obliged, and by 1947-48 a series of 22 printed postcards by the Tecraft Company of Tenafly, New Jersey, appeared at Stitzel’s Drug.

So postcards were popular in other cities in Pennsylvania and elsewhere?

In Lebanon, Reading, Allentown, Pottsville, Harrisburg, Hershey, Lancaster and York, colorful linen-finish postcards were available at many stores in the 1930s,’40s and into the early ’50s, when the Kodachrome postcard surfaced. Standard-sized chromes also were generally available in the cities until the early ’60s. By the time I took my first full-time job at the Detroit Public Library [1957], I had joined the Wolverine Postcard Club [becoming president by 1960]. In 1960 alone, I probably corresponded with nearly 100 collectors and a dozen postcard collectors’ clubs. Postcard collecting surged in popularity during the Bicentennial era of the ’70s. By 1980 there were 60-plus postcard collecting clubs in the U.S. and Canada.

How and when did you decide that your collection deserved its own museum?

Both my parents passed away by 1966 and the entire collection [kept at their home] was moved to Kalamazoo, Michigan, where I was the reference librarian of Western Michigan University. It was during the mid-1970s, after I had relocated to Harrisburg and joined the staff of the State Library of Pennsylvania as coordinator of Reference and Information Services, that I began thinking of where to house the collection permanently. I had a third-floor apartment in an old mansion on Front Street in Harrisburg and the closets were packed by 1980. A crisis was upon me.

Why an institute? Why Myerstown?

An article I read in in the early ’80s moved me. Its title: “Postcards are Popular, but Not in Your Library.” By then, I hoped that my growing collection could be organized when I retired and given to an institution, such as the Smithsonian, or a university library with postcard or material culture strengths. With the building in Myerstown [a general store until 1929], there stood an architectural statement that seemed to be waiting for me in my hometown.

What do postcards say about our culture?

Postcards are documents of localized history and of the culture of the middle classes, their interests, places, products, workplaces, social life, customs and tastes since the Columbian Exposition souvenir cards of 1893 made their American debut. Postcards printed lithographically in large quantities are also documents of communication, of advertising and promotion, of the graphic arts, of social history and changing public tastes, and of our material culture, especially architecture. Real photo postcards of the first third of the 20th century are the most accurate barometers of the emerging American middle classes. They are fascinating documents of interests and pursuits of the “common man.”

How do you explain your collection’s scope and sequence or its organization?

Prior to incorporation, I estimated that I had 600,000 postcards. Since 1993 another 300,000 have surfaced either as purchases or donations. Many of the latter seem to have come out of the woodwork, in closets, that I unearthed on a family farm in northern Lebanon County and in a huge commercial collection in the Chicago area. The IAD collection contains four key parts: Two printed parts are divided into an alphabetical-by-state geographical arrangement [for the U.S. and Canadian provinces] and an alphabetical topical [subject] subarrangement. Similarly, two real photo parts are divided into an alphabetical-geographical arrangement and an alphabetical-topical subarrangement. I estimate that 300,000 postcards are in the printed topical segment. The real photo topical part is perhaps 1,500 to 2,000 cards. The estimated number of real photo postcards arranged geographically is 15,000.

How extensive is the Pennsylvania collection?

The Pennsylvania collection is by far the largest of the U.S. states collections. Estimates are lithographically or otherwise printed, 70,000 to 85,000 postcards; Pennsylvania real photo postcards, 9,000. I may have thousands of Pennsylvania “dupes” to donate to the Pennsylvania State Archives collection, where 20 years ago a unit for donations was started for me.

What are the most historically significant or rare postcards in your collection?

The early American expositions collection fills a dozen albums [4,000-7,000 cards]. In the 1990s I purchased many of those sets from the Lillian Bahney Collection [of Myerstown]. Those and the real photo postcard segment [15,000-17,000 cards] are invaluable for grassroots research. Segments arranged by topics that are particularly important for research are the architects and architecture files, the advertising postcard drawers, the postcard printers and publishers including the arts and crafts publishers, the signed artists drawers, and the social history/issues segments. There are at least 50 unusual and/or rare sets of cards, some of which are protected in a bank box. The famous rare artists series issued for the 1913 Armory Show in New York City is among these.

You have always been a champion of Pennsylvania history, particularly of Myerstown and Lebanon County. How have you used the collection to educate others?

Along with Lebanon County history, my interest has been focused upon Berks County and Dauphin County – the heritage of the Lebanon Valley between Reading and Harrisburg. Since 1970, when I joined the staff of the State Library of Pennsylvania, I have made it my business to delve as much as possible into Pennsylvania’s history. I’ve been historian of the Gerberich family [Brown’s maternal side that arrived in the 1750s through Port of Philadelphia]. Regarding my dad’s family, I compiled the annual publication of the Tulpehocken Settlement Historical Society in 2010 using postcards to trace the Braun family’s pattern of settlement through the Port of New York in 1710, then up to Schoharie Valley of New York, then down along the Susquehanna to Middleton, and along the Swatara Creek, then over to the Tulpehocken area of Berks County in 1723. I can estimate the number of public postcard programs I’ve given at 200, most of which have been in Pennsylvania. Every program has included cards of that locality.

What do you hope the legacy of the collection will be?

I would like to live to see most of the IAD collections – both the postcards and the [thousands of ] publications about postcards, architecture and material culture – relocated and catalogued for research access. It’s impossible for me to live separately from postcards, because almost everything in the world that I have experienced, or ever will experience, has been pictured on a postcard. My hope is that among my younger supporters and volunteers their recognition that picture postcards are unique documents of our American heritage will contribute toward opening doors of opportunity in future times and places within the wider world of historic preservation for them and those they enlighten.


J.F. Pirro is a veteran educator and widely published entrepreneurial journalist who lives in Quakertown, Bucks County. For nearly 35 years, he has been published in national and regional magazines and daily and weekly alternative city newspapers. His work focuses on people, social trends, historic preservation and land use, 18th century America, agrarian culture and sports and recreation topics.