Duck Duck Book

54 – greetings from portland
05.19.2008, 12:01 am
Filed under: history & geography

Greetings from Portland / Mary L. Martin & Kirby Brumfield.
Atglen, PA : Schiffer Pub. Ltd., c2007.
[MCL call number: 979.549 M382g 2007; 20 copies, no holds; two copies reference only at Central Library]

If you are a collector, or a public librarian, or a generalist bookseller, you are certainly familiar with the sort of books published especially for people who collect things. Recent versions of this type of book display lavish illustrations from someone’s collection of whatever-it-is, with price estimates and minimal information about each object’s date of origin, history, and perhaps its context. For people interested in history, collectors’ books are inherently frustrating for the things they deliberately leave out, as well as for their rather casual attitude to the responsibility of citing sources for information — it is expected that the author and/or publisher of a book for collectors is such an authority that readers need no other information than their pronouncement of an object’s definition, its cultural context, its historical significance, and of course, its current value.

Greetings from Portland is a collectors’ book of postcards, and although it is lovely and fascinating, like its brethren it offers little to no information about when each postcard was made, where it would have been sold, or anything else about the history of each object. Many of the captions describing postcards include historical bits and pieces such as the date the bridge in the picture was finished, but these details are spare and unsatisfying. To be fair, the book’s preface does include some instruction on dating postcards (pages 4-5), but since most of the advice is about the information on the address-and-stamp side of the cards, it’s not much help to folks who are simply enjoying the book.

So, if you’re really reading this for my critical opinion, you should know: I’m interested in Greetings from Portland because of its subject rather than simply because of the medium it describes. I do happen to think that postcards provide a particularly interesting angle on the history of the places they portray, but it is still true that it’s essentially the Portland bit that compels me to examine this book about postcards. And I am frustrated by the book’s relative lack of historical context for the cards it portrays.

The view on the past in Greetings from Portland is awfully varied — the book is arranged thematically in chapters showing postcards of fashionable houses, Portland roses and rose gardens, schools, churches, schools, hospitals, parks, statutes, hotels, bridges, harbor traffic, government and commercial buildings, the stockyards, Union Station, street scenes and city views, and the Rose Festival. Several chapters are devoted to peculiarities of the Rose City such as the old Forestry Building (“World’s Largest Log Cabin”), The Grotto, and Council Crest Amusement Park. And there are a few chapters showing of postcards that aren’t of Portland at all — one covers the bounty of Oregon’s fields, orchards, and pastures (pages 87-93), and two chapters display postcards of places luckier Portlanders might have once visited on day trips (pages 103-113). The postcards are mostly in radiant, unlikely-looking full color (thanks to the hand-tinting they so often employed), and are reproduced at nearly their original size.

And the images themselves are beautiful. On page 43, a southbound passenger train makes its way off the east end of the Steel Bridge, its elegant curve along the track accentuating the heavy, graceful lines of the bridge. On page 79, a view from the east bank of the Willamette shows the old public market building with, amazingly, six small seaplanes resting peacefully in the river, all facing west and apparently unaffected by the current. On page 127, a thrillingly gothic portrait of SW 5th Ave. features artificially gloomy streets and glowering dark clouds penetrated by a gleaming full moon. Hundreds of other postcards show the River City in a glory its real past no doubt never quite attained, with blue skies, stately houses, exuberant pink roses, and shapely modern industry gleaming from every page.

Greetings from Portland has no index or bibliography, though as I mentioned it does have an introduction with some advice about how to date postcards.

* * *

Greetings from Portland is but one of a whole series of city-themed postcard collecting books published by Schiffer Publishing, all with titles beginning “Greetings from. . .” Unfortunately, Multnomah County Library only owns this one. But, readers with an interest in postcards may also wish to consult Gideon Bosker and Jonathan Nichols’s Greetings from Oregon (Portland, OR : Graphic Arts Center Pub. Co., c1987; reviewed in Duck Duck Book number 45). It, too, is lovely.


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