Women Who Shaped BPL: Postcards & the Women Who Loved Them

To celebrate Women's History Month, Special Collections is highlighting a few of the women who shaped Boston Public Library. 

"We have a total of about [165,000] postcards ... They were donated by different collectors through the years."
Jane Winton*, Curator of Prints, The Back Bay Sun, September 14, 2010.

The extensive collection of artworks and images held by the Arts Department at the Boston Public Library includes 165,000 postcards. Many collectors helped build this wide-ranging array of postcards, but perhaps one of the most interesting subsets are the 35,000 donated by Lucy M. Brigham in 1947. 1947 was a rich collecting year for the library; the annual report for the year included a list entitled "A selection of interesting gifts of books, prints, and other materials in 1947." Among the “interesting” gifts that year were letters from such notable women as Helen Keller (1888-1986) and Laura Bridgman (1829-1889) and music scores donated by the Russian musicologist Nicolas Slominsky (1894-1955). Moreover, the American artist Frank W. Benson (1865-1951) donated pieces of his artwork and Albert W. Wiggin added several prints and drawings to his already major collection of art. However a few decades later, it was Lucy Brigham's postcards that became a source of delight to then Curator of Prints Jane Winton.


Brigham’s postcards were originally stored in filing cases and boxes. They date from approximately 1903-1945 and are a plethora of landscapes, flowers, animals, sports, and famous landmarks, cities, and churches from around the world. Major events are also included, such as the 1939 World's Fair. Years after their donation, Jane Winton began going through the cases and boxes and realized exactly how unique the collection was. Within the library's large postcard collections, neither the particular images nor even the amount of postcards in Brigham's gift was especially of note; rather, the postcards were unique because Brigham hid the message box on a great many — but not all — of them.


While many postcard collections — including this one — contain messages that have been crossed or scratched out with a marker to preserve the privacy of the correspondents, Brigham would create collages on the backs to cover the messages using printed and decorative papers, and sometimes even textile swatches! More art than science, Brigham’s collages would sometimes not entirely obscure the writing, leaving tantalizing glimpses of the original messages. The postcards featured here are only a small sample of what’s in the collection, but they represent the quirky charm of a collector who either valued peoples’ privacy or who loved very cool paper and a curator who discovered a collection containing hidden gems.

*Jane Winton was a Librarian at the Boston Public Library for twenty-five years. She was the Curator of Prints from 2013 until her retirement in 2015.