Explore the MFA’s collection of postcards, one of the largest and most comprehensive collections in the world.
Host to the Leonard A. Lauder Postcard Archive, the Leonard A. Lauder Collection of Japanese Postcards, and a number of smaller collections, the MFA holds, or has been promised, nearly 130,000 cards that illustrate nearly the full history of the medium, once so popular and important that in the years around 1900 writers described the world as being in the inescapable grip of postcard madness.
The MFA’s collections provide an unparalleled resource for the history of the postcard itself, and, by extension, a vast visual archive that captures graphic design, history, politics, propaganda, war, style, fashion, humor, and the (sometimes odd) sense of humor of the years around the turn of the 20th century. By virtue of its immense popularity, the postcard distilled every issue that interested, obsessed, titillated, or frightened society in the decades between 1890 and 1940.
The collection is available to postcard enthusiasts and scholars here at the MFA and online. Our collections database contains an ever-growing record of the Museum’s postcard holdings, complete with digital images of the fronts of the cards and, when relevant, the backs.
The Leonard A. Lauder Postcard Archive, the Leonard A. Lauder Collection of Japanese Postcards, the MFA legacy collection, and the Dennis Gorman collection of rock and roll postcards comprise the majority of the MFA’s holdings in this important medium.
The Leonard A. Lauder Postcard Archive
Leonard Lauder began collecting postcards as a boy, when, as he tells it, he walked up and down Collins Avenue in Miami Beach gathering postcards from the displays that the many hotels provided for guests. He has also said that the collection began when he became so captivated by a postcard of the Empire State Building that he spent his entire allowance on five copies of the card. Both stories may be true. Those cards, of Miami Beach and New York, were the beginnings of a collection that has spanned nearly seven decades and has become the single most comprehensive and carefully gathered in the world. Mr. Lauder promised the collection to the MFA in 2010, and the collection has been migrating from New York to Boston in annual installments ever since. As of 2014, about 40,000 cards of the roughly 100,000 in the Archive have come to the MFA.
The Archive spans the history of the postcard, from its beginnings as a humble pre-paid postal card in 1869, through the enormous postcard craze of the 1890s and 1900s, to those produced in World War II. The Archive does contain some postwar cards, but the majority of its holdings date between 1890 and 1940. Among its particular strengths are artists’ cards of the decades on either side of the turn of the 20th century; advertising cards; so-called mechanical cards, which have pull tabs and other moving parts; cards associated with politics and propaganda; and cards of ethnographic subjects, including large groups of cards from Africa. The collection also includes an extensive group of cards—nearly 15,000—issued by the Detroit Publishing Company; it is a near complete collection of cards by this important publisher of American view cards.
Much of the Archive’s holdings—including ethnographic cards, artist’s cards, and cards from the Detroit Publishing Company—have been catalogued and scanned and are viewable in the collections database.
The Leonard A. Lauder Collection of Japanese Postcards
In 2004, the MFA received the gift of nearly 20,000 Japanese postcards from the collection of Leonard A. Lauder—a gift that presaged the arrival of the Lauder Postcard Archive. That collection is a perfect match with the MFA’s unparalleled holdings of Japanese woodblock prints, as the extraordinary graphic impulse in Japanese woodblock prints transferred seamlessly to the new medium of the postcard when the worldwide craze reached Japan in the years just around the turn of the 20th century.
The MFA Legacy Collection
In 1899, Sylvester Koehler, the first curator of the MFA’s Department of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs, became intrigued by the new phenomenon of artistic postcards that had started as the postcard craze took hold. His interest may have been prompted by a critical assessment written by the important German print scholar Max Lehrs in the journal Pan. Koehler assembled, partly by gift and partly by purchase, a significant group of nearly 700 cards, including what have become the most sought after of all postcards, among them sets by Gisbert Combaz, Henri Meunier, and Alphons Mucha. Koehler died in 1900, and the postcard collection, though accessioned and catalogued, sank from view. It was only with the promised gift of the Lauder Archive in 2010 that the MFA realized the extent and importance of its first postcard collection.
The Dennis Goreham Collection of Rock and Roll Postcards
In 2014 the MFA acquired the Dennis Goreham collection of rock and roll postcards and handbills, which is one of the most comprehensive of its kind and almost certainly the most compete held by a public institution. In the early 1970s, Dennis Goreham began collecting the postcards and handbills designed in the mid– and late 1960s by San Francisco artists and collectives such as Bill Graham and the Family Dog. This was a period of great innovation and experimentation in all things, including graphic design. The postcards issued by Bay Area clubs represent one of the last great moments in the history of the postcard as graphic design. As of late 2014, these cards are not yet catalogued or photographed, although an inventory is available from the MFA.
The MFA has mounted two full-dress exhibitions of postcards from Leonard A. Lauder’s collections, and included postcards in many other displays. Find further information about the two exhibitions, in 2004 and 2012, at the links below.
The MFA has launched a series of postcard publications, generously supported by Leonard A. Lauder. See more information about the first two publications at the links below.
- The Postcard Age
- Art of the Japanese Postcard
- Atget: Postcards of a Lost Paris
- The Propaganda Front: Postcards from the Era of World Wars
Postcard Collections outside the MFA
By far the greater part of Leonard Lauder’s postcard collections have come or have been promised to the MFA, but not all. Mr. Lauder has promised his collection of Wiener Werkstatte postcards to the Neue Galerie in New York, and presented a very large group postcards published by Raphael Tuck to the Lake Forest Historical Museum in Libertyville, Ilinois.