In the early 20th century, postcards quickly gained importance as an economical and rapid form of communication. A small card, often with a colorful image of a city’s most important or beautiful structures and just enough space for a brief message and address, could be sent across town in less than a day for a cent or two.
While postcards became popular collectibles a century ago, interest in them continues today. The Radbill Collection of Hospital Postcards, housed in the Blocker History of Medicine Collections at the Moody Medical Library, University of Texas (UT) Medical Branch, Galveston, documents changing styles in hospital architecture from 1904 to 1994. It also gives an intriguing peek into the lives of the correspondents as they chronicle both daily experiences and traumatic illnesses.
The collection contains approximately 5,400 cards depicting primarily U.S. hospitals and medical centers. Each provides a visual record of a hospital, an asylum, a sanatorium, a health resort, a medical school, or a related building. Many [of these places] no longer exist. All 50 states and nearly 1,100 cities are represented. The work of famous publishers such as Curt Teich of Chicago and E.C. Kropp of Milwaukee can be found.
The oldest card in the collection illustrates Santa Rosa Hospital in San Antonio. It is a “Private Mailing Card,” published between May 19, 1898, and December 24, 1901. Many ways exist to determine the age of a card, including special markings, the amount of postage, and the size of the card itself.
The cards come in many forms, some black and white, others hand colored. Most are standard size, while a few depict longer, panoramic scenes. There are even night views, decorated with glitter to represent stars and moonlight.
The postcard collection dates from 1984, when the library acquired the cards of Samuel X. Radbill, MD, a Philadelphia pediatrician and medical historian. It has grown gradually through donations from individuals, including William H. Helfand of New York City, pharmacist, collector, and consultant to the National Library of Medicine. In 1993, the library welcomed a gift of more than 3,500 cards from Morris M. Weiss, MD, a cardiologist in Louisville, Ky.
The collection is available to researchers interested in the social and architectural history of hospitals as well as the history of patient care and the health sciences in general. A personal computer database allows users to access different types of information. A user may search the database using terms associated with the cards, including hospital name, city and state, and type of hospital.
The Moody Medical Library advances the education, research, patient care, and public service programs of the university by obtaining, applying, and disseminating biomedical information and the tools for its management and use. The library traces its history to the beginnings of the school in 1891, making it the oldest of its kind in Texas. Today, it is the primary source of biomedical information for students and faculty associated with the UT School of Medicine, the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, the School of Allied Health Sciences, the School of Nursing, the Marine Biomedical Institute, and the Institute for the Medical Humanities. The library invites inquiries about the postcard collection. For further information, please contact The Blocker History of Medicine Collections, The Moody Medical Library via phone at (409) 772-2397 or via e-mail at email@example.com. TH
Sarita Oertling is a medical history librarian at The Blocker Collection in Galveston, Texas.
The three postcards are from the Radbill Collection of Hospital Postcards, housed in the Blocker History of Medicine Collections, Moody Medical Library, The University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston, Texas.
Thanks also to Kathleen O’Guinn and Arlene Reynolds of St. Mary’s Medical Center and Kathleen Howat of the Historical Society of Long Beach, Calif. All provided information on the Long Beach Sanitarium card.
Christina Santiago in New York kindly assisted with the research on the Bellevue Hospital card.
I have also learned much from the book Postcards in the Library, edited by Norman D. Stevens (New York: The Haworth Press, Inc.; 1995), and the Internet site “Tips for determining when a U.S. postcard was published,” created by the Center of Southwest Studies at Fort Lewis College, Durango, Colo. Available at: http://swcenter.fortlewis.edu/Images/M194/PostcardDating.htm. Accessed on September 18, 2006.