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.