Their publisher needed over 200 postcards that showed – and told – the story of a young Lincoln.
They had to be free of copyright restrictions and neat enough to hold the pages of an upcoming illustrated history book.
None of this was a problem for Jim McKee and Ed Zimmer.
The city’s seasoned historians owned the postcards – thousands between them. McKee had started collecting as a teenager growing up in Lincoln in the 1950s; Zimmer in the 1980s, when he arrived as the city’s new historic preservation planner.
They selected a preliminary pile of about 400 candidates — buildings, businesses, parades, parks, historic homes — and spent part of last April and May narrowing them down.
McKee was impressed with the selection, that he had postcards Zimmer’s collection lacked, and that Zimmer had postcards he had not seen.
But they also had duplicates, so they chose the clearer of the two.
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“We had a formula that we had to follow with the publisher,” McKee said. “We just kept weeding out the bad ones until we had the required number that we felt pretty much told the story of Lincoln and its suburbs.”
But then what? How would they organize their 211 postcards, which mostly covered from 1907 to the 1930s? Similar books from their publisher relied on a chronological or thematic structure – like business, industry, schools.
It wouldn’t work for them. They wanted some sort of narrative thread, Zimmer said.
“I didn’t want a 200 photo book with captions underneath, but something that orients you as you go.”
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So they turned to geography. Chapter 1: The Capitol and its neighbors. Later: O Street. Haymarket. Downtown. City Campus. Close neighborhoods and remote suburbs.
With that done, they got to work writing the descriptions, facing a deadline in early November.
And that’s where their combined knowledge—about an underground bowling alley and a Ku Klux Klan lodge, an early plane crash, and why Peanut Hill is called Peanut Hill—became as important to the book as their collection. of postcards.
They begin their book, “Postcard History Series: Lincoln”, with a brief history of postcards.
When postcards were introduced at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, postage cost a penny. But when privately issued postcards were allowed a few years later, the cost doubled. Until 1907, only the stamp and the address were authorized on the back; no posts. They were hugely popular in the years before World War I, when almost a billion were sent every year.
But the authors have also included a disclaimer. A story represented only by postcards is a limited story, because of the limitations of postcards. They can’t show Lincoln’s earliest history, because they didn’t exist yet.
They did not often show women, immigrants, or people of color, so Lincoln’s African-American community or its Russian Germans are not well represented.
And nearly all of the postcards in the book date from the early decades of the 20th century, for several reasons: they tend to be copyright-free; it was a time when many were produced; and this constituted a large part of the combined collection of McKee and Zimmer.
“For both of us, we don’t tend to collect modern drugstore postcards,” Zimmer said last week. “We have other sources for images of things that are here now. It’s the older ones that attract us.
They are getting easier and easier to find. Early Lincoln postcards were difficult to buy in Lincoln, as they were mailed to other locations. Antique stores had old postcards for sale, but they represented other places.
The internet has changed that. Search “Lincoln, Nebraska, postcard” on eBay — where Zimmer does most of its postcard shopping — and you get over 3,500 results.
Many are duplicates, and some are gruesome and expensive — like the one that claims to show a prisoner tied to the penitentiary’s electric chair, for $125 — but Zimmer still finds historic postcards he’s never seen before.
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Postcards are no longer as widespread as they were at the beginning of the last century; a few years ago MarketWatch claimed that millennials and their selfies had pushed them to the brink of extinction.
But they still exist, though McKee suspects they’re mostly bought to commemorate memories. “Now it’s just a keepsake you’re going to take home and put in a scrapbook, not one you’re going to send to Aunt Mildred.”
In 1913, a college student sent his father in Wahoo a postcard from Lincoln Catholic Cathedral.
“Dear Dad,” wrote James Way. “Having a typewriter now, an Underwood, certainly a dandy. I haven’t had a chance to use it much yet, I need practice.
Almost 110 years later, McKee and Zimmer chose it as the 10th postcard in their book. But they’ve corrected a mistake: two years before Way sent the postcard, the church had been dedicated to St. Mary’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, not St. Therese, as the postcard was labeled .
They also added information. The father, EE Way, was an eminent physician. The son went on to serve overseas with the US Army’s 91st Aero Squadron during World War I and spent decades in Lincoln as a railroad engineer.
And they did that throughout the book, providing context and little-known facts, making it more than just a stack of reproduced postcards.
Page 28: The Press Building at 13th and N Streets—the first purpose-built building by the YMCA—had a bowling alley under the sidewalk in the early 1900s.
Page 29: Burrough’s Café at 132 S. 13th Street served Wyoming elk for Thanksgiving in 1916 and moved to O Street four years later.
Page 80: UNL’s 84-foot Mueller Tower – just east of Memorial Stadium and Bessey Hall – was funded by Ralph Mueller, an 1898 graduate who invented the spring-loaded, serrated alligator clip, still used on items such as jumper cables and dental bibs.
Page 83: While searching for a 1912 postcard showing an early French-designed airplane over the State Fair, Zimmer discovered that a Wright Brothers plane had flown – and crashed – at the fair of 1910, and that the fair had used a photo of the crumpled plane. machine to announce its event of 1911.
Page 88: The former Lincoln Country Club at Seventh and Washington streets later became the clubhouse of the Ku Klux Klan.
Page 115: Streetcar drivers used to visit Peanut Hill, near what is now 48th Street and Prescott Avenue, on Sundays, because the Seventh-day Adventist town was open while the rest of Lincoln was not, “and the boys were selling peanuts and soft drinks. ”
The book will be released on March 28, and the two are donating their royalties to the Preservation Association of Lincoln.
Photos: Postcards of Lincoln
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On Twitter @LJSPeterSalter