MISSOULA — Given the thumbs-up to select a digitizing project to do herself, Annie Gaines headed into the bowels of the University of Idaho Library last fall.
She poked through the library’s special collections.
“There’s a lot of strange stuff there,” said Devin Becker, UI’s digital initiatives librarian. “There are a lot of images and documents, flies from a fly fisherman’s collection, Babylonian tablets, Ella Fitzgerald’s hat and shoes …”
“It’s part of our international jazz collection,” Becker says. The Moscow, Idaho, campus is home to the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival each year, and the library’s collection includes musical instruments, audiocassettes, videos, photographs and, yes, even clothing, donated by the likes of Hampton, Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie and more.
Time capsules donated
“We even had some time capsule barrels someone put together in the 1950s and donated with the provision they not be opened for 50 years,” Becker said. “We opened those about three years ago.”
Through this potpourri of stuff, Gaines searched.
“I was wandering around,” she said, “and I found this small but great collection of postcards.”
They’ve trickled in over the years. Some were mounted, but most were in two shoebox-sized containers — about 830 in all, most scenes from the Pacific Northwest, the oldest from the 1890s.
“I’m a fan of postcards,” Gaines said. “I send them to friends all the time when I’m traveling.”
And so Gaines, then a scholarly communications assistant, took the random collection back to her desk and went to work.
Four to five months later, the University of Idaho Library’s Northwest Historical Postcards Collection was online.
It is random, of course, and limited to old postcards people donated to the library over the years.
The bulk — 473 — are Idaho postcards.
But 58 are from Montana, 22 of which depict Virginia City.
One of those, of a barkeep in the Bale of Hay Saloon, is postmarked July 15, 1953. Addressed to Charles Webbert in Moscow, it reads, complete with the misspellings: “Dear Charley: Virginia City is good. We are going to the old Opera House to see Uncle Toms Cabin to night. Just had an old fashioned at the old bar in the Bail of Hay Saloon. Hope you got home all O.K. — Mother and Dad.”
In scanning and cataloging all 830 postcards, Gaines said between a quarter and a third of them had been written on and, usually, mailed to someone.
“I think I made more of a connection to the text than I did the images,” she says. “Some are hard to read, they’re so faded. There’s another, a postcard from Pullman of Washington State University in 1915, where the script is just beautiful, but I can’t make it out it’s so … calligraphic, I guess you’d say.”
A century old
The Montana postcards include one from almost a century ago, a picture of a massive building on a mountainside near Troy.
“The Snowstorm Concentrator” is all it’s identified as, and you might wonder who would want to concentrate snowstorms, or how they could do so inside such a large structure.
Do a little Internet digging, however, and you will learn “Snowstorm” was the name of a Troy mine that once employed 600 men. The concentrator operated from 1917 to 1927, when it was destroyed by fire.
You won’t have to do any searching to figure out what’s going on in one of the Virginia City postcards.
It’s a photograph of a two-story outhouse circa 1963 and called, appropriately, “Big John.” You probably don’t want to do your business on the first level.
“The double-decker,” reads the description. “Dam clever, those pioneers.”
It was 1873 when the U.S. Post Office first sanctioned the use of double-sided cards with room for a mailing address, message and stamp on the back, and leaving the entire front of the card for an image.
Gaines, who recently started a new job as UI’s scholarly communications librarian, also discovered 157 postcards from the state of Washington and 140 from her home state, Oregon, in the collection.
Digitizing the collection makes it easily accessible to anyone, at www.lib.uidaho.edu/digital/postcards/.
You can scroll the entire collection, view a map showing the locations of all the postcards, or search for places, be it as general as “Montana” or as specific as “Mount Harding.”
The latter will bring up a 1960s era postcard of what’s now called Mount Calowahcan.