Title: Wish You Were Here
Author: Emily Donahoe
Publisher: Helena Independent Record
Local collector illuminates Helena history with old postcards
It’s a treat to hear stories about the good old days, but sometimes it’s a thrill to see them in person.
A new book of antique postcards by Tom Mulvaney offers a picture window to Helena’s vibrant history, from early Vigilante Parades to famous and infamous local personalities, to the ever-changing architecture of Last Chance Gulch.
A Helena native, Mulvaney is about the nicest guy you’ll ever meet who knows a heck of a lot about old postcards and Montana history.
Originally into stamps and baseball cards as a kid, Mulvaney’s passion for postcards eventually became the one that carried him into adulthood.
“I think it’s in some people’s blood to be a collector,” says Mulvaney, who describes his entry into postcard collecting as “a melancholy story.”
Mulvaney inherited the images that began his collection when his grandparents, married more than 50 years, died within six months of each other in 1975.
What intrigued Mulvaney about the postcards was the history behind them, which often took some amateur detective work to uncover.
“Of course this is long before the Internet,” says Mulvaney, who slowly found people who knew something about antique postcards by placing classified ads in the newspaper.
For a collector, Mulvaney says the goal is to build up a base of knowledge that way you know when you’ve found something really special.
“Finding something unusual; that’s always a treat,” he says.
In the 30 years since he began, Mulvaney has collected about 30,000 Montana postcards from the turn of the century on.
Although photography had been around for awhile, Mulvaney says the simple idea of picture postcards didn’t take off until about 1910, when the U.S. government announced that, unlike a letter, a postcard could be mailed for just one cent.
These “penny postcards” became popular in a hurry, with both companies and amateur photographers producing images on a heavy backing to be sent around the world.
In an era where the written word was the main means of communication, the cards were not only stylish but practical, providing just enough space to tell of a birth, death or wedding but not so much that the sender felt guilty about not writing more.
Mulvaney says that the inscriptions he finds on the back of the cards often add information to the imagery on the other side. One postcard he’s never quite figured out has the stamp of an official court on the back, as though it had been used for evidence.
As far as unique images, Mulvaney says he has several postcards depicting towns in Montana that no longer exist.
“Those are especially intriguing to me,” he says.
For his book, Mulvaney chose to focus on Helena postcards because, he says, “This is my town.”
Although he was pretty well-versed in Helena history when he embarked on the project, Mulvaney says he spent some serious time walking around downtown, trying to figure out the exact locations of some of the buildings he couldn’t quite place.
“Course some of them turned out to be parking lots,” says Mulvaney, who discovered that one beauty salon downtown actually used to be a coal shop.
Complete with detailed captions, Mulvaney says the book is simply meant to be a fun glimpse into Helena’s heyday and what fun it is.
Be forewarned a quick perusal of the collection can easily turn into a much longer affair, punctuated by cries of “Look at this!”
For Mulvaney, some of the images evoke personal memories, such as the ones of the old Marlowe Theatre.
“That’s a place I probably miss the most,” says Mulvaney. “It was just one of those magestic old theaters.”
Others don’t inspire nostalgia but daydreams.
“I think almost everyone who has ever seen a pictire of the Broadwater Natatorium wishes they could have gone swimming there,” Mulvaney said.
Tom Mulvaney’s “Helena” is available in local bookstores.