Greetings from San Antonio: Historic Postcards of the Alamo City

Greetings from San Antonio: Historic Postcards of the Alamo City

by Lewis F. Fisher


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At the dawn of the twentieth century, just as color postcards were becoming a worldwide sensation, San Antonio bypassed Dallas as the largest city in Texas. Idyllic postcard images of San Antonio began landing in mailboxes across the country, displaying recently gained wealth and prosperity. Greetings from San Antonio: Historic Postcards of the Alamo City is a collection of more than six hundred color and black-and-white photo postcards, many of them quite rare, that yield a compelling visual narrative of the city during this pivotal period.

Large buildings like Joske’s department store and the Milam Building, railroad stations, mansions on paved streets, the 343-acre Brackenridge Park, and plush hotels such as the Saint Anthony Hotel and the Gunter Hotel replaced dusty frontier streetscapes at the turn of the century. This delighted postcard publishers, who gave proud residents and curious visitors alike the opportunity to mail images of a modern city worldwide. As the midcentury approached, postcards’ peak in popularity faded, along with San Antonio’s title as the largest city in the state.

Greetings from San Antonio presents a portrait essential to understanding the modern origins of this distinctive American city. Daily life is captured through seldom-seen images of downtown⁠, including the Alamo⁠, and early suburban neighborhoods, churches and schools, and entertainment venues and festivals like the annual citywide celebration Fiesta. Special attention is given to San Antonio’s emerging reputation as a military city, with images of early army and air bases—Fort Sam Houston, Lackland Air Force Base, Camp Bullis, and Brooks, Kelly, and Randolph Fields. Highlights include postcards showing the San Antonio–based pursuit of Pancho Villa and the city’s role as a hub for military preparations for World Wars I and II. Taken as a whole, Greetings from San Antonio is a captivating and unique portrayal of the city during the early years of its transformation into the multicultural mecca it is today.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781595349187
Publisher: Trinity University Press
Publication date: 04/01/2020
Pages: 232
Sales rank: 771,153
Product dimensions: 8.60(w) x 11.10(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Celebrated San Antonio historian Lewis F. Fisher, whose Maverick Publishing Company was acquired by Trinity University Press in 2015, has published forty-five books on topics ranging from San Antonio’s Spanish heritage to its urban development, and from the military to sports, architecture, and multicultural legends. A former member of the San Antonio River Commission, he has written numerous books himself, including Chili Queens, Hay Wagons, and Fandangos: The Spanish Plazas in Frontier San Antonio, winner of the 2015 San Antonio Conservation Society Publication Award, and Saving San Antonio: The Preservation of a Heritage, republished in a second edition, and Maverick: The American Name That Became a Legend. Fisher has received numerous local, state, and national writing awards and was named a Texas Preservation Hero by the Conservation Society in 2014.

Read an Excerpt


As postcard images of San Antonio began landing in mailboxes across the country at the dawn of the twentieth century, they displayed the wealth and prosperity of a city vastly different from the San Antonio of only two decades before.
Gone were oxen hauling covered wagons down dusty thoroughfares lined with vernacular homes and shops. Now automobiles sped down paved streets past fashionable multi-story buildings. Sun-baked mud that once surfaced the old Spanish plazas was replaced by flowers and landscaped gardens. Lantern-lit tables of chili queens preparing fast foods in markets bustling with carts and wagons had nearly vanished.
San Antonio was fortunate in spreading word of its new-found growth and modernity at the very moment picture postcards began sweeping the nation. In 1900 its population of 53,000 bested Dallas to make San Antonio the largest city in Texas, and would quadruple to keep it that for the next three decades. San Antonio suddenly was as impressive as other American cities, with large public buildings, busy railroad stations, plush hotels, thriving department stores and rows of handsome mansions lining broad streets. But in the heart of the new development the famed Alamo was still there, allowing boosters to instantly identify San Antonio to the rest of the nation as “the Alamo City.”
Unsung heroes in the postcard boom were those who delivered the postcards, like this postman, identified as Tom, shown making the rounds of a new San Antonio neighborhood with his horse-drawn cart about 1905.
German printers were flooding European markets with inexpensive but high-quality postcards, using color lithography techniques they had perfected in the late nineteenth century. American publishers, including many from San Antonio, began sending their best designs over for printing, as relaxing U.S. postal regulations encouraged postcard mailing.
[0.2 A]
This 1890s Leipzig-printed card allowed message room on the front.
[0.2 B]
Postal laws changed so cards could have message space on the back.
In 1898, picture postcards in the United States could first be mailed at half the letter rate, as long as there were no messages on the stamped side to interfere with the address. After lobbying by the postcard industry, regulators relented further by dividing the stamped side between space for the address on the right—beneath the postage stamp and cancellation—and dedicated space for a message on the left. Images on the front no longer had to leave room for messages, and could expand into the full space.
Individuals and itinerant photographers could produce their own cards as well. In 1903 Eastman Kodak came out with inexpensive cameras that used postcard-size black-and-white negatives. Printed onto photo paper stiff enough to meet mailing requirements, they could print one-of-a-kind postcards or make duplicates to sell commercially. Michigan-born photographer Montie Wasson produced large numbers of some of the finest military photo postcards made in San Antonio, in 1911, before he moved on to work in West Texas and New Mexico. Ralph Russell Doubleday, who produced highly regarded photo postcards of rodeos throughout the West, did some first-rate rodeo cards in San Antonio plus a notable series of the 1927 Battle of Flowers parade.
It seemed that everyone was jumping at the new opportunity to communicate, sometimes just to send notes to friends still difficult to reach by telephone across town. Many proudly mailed images of local landmarks to distant relatives, and travelers could visually boast of the sights they’d seen. In San Antonio, tens of thousands of homesick soldiers rotating through the city’s military bases formed a self-renewing market for postcard sales.
[0.3 A]
A butterfly carried images of four San Antonio landmarks in 1908.
[0.3 B]
Large-letter cards provided a favorite greeting format by the 1930s.
It’s difficult to imagine the extent of the postcard fad at the time. In 1908 more than 667 million picture postcards went through the U.S. mail. Many were from collectors mailing cards to each other. In 1909 a Philadelphia-based postcard club counted 10,000 members. Varieties proliferated for holiday greetings—even on St. Patrick’s Day and Halloween—and in every category imaginable, from sailing ships to dogs to high fashion. Some cards in this book reveal corners faded from having been tucked into high-acid paper albums manufactured to display postcards. A few show corner remnants of gummed album mounts.
The arc of picture postcards’ greatest popularity happened to coincide with the span of San Antonio’s reign as the largest city in Texas, ended by Houston in 1930. By then improved telephone service had made long-distance verbal communication easier, and better home cameras and film caused snapshots to replace one-of-a-kind photo cards. Quality lessened a bit as World War I cut off access to German printers. A surge of folded greeting cards mailed in envelopes reduced the holiday greeting market for postcards. By the 1950s, postcard production was mostly by mass printing, and the early-day sense of handcrafting was gone.
Yet so much visual variety had emerged and so many scenes are recognizable today that these early postcards afford a rich visual understanding of the beginnings of modern-day San Antonio, despite inevitable gaps in the postcard record. Many businesses, churches and schools chose not to produce their own postcards. In putting San Antonio’s best foot forward, postcard publishers overlooked the passé styles of grand Victorian homes in the King William district in favor of newer landmark homes to the north between downtown and Monte Vista. Older neighborhoods and expanding subdivisions received little attention in mass postcard offerings. Nor did African American neighborhoods get much notice, although a distinctive church “for Colored People” is the subject of one card in this book.
[0.4 A]
Comic postcards became yet another specialty category for collectors.
[0.4 B]
Woodmen of the World Camp 529 used a humorous meeting card.
An exception to the emphasis on prosperity is the volume of postcards mining tourist interest in impoverished residents who had fled unrest in Mexico to the south. Few other American cities at the time had such a sizable population of recent Mexican immigrants. They brought with them dress and foodways that postcard-mailing visitors from elsewhere found exotic, even if their primitive homes, or jacales, were sometimes ridiculed as “mansions.” Such fascination led some publishers to expand their selections by marketing images taken in Mexico as being in San Antonio, no matter that they included large buildings not in the city and backgrounds of mountains nowhere nearby. Such cards sold many copies, but did not make it into this book.
Postcard viewers need to be wary of captions as well. In the rush to get cards on sales racks, caption accuracy was a frequent casualty, and spelling is unreliable. Founding dates given for San Antonio’s Spanish missions are often before the missions existed. To spur sales, the same curious stone structure in San Pedro Park is identified on different cards as an “old arsenal powder house,” an “old cabin,” an “old Mexican fort,” an “old Mexican dwelling,” even as “Santa Anna’s Old Home.” All five descriptions are fabrications, as the small building’s use has not been determined.
[0.5 A]
Some San Antonians printed their names on a stock card.
[0.5 B]
This is the first in a four-card series with lines of the 1907 “San Antonio Song” chorus.
As a regional nonfiction book publisher for nearly twenty years, I sensed the value of vintage postcards as book illustrations, since their initial sales depended on good quality and popular appeal. Book publishers usually expect authors to pay sometimes-exorbitant fees to use images, including those on postcards, in institutional collections. That leaves many unused. Yet the more relevant images in a book, the better the book will sell, benefitting both author and publisher, and original vintage postcards, if they can be found, frequently cost less than some institutions’ single use fee.
Encouraged by my friend the late Bill Lende, whose extensive collection of exaggerated/tall tale postcards is now in the Newberry Library in Chicago, I purchased a large collection of San Antonio postcards. I began filling gaps through purchases online and from dealers, and held them for use by “my” authors at no charge. Their number in Maverick Publishing books ranges from eight in a book on place names to fourteen in one on railroads, forty-nine in a history of Fort Sam Houston and seventy-eight in my own book on the River Walk. Often cropped and enlarged, most are unrecognizable as illustrations from postcards.
[0.6 A]
An alluring photo was combined with a sales pitch.
[0.6 B]
The new Municipal Auditorium provided an up-to-date backdrop for advertisers.
Having sold my company to Trinity University Press in 2014 and no longer needing to hold images for first use by authors, I’ve selected more than 600 for this book. Uncropped, they present a distinctive visual portrait of a beguiling city in the era when San Antonio could promote itself as The Largest City in The Largest State.
[0.7 A, B, and C]
San Antonio photographer Ernst Raba (above) pioneered photo Christmas cards, a genre that includes greetings from the San Antonio Evening News sports staff (above right) in 1935. A San Antonio & Aransas Pass Railway flatcar was the prop for a giant melon (right), the type of doctored images that exaggerated the size of a locality’s products and fabricated other tall-tale scenes as well. On the SA&AP flatcar, customers could also choose, says the ad on the reverse, giant corn, apples, pumpkins or potatoes.

Table of Contents

Foreword ix
Introduction xi
1. Arriving and Settling In
Transportation 2
Hotels, Spas and Tourist Courts 6
2. Seeing the Sights
The Alamo 24
Southern Missions 32
The Flavor of Mexico 42
Beyond San Antonio 50
3. Downtown and at Home
Central City 56
Public Services 72
Neighborhoods 84
4. Out and About
Dining 92
Entertainment 103
Fiesta 116
Clubs 124
Parks 130
5. Churches, Schools and Colleges
Churches 140
Schools and Academies 150
Colleges 159
6. Military City USA
Fort Sam Houston and the Mexican Border 166
Kelly Fields 194
Randolph Field 204
San Antonio Aviation Cadet Center/Lackland Air Force Base 207
Index 213

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