The National Library of Medicine recently received a collection of postcards depicting 1,379 hospitals and healthcare facilities across the United States. This collection of 2,223 illustrated and real-photo postcards was generously donated by Dr. W. Bruce Fye, a retired cardiologist and emeritus professor of medicine and the history of medicine at Mayo Clinic. Today we’re thankful to have Dr. Fye join us to discuss the collection, and to tell us why he started collecting, how he acquired the postcards, and what the postcards tell us about how hospitals have changed over time.
Circulating Now: Tell us about yourself and how you came to be a collector of hospital postcards.
W. Bruce Fye: I was born in Pennsylvania in 1946, and grew up in an era when collecting was a very popular hobby. When I was eight I began collecting stamps, but within three or four years I had shifted to United States coins. Those interests faded in the early 1960s, when I developed a passion for collecting old books. During high school in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, I spent many Saturdays at Travers Book Store across the Delaware River in Trenton, New Jersey. Located in the center of what was then a thriving downtown, Travers had been founded in the late nineteenth century. The first floor was devoted to new hardbacks. The basement was stocked with paperbacks, textbooks, and about one thousand used books. The top two floors, which had been closed off to the general public for years, contained about one hundred thousand used books. Because the owner sensed that this adolescent was really interested in old books he told the staff that I could spend as much time as I wanted on the deserted top floors. I bought dozens of books on a range of subjects, including Civil War history and African exploration.
I began collecting medical books shortly after I entered Johns Hopkins University as a premedical student in 1964. By the time I graduated from the Johns Hopkins Medical School eight years later I was a bibliomaniac, and my focus was almost exclusively on medical books. By 1970 I had begun collecting engraved medical portraits and antique medical prints. About 300 of them displayed in an exhibit at the Rochester Art Center I curated in 2010. I don’t recall any specific event that triggered my interest in hospital postcards. But it developed in mid-1970s, along with an emerging interest in medical autographs and medical ephemera.
CN: From what sources did you acquire the postcards?
WBF: Like most serious collectors, I have always enjoyed the fun of the hunt. As a bibliomaniac for more than a half century, it’s not surprising that I have visited hundreds of book shops in North America, Great Britain, and Continental Europe. But the hospital postcards came from other sources. Whenever my wife Lois and I traveled any distance by car we would stop at antique shops and antique malls. We also attended antique and ephemera fairs. The most productive stops were at large antique malls because they would have one or more postcard dealers who stocked thousands of cards. Their postcards were usually organized by state and city as well as several dozen themes, such as animals, holidays, military, sports, and transportation. Hospital cards were almost never grouped together—they were filed by city. I found it very worthwhile flipping through the cards in all of the cities because hospitals had opened in virtually every American town by World War I. It might require flipping through a thousand city cards to find one or two dozen hospital cards. But that’s the fun of the hunt.
Because I wanted to assemble a very comprehensive collection of hospital postcards the hunt went on and on. If postcards had been my main obsession I would have attended postcard fairs—a very logical source. But I was a bibliomaniac, so I was attracted to book stores and book fairs. Today, the easiest way to find hospital postcards is to search eBay. I just searched for hospital postcards and turned up 51,954 listings! It’s not the same as searching through boxes of cards though.
CN: What time frame does the collection cover?
WBF: The postcards in the collection date from about 1900 to 1970. Cards that were mailed can be dated by the postmark. About two-thirds of cards I acquired were never mailed. They were saved as souvenirs or accumulated by earlier generations of postcard collectors. An approximate date can usually be assigned to a postcard that was never mailed on the basis of the printing technique used for the image or text on the verso of the card.
CN: What do the images tell us about how not only the hospitals changed but how society has evolved over time?
WBF: The institutions depicted on the postcards range from small private hospitals in little towns to major academic medical centers in large cities. Most of the cards depict small hospitals. In some instances there are several images of the same hospital from various perspectives or at different times. Among other things they document hospital additions that reflected increasing inpatient populations.
Hospital postcards may offer insights that go beyond the expected images of architecture and grounds. Some cards provide clues about the social aspects of hospital care. Through them we may see how patients and visitors reached the hospital. A multitude of different modes of transportation are depicted in the images, such as horse-drawn buggies, streetcars, and early motorized ambulances. The clothing styles and postures of the staff members or other persons standing outside the building or on the grounds remind us that these were dynamic institutions, not simply inanimate structures of wood, brick, or stone. Technological innovations are also apparent from the telephone and electrical lines connected to the buildings to the ambulances and the helicopter pads that have become part of the landscape of many American hospitals.
CN: What can you tell us about the messages on the backs of the postcards?
WBF: These postcards provide perspectives on the human consequences of illness and hospital care. Many of them contain messages from patients or their family members and friends that reflect the personal impact of an acute or chronic illness. Other messages reflect the dynamics of postcard collecting, a popular hobby that encouraged the production and preservation of this unique form of ephemera.
I still have a significant collection of postcards depicting the Mayo Clinic and its affiliated hospitals in Rochester, Minnesota. Many of these contain messages about care received there. Here are two examples:
In 1908 a hospitalized patient’s wife wrote to a friend in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
“We begin to take hope again that the reports from the hospital will be encouraging. The last three days he has shown a slight improvement each day from the last. Mary left for Chicago last night. Elonzo leaves for here tonight. I hope he is able to stay until Will is out of the hospital. His brother and his wife are here from Milbank for two or three days.”
One of my favorites is a postcard sent from Rochester to Matlock, Iowa in 1909. A woman told a friend,
“I came up last Wednesday but can’t get into the hospital before a week yet. Everyone is so nice. I have been examined and they say appendix and perhaps gallstones. They’ll see when they take the appendix out. But I don’t dread it much. The Drs. are so far ahead of them there that it don’t amount to much. They take from 4 to 6 minutes to operate for appendix alone. I can tell you more when I see you. Joe is with & will stay until I am operated upon.”
Learn more about postcard collections and the research they support in these selected sources:
Bert Hansen. Review. Five Centuries of Medicine in Art from the Collection of Bruce and Lois Fye. Curated by W. Bruce Fye, MD. Rochester Art Center. Bull. Hist. Med. 2010; 84 (4): 674-677.
David Prochaska and Jordana Mendelson, eds. Postcards: Ephemeral Histories of Modernity. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010.
Michael Zwerdling. Postcards of Nursing: A Worldwide Tribute. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2004.
Norman Stevens ed. Postcards in the Library: Invaluable Visual References. New York: Haworth Press, 1995.
Sara Anne Hook. You’ve got mail: Hospital postcards as a reflection of health care in the early twentieth century. J. Med. Libr. Assoc. 2005; 93(3): 386-393.