Synagogues of the South

Learning from Postcards

Postcards are an unmatched resource for images of the built environment at the turn of the 20th century. In the heyday of the postcard, from the late 19th century through two decades of the 20th, it seems any photograph, drawing, or montage could be published on a 4 x 6-inch card and sold for a penny, a nickel, or a dime. Mainstays of postcard production and sales worldwide were illustrations of town and city street scenes and especially of individual buildings. What began as inexpensive souvenirs for budget tourists on the modern version of the Grand Tour have come to serve as a near-encyclopedic inventory of notable buildings in every nook and cranny, no matter how remote. 

Predictably, thousands of postcards represent the architecture of Paris and Rome, but there are also postcards of buildings in Port Gibson, Mississippi, and Columbus, Georgia. While postcards from Europe, at least those that circulated most in the USA, tended to emphasize old buildings and ancient ruins, the postcards produced in America often showcased the patriotic and the new and noteworthy. Images selected, published, and sold for public relations purposes and commercial appeal provided memorabilia for travelers and a lasting record for posterity.

The widespread printing of postcards for the American market began on May 19, 1898, when Congress passed an act authorizing production of the “Private Mailing Card.” Costing 1¢ to mail, the same as a government-issued (imageless) card, the private postcard could not bear messages on the address side until 1907. Beginning that year, messages could be written on the left half of the address side, initiating the “divided back period,” known as the “Golden Age of Postcards,” which lasted until 1915. During this period, however, most American postcards were still printed in Germany. Widespread American production did not begin until after World War I.

Postcards of synagogues are a tiny subset of architectural postcards and represent only a fraction of postcards on Jewish themes—a genre that encompasses holiday cards, nostalgic and ethnographic scenes, and views of pilgrimage sites in the Holy Land. Postcards of synagogues, including most in this exhibition, were not produced by Jews, but published as parts of larger series of notable buildings of a town or city. For this reason, large and monumental synagogues are overrepresented, structures that were seen as civic monuments, rather than the property of any particular denomination. Not surprisingly, these are frequently buildings of Reform congregations, since Reform congregations were often the oldest, largest, and wealthiest Jewish institutions in southern cities and towns, and those whose self-image most closely and intentionally aligned with civic identity. Before 1915, Reform congregations worshiped in the largest, most ornate buildings in the Jewish South.

It is possible, too, that the producers and sellers of cards aimed their wares at the most likely audiences. These would include the most acculturated and affluent Jews, who were also, at the turn of the 20th century, likely to be American-born Reform Jews. But this exceptionalism was not always the rule. In Houston, Texas, for example, postcards were produced of the Reform and Orthodox synagogues, both newly built in 1908.

Production and use of synagogue postcards shifted by the 1920s, coinciding with the rapid growth of the Conservative Movement and the construction of grand houses of worship and Jewish centers. Some southern examples do get represented in postcards, but the interwar strength of the Conservative Movement was more a northern phenomenon. Overall, the interwar and post–World War II eras correspond to diminished interest in postcards, except in popular vacation destinations like Florida. Cards that were produced and sold often were less visually appealing than earlier versions—or so it seems to our eyes today. Significantly, they rarely include people. Synagogue buildings (now mostly suburban) are shown in isolation. Moreover, photo postcards had to compete with a wide array of illustrated print media and adjust to rising postal rates.

The ubiquity of personal portable cameras and high-speed film meant tourists and travelers driving across the country in the second half of the 20th century could take their own photos rather than buy commercial images. A small number of congregations produced postcards to promote their new synagogue buildings in the 1950s and 1960s, though these seem to have had small print runs and were distributed by the congregations rather than sold more widely at news and souvenir stands, drugstores, and diners, as had been the norm for postcard sales earlier in the century. Today, postcards of current views of synagogues are mostly made by museums such as the Jewish Museum of Maryland, which owns Baltimore’s Lloyd Street Synagogue and B’nai Israel, or the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington, which occupies the former Adas Israel synagogue in Washington, D.C., or as reproductions of historic images, as in the case of Temple Shaare Emeth in St. Louis. While these postcards represent historic synagogues, they are also contemporary cultural documents.

Read more about postcard history here