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The twenty-first-century traveler is more likely to post an image to social media than mail postcards to friends and family, but the postcard isn’t dead. In 2019, 59.5 million postcards were printed in the European Union alone, and travel influencers still recommend picking up these printed souvenirs as keepsakes. Most will probably disappear into the recycling bin, but those that don’t may one day offer historians a collection of flat paper windows into the past.

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The Changing Face of Southern California is one such collection. Featuring selections from Loyola Marymount University’s Werner von Boltenstern Postcard Collection, the postcards document the history of Southern California, particularly the greater Los Angeles area, during the first half of the twentieth century.

Life guard jobs boomed even during the depression, and many lifeguard stations were built in the 1930s under the WPA.
Charles Looff, known for his career building amusement park rides at Coney Island at other locations across America, built an adjoining Pleasure Pier next to the Municipal Pier in 1916.
The house of Marion Davies boasted 118 rooms and 55 bathrooms. Davies sold the house in 1945. The main house was dismantled around 1956. The remaining estate later became the Sand & Sea Club, which operated from 1960 to 1990.
La Grande Station was the Santa Fe Railway's main passenger terminal in Los Angeles, California, until the Long Beach earthquake of 1933.
The Long Beach Sanitarium advertised such courses of treatment as the milk diet and rest cure, and had electric and mechanical Swedish departments.
Griffith Observatory opened to the public in May, 1935, slightly downhill from the originally proposed site, on a south-facing slope of Mt. Hollywood.
Looking toward performers on the outdoor stage of the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles. Work on the Greek Theatre began in 1928 and opened on the night of September 25, 1930.
Originally built as lodgings for workers on the Roosevelt Highway project, many of these bungalows by the shore of Topanga Lagoon later became part of the Topanga Ranch Motel.
A view looking down past tiers of wooden benches to a platform and covered structure in the outdoor Hollywood Bowl.
A view of fruit and produce stalls lined up at an outdoor market with vendors and customers at the original farmers market in Hollywood.
In the late 1940s, the road along the Palisades beaches was expanded into a six-lane highway, and in the late 1950s, became known as Pacific Coast Highway.
A view of Avalon Bay, with steamships arriving in the harbor, Sugar Loaf Rock on the far right, and the Holly Hill House with its large red-roofed turret is in the foreground on the right.
The Carthay Circle Theater, built in 1926 and located just off of San Vicente Boulevard near Fairfax. The theater became a prime location for movie premiers. The Carthay Circle Theater was demolished in 1969.
Opened in 1902, the two-story Bath House was one of the earliest attractions on the Pike. It featured a 60 x 120 foot heated salt-water pool for both men and women, a 40 x 8 foot pool for women only, and 22 hot salt-water baths.
The California Pigeon Farm's principal product was squab, but it also generated large quantities of fertilizer, which it sold to local orchards and farms.
Originally part of the Ocean Park district of Santa Monica, Abbot Kinney's vision of Venice in America was developed starting in 1904, complete with a canal system and singing gondoliers.
This view shows the Aldebaran Canal close to the area where it connected to the Coral Canal. Aldebaran Canal later became Market Street and Coral Canal later became Main Street.
The Deauville offered guest rooms, a gymnasium, a saltwater plunge, lockers and showers, lounge rooms, game rooms, private dining rooms, and a restaurant.
Cinderella Roof was a music and dance production, directed by William Kreiter in Los Angeles in the early 1920s. The show presented Susanne Keith as the Prima Donna, Max H. Alexander as the Prince, and the Rudy Wiedoeft's Orchestra.
Interior view of the Old Mission Church, the oldest church in the city of Los Angeles.For many years the little chapel, which collected the nicknames "La Placita" and "Plaza Church" served as the sole Roman Catholic church in Los Angeles.

As librarian Bernadette A. Lear notes, postcards are artifacts of several national phenomena, capturing—at a minimum—changes in travel, printing technology, and postal regulations. After 1898, when the US Congress lowered the rate for mailing postcards to one cent, postcards based on black-and-white photographs flooded the souvenir market. From there, it was only a matter of time before the overprinting of colored inks gave buyers a “more authentic” color view. By the 1930s, the linen postcard, which offered a textured finish that supported bold, bright colors and was less expensive to produce, dominated the market. “By turns commercially garish, vibrantly alive or shimmeringly unreal, the [linen] postcard offered an ideal medium for expressing the democratic aspirations and utopian expectations of a culture that refused to abandon its ‘look-on-the-sunny-side’ optimism despite the ravages of the Depression and the Second World War,” writes historian Jeffrey L. Meikle.

Glendale-Hyperion Viaduct, Los Angeles, California, 1931
Glendale-Hyperion Viaduct, Los Angeles, California, 1931

Some of this optimism is reflected in the subject matter of the souvenirs. Many cities sold postcards that featured important buildings—in the case of Los Angeles, the new City Hall and the Los Angeles Library, designed by architect Bertram Goodhue, appeared on cards with some regularity. “Libraries embodied many civic assets,” notes Lear, “including the community’s commitment to free public services, the value it placed on education and self-improvement, and the wealth and generosity of the neighborhood.” Combining civic and commercial architecture with nightlife added even more complexity to the narrative, posits Miekle, communicating to the viewer “the speed of transportation, the stimulation of desire through window-shopping, and the unprecedented personal privacy and anonymity of modern life.”

The Public Library, Los Angeles, California, c. 1935
The Public Library, Los Angeles, California, c. 1935

As Larissa Larsen and Lily Swanbrow explain, though postcards posed as an “everyday artifact” that accurately represented the cultural landscape, “the image of place depicted on a postcard often ha[d] a contrived quality.” Photographers, both professional and amateur, bracketed out undesirable elements, focusing on the unique, the exotic, or the romantic, while evolving technologies provided a means to produce scenes more brilliant than the actual attractions. Even so, they note, “Postcards of similar views but from different dates in time can illustrate how the cultural landscape evolve.”

Broadway, looking south, Los Angeles, California, c. 1940
Broadway, looking south, Los Angeles, California, c. 1940

One such example of an evolving cultural landscape can be seen in the numerous postcards of LA’s Chinatown. According to preservationist and public historian Josi Ward, from 1939 to 1949, Los Angeles in fact contained three Chinatowns. One centered on Alameda and Macy Streets, consisted of the remnants of the city’s earliest Chinese immigrant neighborhood which dated back to the 1880s. In the 1930s, most of the buildings in this area were demolished to make way for the new Union Station, and thus “Old Chinatown” is missing from souvenir views. Instead, postcards depict one of two “new” Chinatowns: China City, which was designed and developed under the guidance of Christine Stirling, who also created Mexican-themed Olvera Street across from Union Station; and New Chinatown, a Chinese-owned residential and commercial district two blocks northeast of China City. Both were inaugurated in 1938 and advertised themselves—especially to tourists—as an authentic replacement for the original Chinese immigrant community.

New Chinatown, Los Angeles, California, Looking East Along Gin Ling Way, c. 1940
New Chinatown, Los Angeles, California, Looking East Along Gin Ling Way, c. 1940

The Changing Face of Southern California delivers on the promise made by its name. In addition to Chinatown streetscapes and city monuments, the archive shows prominent businesses (Bullock’s, Robinson Co.), resorts, parks, celebrities’ homes, amusement parks and rides (including the no-longer-extant “Shoot the Chutes” in downtown LA), earthquakes, transportation, religious institutions, schools, and general views. The postcards shared here represent only a small sampling of what’s available—you can browse the entire collection via the William H. Hannon Library at Loyola Marymount University.

China City, Los Angeles, California, c. 1944
China City, Los Angeles, California, c. 1944

Editor’s Note: This collection is no longer available via JSTOR; the links have been updated to reflect this.

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University of Texas Press
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University of Minnesota Press