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Greetings From a Dam

Why there are so many old postcards of dams.


You may, at some point, find yourself in an antique store or junk shop flipping your way through a seemingly endless stack of postcards. It happened to me recently, and though it may not have been the highlight of my weekend, it did open my eyes to a clear trend in early 20th Century postcardery: dams. The postcards (and postcard senders) of yore really had a thing for dams.

"It's amazing how much variety there is compared to what we think of today as postcards," says D.C. Jackson, a dam historian, civil engineer and professor of history at Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvannia. "A hundred years ago, for every little town, you can find local views of every little store and the fire engine house and the civil war memorial and scenes along the river. And dams are a part of that record."

Jackson is also fascinated with dam postcards. Over more than 30 years, he's collected upward of 4,000 postcards that feature dams. That's a lot of dam postcards. [Couldn't resist.] He's even working on a book specifically about postcard of dams, due out sometime next year. He argues that these postcards are valid celebrations of what were at the time very important parts of cities and towns. Dams provided power, irrigation and the ability to run city-fueling industries like paper mills and lumber yards. They were a sight to see, and apparently to brag about via the U.S. Postal Service.

Despite a huge influx of postcards featuring dams from the 1900s to the 1940s, the heyday of dam postcards is decidedly over. And that's mainly because the heyday of the small dams that were featured in these early 20th century postcards is also over.

"Over the course of the 20th century, a lot of the smaller dams lose their purpose, especially as electric power systems get larger. Small local dams that are powering the local mills become, in a sense, irrelevant," Jackson says. "In a world of 1,000 megawatt nuclear power plants, who cares about a plant that produces 1 megawatt?"

Jackson says the dam postcard craze eventually shifted to focusing on the bigger, more monumental dams – Hoover Dam near Las Vegas, for example, or the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington. These were projects born in the New Deal era, projects that enabled massive growth and development in the West.

"It became a part of this celebration of sort of American resilience in a time of economic hardship," Jackson says. "And those postcards, they still keep cranking them out."

The guy at that store I was at wanted five bucks apiece for the stack of old dam postcards I picked out (come on!), but thankfully the internet abounds with freely available scans of these monuments of American water engineering. Here are some fine examples of dam-bedazzled stationery from yesteryear.

Top image credit: riptheskull/Flickr

About the Author

  • Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.