Postcard diversion

So a couple weeks ago I found out that San José was working on building a “destination landmark” for downtown San José. It’s interesting to me that they don’t want a light tower since this project is inspired by the original San José light tower and rebuilding that would be both the obvious and correct thing to do.*

*The proposed finalists are interesting but all feel a bit like rejected tech campus concepts.

When reading about the light tower though I realized that it would be fun to google postcards of the original tower. Google of course eventually sent me to eBay and when I discovered an affordable postcard seller I bought a handful of vintage postcards that reminded me of home.

We’ll start off with the Light Tower postcard which is a nice view from what’s now the Plaza de Cesar Chavez and looks north at the tower marking the intersection of Market and Santa Clara. This gives us a good view of the Post Office building which would become the San José Library in 1937 and eventually the San José Museum of Art in 1969.

Beyond the Post Office/Museum we can see the Cathedral/Basilica when it was just a local church. Still with its fancy dome and everything but in a town which was not diocese until the 1980s.

A fun thing with these old postcards is the notes on them. This one is postmarked August 9, 1906 and conforms to the early period of postcard standards where the backs were undivided and as a result were only allowed to have address information. Any undivided back like this comes from before 1907* and I enjoy how this has a small amount of room for a message on the front.

*The Smithsonian has a nice timeline of postcard designs and how they correspond to postal regulations. 

The message in this case is fun since it mentions the April 18 earthquake and how the Post Office was damaged.

Since shipping was a single price for however many cards I ordered, I browsed for a couple others which appealed to me. This undivided back of Lick Observatory jumped out at me because taking the trip up to Lick was a cool day (or night) trip. The telescope there was indeed the largest in the US for about a decade but by the time this card was mailed it was the second largest. It’s still the third largest refracting telescope in the world today however.

The note on this card is pretty basic and reports that the writ took so long finding someone living in San José that they didn’t get a very long visit as  result.

This photo of the Santa Cruz casino at what’s now the Beach Boardwalk looks like a photo but is actually mechanically printed. Hard for me to date since the building was built in 1907, the same year that divided backs started, but the type and design elements feels like 1920s to me.

It’s just fun to see an image of a place that both looks very much the same as it does today and which we enjoy visiting every summer that we’re in California.

The note is pretty funny in that it’s a bunch of complaints and guilt trips about the recipient never writing back. Unfortunately it gives no indication of either when it was written or what the writer did at Santa Cruz.

The last postcard in the bunch was a spectacular linen postcard of San Francisco at night. This is another tough image to date since it features both the Bay Bridge and Golden Gate Bridge does not include Treasure Island. If I had to guess I’d say that the image predates the Golden Gate Bridge completion but they drew in the completed bridge anyway. This would explain the white bridge color too.

Anyway this one looked spectacular online and looks even better in hand. The lights are fantastic but the Mount Diablo, clouds, and moon reflected in the water takes the whole package into another level. Plus it’s never this clear in San Francisco at night so it’s nice to imagine what it would look like in your minds eye.

Author: Nick Vossbrink

Blogging about Photography, Museums, Printing, and Baseball Cards from both Princeton New Jersey and the San Francisco Bay Area. On Twitter as @vossbrink, WordPress at, and the web at

6 thoughts on “Postcard diversion”

  1. Fantastic collection of postcards. I’m especially fond of the Lick Observatory. My friends and I would drive up there during the summer and check out the amazing views. Anyways… I’ve been so caught up in life that I didn’t even know that SJ was looking to build a destination landmark. It’ll be interesting to see what they settle on.

    1. I was worried that between the time I got the postcards and when this post was published that I’d have to edit it to talk about how the whole complex burned down. Very very glad I didn’t have to make that edit.

  2. Really nice postcards. The night view of the bay is particularly cool. I have mixed feelings about going to those postcards sellers’ sites because you can really travel down some rabbit holes and end up buying a lot more than you planned.

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