Thoughts & Views: Picture windows on the past

This week’s column is a thank-you to the Observer readers who have provided such positive feedback on our “Then & Now” feature. Your compliments are much appreciated. But credit really belongs to The Observer’s general manager, Bob Pezzolla, who suggested the photo feature in the first place and who asked us to take the assignment.

It is an incredible amount of fun locating the old pictures. (Thanks also to Josh Humprey of the Kearny Public Library, Kristen Nelson of the North Arlington Public Library and Kearnyites Paul and Donna Rogers, all of whom have been invaluable in providing photos and postcards.)

It is an adventure discovering tidbits of local history.

We never knew that the Belleville Pike dated to the 1750s. Or that a reservoir once occupied the land at the corner of the Pike and Ridge Road. Or that Passaic Ave. had been so beautifully rural.

Frustration sets in, too, at times, when, despite all the information available in books and online, something remains a mystery. We have a picture of a place called “The Glens,” described as being “near Arlington, N.J.,” which shows a woody tract and a babbling brook.

Where is that brook today? We’ve been told it still exists but have yet to find it.

Our education has extended into the area of antique postcards, as well. Two of these are shown here, both identified as being scenes “along [the] Passaic River near Arlington,” obviously from the very early 20th century. (But again, finding the exact “Now” location would be virtually impossible.)

When we first started using postcards for the feature, we were intrigued by them. In one caption, we wrote the following:

“The older image is from a 1906 postcard, ‘Made in Germany’ if you can believe it. (Why is a European company publishing local N.J. postcards? Why is there a postcard of railroad tracks in Arlington? Perhaps because back then there was money to be made in this highly popular early version of social media.)”

That particular mystery was solved thanks to Sandra McCleaster, Kearny Museum board member, who answered our questions with an essay, “A Town View Through the World of Vintage Postcards,” which we are pleased to share here. McCleaster wrote:

“Colored image postcards originated in Germany in the late 1800s. Acquiring the rights to the Germany lithographic process, the U.S. government authorized the printing and sale of postcards here in 1898. This action launched our country’s early ‘Golden Era of Postcards’ (1898-1915). Cards were purchased and posted for 1 cent. Thus, the term ‘penny postcard’.

“Postcards were a major means of communication. Mail was collected and delivered two, or sometimes three, times per day. Postcards became the cheap and entertaining way to send quick messages. (More charming than email or texts, don’t you think?)

“Since that time, ‘town view’ cards have been the mainstay of this early art form. People have long gathered and traded cards of their hometowns and places they’ve visited. These views provide an historic reference to buildings, streets and towns which may no longer exist or that have changed significantly over the years.

“The coming of the telephone marked the end of the postcard era.

“In part because they are so easy to collect and don’t take up much room, postcards have always been highly collectible. Long stored in shoeboxes and vintage containers, millions still exist in pristine condition today.”

The two postcards shown here are of the ilk McCleaster describes. As “Then & Now” continues, we hope to offer more images to entertain you and also to branch out to other Observer towns.

–Karen Zautyk

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