The Digital Collections and Services Department recently completed digitization of the George Watson Cole collection in the Watkinson Library. The postcard collection is publicly available for view on ArtStor. The collection consists of over 10,000 European postcards depicting pre-WWI England, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Austria, and Belgium; the collection also contains several hundred American postcards, primarily of everyday life in Southern California and Native Americans in the Southwest.
George Watson Cole (1850-1939) was a librarian and bibliographer, friend and contemporary of famous librarians Melvil Dewey and Charles Cutter. Born in Warren, CT, he became librarian in Fitchburg, MA and enrolled in the first class of Melvil Dewey’s library school at Columbia University. He received an honorary doctorate from Trinity in 1920, and donated the European portion of his extensive postcard collection to the Watkinson Library. He put his librarianship to good use in organizing and labeling his postcard collection.
Between 1907 and 1914, Cole embarked on European travels and collected every postcard he could find at various stops in towns, cities, museums, and landmarks throughout England, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Austria, and Belgium; this practice he also continued during his travels in the United States. Cole believed in postcards’ value as historic records of how things appeared in the past. Further, he believed that keeping these visual representations should be a constant action that tracked changes over time. The images in the postcards are a slice of life: people, streets, maps, monuments, art museums, and churches as they appeared at the turn of the century and before two world wars devastated Europe.
Toward the end of his life, in 1933, Cole decided to donate the his personal papers, books, and postcard collection (which he estimated contained over 25,000 postcards) to the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Mass. As the AAS only collects American materials, Robert Vail the AAS librarian accepted Cole’s gifts of his personal papers and American postcards, but declined the European half of the collection. And whether by accident or not, Cole left about 500 Californian postcards along with his European collection to Trinity. The California postcards depict slices of life from the Southern California area — Avalon, Mount Lowe, Los Angeles, Orange County, Long Beach, Venice, and Santa Monica. A small number of American postcards in the Trinity collection also depict Native Americans in New Mexico, Arizona, and California.
They are a testimony to how so much has changed — but also to what has not.
“Nothing in print is more universal than the postcard.”
— Postcards, the world in miniature; a plan for their systematic arrangement, with an index (1935) by George Watson Cole.