Tom Stenger is a historian, attorney, former city councilman and dazzlingly resourceful collector. When he donated his collection of Tacoma post cards to the Northwest Room at the Tacoma Public Library a few years ago it was like unfogging a forgotten window onto a lost city.
Before Kodak box cameras, Polaroids, Brownies and smart phones in every pocket people bought post cards to remember places and views. Post cards were given the cheap fast lane by the post office and for a few pennies you could buy a cool photograph, scribble down a bit of text attach a 1 cent stamp and have the little personalized souvenir in the hands of an impressed friend in a day or two. Printed postcards appeared about the same time as the transcontinental railroad reached the Pacific Ocean at Tacoma and exploded in popularity with the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. The railroads carried the mail and tourists, two things that were essential to the proliferation of mass produced post cards. Throw in printing technology that could handle photographs and even add color and all the pieces came together for a cultural revolution in person to person small talk with pictures. It was Facebook and Instagram a century before analog.
Millions of post cards were made and mailed in America, mostly after 1907 when the U.S. Post Office started to let half of the address side of the cards be used for personal messages. By then every card maker and printshop was paying for quality photographs and the big post card companies had rooms full of colorists and “fabulists” who enhanced the black and white images like old school photoshoppers.
Tacoma was well treated and often featured in the post card days. It was a hub for railroad and steamship travelers, at the gateway to a National Park and just plain photogenic as a place-all important qualities for picture post cards. Many historians consider photographic post cards from before World War One to be particularly important and Tacoma is rich in card images from that period, documenting streetscapes and buildings, parks and landscapes, cultural curiosities and unique natural features and the minute local details of daily life.
Just after the Second World War, an ingenious veteran, Kyle Smith began taking photos, printing and selling post cards from Tacoma and by the late 1970’s became one of the largest post card producers in the world. The Smith Western Company grew to occupying several buildings and thousands of square feet in the Little Italy neighborhood downtown. There was an unsubstantiated rumor among the growing number of card collectors that early Smith Western cards had the faint smell of garlic and tomatoes since the inventory of millions of cataloged postcards were kept on the upper floors where exhaust vents from restaurants like Bimbos wafted in day and night.
Tom Stenger was among the first to recognize that the vast trove of Smith Western photocards represented a unique and comprehensive visual document of Tacoma before mid-century master plans, parking garages, the I-5 bypass of downtown and the flight of retailers to the Mall. Ironically, the Smith Western Company was displaced by plans for the Convention Center, a late trailing vestige of wholesale urban replacement planning started by Federal Urban Renewal programs. Smith Western still operates from Tacoma but the days when post cards were their stock and trade have past. Kyle Stephens Smith lived into his 96th year passing in 2014 but not before creating a priceless visual document of Tacoma and its surrounds. It is a document in a million pieces, like pixels in a huge high definition screen shot of the Pacific Northwest.
The Stenger Collection holds a wonderful sampling of the Smith Western images along with a carefully curated selection of very early late 19th and 20th century cards. Sherlockian Tom Stenger was particularly adept at finding, unique images hand printed on card stock by the commercial and amateur photographers themselves, many of them one-of-a-kind images full on clues and leads. Stenger also collected multiple cards of single subjects from different times creating time lapse views of landmarks, panoramas, and vignettes.
Stenger’s donation to the Tacoma Library has been carefully transformed into a chapter in the online digital archives of the Pacific Northwest Room. In all its captivating and comprehensive detail, its accessible in a digital form along with a much more expansive body of post card images. No stamp required.
Northwest Postcard Collection, TPL: