At the turn of the century, you could send a picture and a message across the country to share your adventures with friends and family for just a penny, and Americans mailed millions every year. Tourists and collectors snapped up cards with pictures of local residences. The House Collection preserves scores of postcards featuring the homes of Members of Congress. A closer look at the House's far-flung houses suggests that while the architecture varied widely, their occupants brought them postcard-level fame for more than just one reason.
Travel postcards contain an element of bragging (“Look where I’ve been!”). A few Members of Congress owned houses so magnificent they were de facto destinations for sightseers. New Yorker Oliver Belmont inherited a fortune from his father and set about building a grand summer home, Belcourt, in Newport, Rhode Island. Like other Gilded Age homes in Newport, it was designed to impress, with elaborate stained glass windows, blood-red damask curtains, and stables on the first floor for Belmont’s thoroughbred horses. The Tichnor Brothers printing company published views of Belcourt and other Newport mansions. Tourists who flocked to the resort town to gawk at the opulence could send home souvenirs of the enormous seaside “cottages.”
“Uncle Joe” Cannon, the 20th century’s most powerful Speaker, was a bona fide celebrity. He was irascible, quotable, and so well known as a tobacco enthusiast that two cigar brands were named for him. Several postcard views of Cannon’s house in Danville, Illinois, circulated widely during his years of fame. Those images made it onto postcards because of the man’s prominence, not the house’s grace or grandeur. Speakers Nicholas Longworth and Sam Rayburn also rated postcards of their houses, and legendary Speaker Thomas Brackett Reed was such a notable Mainer that publishers sold multiple views of his Portland birthplace.
The largest number of postcards of Members’ residences depicts neither lavish homes nor shrines to great political leaders. They show solid, middle-class houses, in places that were proud to have a hometown Member of Congress. Towns across the nation were eager for congressional bragging rights. For example, someone published a postcard of Frank Plumley’s comfortable house in Northfield, Vermont, and the message on the back shows off a bit: “My nephew works for the congressman who lives in this house. Harold is his Assistant Clerk when he is in Washington.”
Elsewhere, small towns used Representatives' houses in a show of boosterism. Congressman Asle Gronna lived in tiny Lakota, North Dakota, and the town celebrated his house in mail-able form. The Gronna card, like many from tiny hamlets, was not mass-produced by a big publisher. It is a photograph printed directly onto stiff paper, probably by a local promoter. The Congressman rubbed shoulders with the leaders of the nation, and brought that touch of glamour back with him to this house on a quiet street. In villages like Lakota, a Representative’s job, not his house, was the appeal of the postcard.
Whether columned mansion or scruffy-lawned house, Representatives’ residences were an important presence in their communities. Postcards mailed from Lakota, or Newport, or Danville, told friends that civic life was alive and well there. No matter how far the distance the senders had traveled, they had seen towns and cities where fellow citizens were engaged in representative democracy, and proud of it.
Sources: Mary Warner Marien, Photography: A Cultural History (Syracuse, NY: Prentice Hall & Harry Abrams, Inc., 2002); New York Press, 10 November 1912; Robert B. MacKay et al., eds., AIA Architectural Guide to Nassau and Suffolk Counties, Long Island (New York: Dover Publications, 1991); Robert J. Baptista, Elizabeth, New Jersey, Then and Now (Orange, Texas: Robert Baptista, 2015)Follow @USHouseHistory