Book of postcards is a link to Boise's past

awebb@idahostatesman.comJuly 7, 2013 

  • New life for old postcards: Collecting with Mark Baltes


    © 2013 Idaho Statesman

    Artist, signmaker, historian and preservation advocate Mark Baltes started collecting vintage postcards more than a decade ago.

    Most of the hundreds of cards he owns are of local images. Visitors carried or sent most of them away from Boise decades - sometimes a century - ago.

    Postcards had their "golden age" around 1906, said Baltes. Besides being sent by vacationers to friends back home, postcards were sometimes used as quick correspondence between longer letters - not unlike tweets or Facebook messages today.

    Sometimes Baltes finds cards with brief, scribbled quips, such as "How come you never write?" "Arrived safely," or "The weather is hot." The cards with writing are his favorites.

    "There are avid collectors who like pristine cards. I'm a guy who likes toys to be used. I like worn money. I like postcards that have passed through many hands," he said.

    Baltes is on a mission to collect cards sent from Boise and bring them home. He's bought postcards online from other states and foreign countries as far away as Scandinavia and the Ukraine.

    "There's a thrill in finding something you haven't seen before," said Baltes, describing a three-card panorama of Downtown Boise circa 1908.

    He likes postcards with bird's eye views of the city.

    He has a card from 1909 featuring a photograph taken from a kite some 1,500 feet in the air. How someone would rig a camera to a kite and snap photos more than 100 years ago is just one of many mysteries.

    Baltes has shown some of his cards to printing experts. Even they can't figure out how some of the cards were made; their craftsmanship is so good, their images sharp and nuanced.

    "Certain processes might have been more labor intensive than others. They may have been lost. We are still speculating about it and marvelling," said Baltes.

    What's unique about his collecting is that he doesn't hide them. He puts them back into the public in the most high-profile ways.

    His first public art piece, "Penny Postcard: A Hometown Greeting" from 2004, hangs on the north side of Boise City Hall. It's made from multiple vintage postcards, enlarged and printed using a silkscreen process in porcelain enamel on steel. A full-sized model of the piece made of cardboard leans against a wall in his Garden City studio.

    "I had to make it out of cardboard first to make sure it would work before I made it out of steel," said Baltes.

    The piece has a trompe l'oeil effect - it shows different images depending on where you're standing.

    Baltes also is making interpretive signs for "History Along the Greenbelt," a Boise 150 project for the Parks and Recreation Department. He's using images from his cards for many of the signs. Depending on the subject, his collection is often more diverse than the photos in the state archives.

    In addition to his art and sign work, Baltes chairs the History Committee for the city's Department of Arts and History. He is contributing images from his postcard collection to build the city's archive. After 75 years, cards are out of copyright and move into the public domain.

    In that spirit, Baltes loves the democratic nature of postcards. They are, and were, affordable for almost everyone. They are intimate.

    "Sometimes when I find a vintage card, I like to go stand in that place where the image was made. It's part of the intrigue, that sense of discovery," he said.


    Anna, a Boise native, has been writing about Boise's 150-year history since February, concluding our coverage - and her 150 Icons series - today. Anna took the postcard collection to the "Antiques Roadshow" during the program's Boise stop last weekend. She is keeping her day job.

In the early 1970s, South Boise was a wild place: Big trees, dangerous canals, firecrackers and days spent rampaging on bikes and other wheeled things in a helmet-less, seatbelt-less, parental supervision-less world.

Bats flew through our yard. We once saw a bald eagle standing, plain as day, at the end of the driveway. We flood irrigated every week and turned our yard into a shallow lake. And art was all around, in the shapes of leaves, in the look of moonlight on ditch water. In the color of everything.

Helen Logan Hart, descendent of Boise pioneers, was at the center of the neighborhood. Boise children, including me, flocked to her Vermont Street home for art lessons. Helen was elderly by then, usually festooned in layers of brocade. She frequently wore a hat and a chainlink necklace with links carved of bone or maybe it was ivory. As far as I could tell, sugar cookies and hard candy were her sole sustenance. She was an art maven, an eccentric who swore she once saw a pair of ghostly feet dangling in her fireplace. She walked with a cane and had those shoes that some old ladies have, scuffed and cut open in different places to make them roomier.

There was a paintbrush named for her at Boise Blue. We were all instructed to buy "the Helen Hart."

She'd set up long tables on her front lawn and we, a bunch of ratty kids in shorts and sneakers, would dip our paper in the ditch to prepare it for watercolor. We'd paint the still lifes Helen set up - assortments of vases, flowers from the yard, Chinese bowls and rotund, porcelain ducks. We learned a lesson: Even cheap watercolor takes on velvety hues when mixed with ditch water.

Helen's house, once grand, was built in an era when the Idaho Statesman detailed the floral arrangements at South Boise garden parties in its society column. By the Nixon administration, her house had become threadbare. But inside, objects from the more genteel age remained: Books with etchings of African wildlife, Japanese prints and closets that held fur stoles with fox heads still attached, their mouths stylized into clasps.

A painting of a topless woman - so taboo and exciting - hung on the wall of a dark staircase landing. We'd creep up and look at it when we had the chance.

And there was the postcard book. Helen's family had traveled. They went to the Seattle Exposition in 1909. They traveled the Columbia Gorge in the pre-dam days when Celilo Falls was a torrent thick with salmon.

Helen's in-laws, cousins and aunts sent cards back to Boise from Germany, from Mexico, from Turkey and Morocco.

I loved the book. Even in the 1970s, when the golden age of travel was long past, the postcards, arranged thematically by a careful collector - streetcars, moonlight on water, San Francisco in the days after the earthquake - exuded glamour.

Here was a lady on a cliff at Yosemite. Here were whirling dervishes in fezes in a city I could only imagine.

It wasn't until many years later, after Helen died and I inherited the book of postcards, that I looked closely at the first few pages.

They are filled with images of my hometown.

In my youthful xenophilia, I had sped past the image of the Boise train station, circa 1910, when it was still at 10th and Front Street.

I had missed the image of Pierce Park when Plantation golf course was a lake, and past the image of St. Luke's hospital when it was a brick house with gables. I had missed the tiny etching of the Central Fire Station - three doors flung open, fire horses pulling their wagons out onto an unpaved 6th Street.

This late "discovery" of postcards that I'd owned for years is like other discoveries about Boise history. It isn't hidden, but can be so easy to miss.

I've pieced some of Helen's history together - but only recently, because I caught just snippets during art lessons and in overheard conversations.

Helen was the granddaughter of Thomas Logan. Logan served as mayor of Boise between 1876 and 1878. His adobe house that stood on 6th Street in Boise's original plat is now preserved on the grounds of the Idaho State Historical Society.

Logan and his wife, Carolyn, came to Boise from Wisconsin in 1864. Their 5-year-old daughter Carrie, traveling with them, died just 100 miles shy of the city limits. Carrie, Helen's aunt, was the first person buried in Pioneer Cemetery on Warm Springs.

Helen died in 1977 at the age of 79 during my first week in the 7th grade. There could have been no more decisive end for a certain period of my childhood.

Helen is buried in Pioneer in her family's plot. Her postcard book is one of my most beloved possessions.

Anna Webb: 377-6431

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