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Unusual Postcard Collections: James R. Tanis

Postcards, as we know them today, are easily recognisable, and can be found in holiday stalls, museums, and even in your local everyday shop. People collect postcards to share memories with loved ones of places they have travelled to or visited, creating memories that remain for years to come. Collectors often purchase vintage postcards to keep as memorabilia, these often depict places and buildings that no longer exist or have changed beyond recognition.

As with all antique items, rarity brings up the value of postcards. Below we have a selection of rare postcards collected by James R. Tanis, that highlight a range of church architecture across the United States from monumental cathedrals to one-room meeting houses, showcasing early depictions of historic houses of worship which were not documented in the past.

Postcards have been around for quite some time. Originating in the 19th century, the first postcard was sent from Austria to Hungary in 1869 by an Austrian national economist named Emanuel Alexander Herrmann, who sent a postcard in the form of a proposal. Nowadays, postcard collections range from unique vintage collections that have sentimental or historical value to them.

Postcards were mostly used as a communication tool used by the middle class known as the ‘tweets of the 20th century’ according to Donald Brown who promotes postcards as resources for scholarly study of society, culture and heritage. The 89-year-old retired librarian started the Institute of American Deltiology located in Myerstown, Pennsylvania and now holds over one million postcards. Brown established the institute with the desire to make post cards available for research, many of his postcards capture scenes
that no longer exist while preserving pieces of history with his expansive collection.

Other than being historical resources and research tools, postcards have become a thoughtful way of communicating while travelling and making the best keepsake memory. The trend of sending postcards while travelling is fun and easy; postcards with prominent historic buildings and landscapes in major cities are one of the most common postcard subjects. They also tend to focus on key memorial statues and historic houses of worship, which are well-represented in historic postcards.

The term, ‘deltiologists’, describes people who collect postcards for various reasons, such as reflecting nostalgically on old memories or as an inexpensive hobby. The best evidence of deltiologists is through the James R. Tanis Collection of Church Postcards held in Special Collections and Archives at Princeton Theological Seminary. They are also digitally accessible via Theological Commons, and the Internet Archive.

The collection consists of nearly 20,000 postcards depicting church architecture across the United States. Beginning in the early 1900s by John Christian Tanis, the postcards were donated by his son James R. Tanis who continued on the collection. It highlights a range of church architecture from monumental cathedrals to one-room meeting houses, showcasing early depictions of historic houses of worship which were not documented in the past.

The collection features in The National Fund for Sacred Places; a program of Partners for Sacred Places in collaboration with the National Trust for Historic preservation that offers financial support and technical assistance to community-serving historic houses of worship undertaking major capital work. The Tanis collection of postcards highlights the history and significance of select congregations. Consisting of religious buildings of all faiths, including temples, synagogues, mosques, and monuments.

A few examples of the houses of worship included in the collection are:

First Presbyterian Church

Located in Marietta, Georgia, the building is described as having ‘ante bellum’ structure typical of Georgian and Neoclassical styles. The Sanctuary was built in 1854 as a federal military hospital in 1864. It is situated at the heart of Marietta, surrounded by historic homes, museums, and Marietta square. It was remodelled between 1903 and 1905 to its present colonial revival style.

The National Cathedral

Located in Washington DC, The National Cathedral is the world’s sixth-largest Cathedral. Also known as The Episcopal Cathedral of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, it was founded by the U.S. Congress in 1893 and established on Mount St. Alban in 1907. The building was completed in 1990 and designed in the 14th Century English Gothic style. It’s constructed in the shape of a Latin cross and fulfilled George Washington’s’ dream of ‘a church for national purpose’.

The Monastery, Sanctuary of Our Sorrowful Mother

The Sanctuary – widely known as The Grotto – is a Catholic shrine situated on 62 acres in the Madison South district of Portland, Oregon. Constructed in 1924, and founded by Friar Ambrose Mayer, It is now a ministry of the Servite Friars Order of Friar Servants of Mary. The grounds consist of a large meditation hall and botanical gardens including Stations of the Cross. The Grotto also has a monastery built in 1936, tucked in the Upper gardens.

Moody Memorial Chapel

Located in Hinckley, Maine, the iconic masonry chapel was built in 1897. It was designed by Bangor architect W.E. Mansour in the Romanesque Revival style. The building was on the original campus of the Good Will Hinckley School for underprivileged children. Faith was the centre of the school’s teachings due to the strong religious influence of its founder, George Hinckley.


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