Postcards: Baltimorean keeps the past forever in view with a book of vintage cards showing the city in lights.


November 30, 1996|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

As a kid growing up in the early 1950s, Bert Smith relieved the boredom of long summer auto trips to the Ozarks by buying colorful picture postcards in the numerous wayside diners, lunchrooms and motels where his family stopped to eat and sleep.

While other family members were buying a newspaper or a pack of Chiclets, he was busily checking out the inventory of local postcards.

"My father liked greasy spoons and diners and there was always a pretty good selection of postcards available in them," said Smith, from his Chestnut Avenue home in Hampden, the other day. "I'd always buy three or four for a couple of cents just for the heck of it."

What began in the early 1950s as a time passer has grown over the past 40 years into a collection of some 3,000 to 4,000 cards. Now Smith has put some of the best of these, vintage cards showcasing sights and scenes of Baltimore and environs, in a new book: "Greetings from Baltimore" ($29.95, Johns Hopkins University Press).

"Greetings," which Smith edited, wrote and designed, features 164 of his 500 vintage Baltimore cards. The cards, which date from 1905 to 1955, show the city and its environs bathed in typical old postcard hues: purples, pinks, greens, cobalt blues and yellows (used to make the subjects more visually interesting, if not always accurate, Smith explains).

Smith, 53, a graphic designer who grew up in Dickeyville, graduated from City College in 1961. For the last 25 years, he has worked in both print and television and teaches in the University of Baltimore's graduate program in publications.

His fascination with postcards continued while he served in Europe and the Far East with the Marine Corps in the early 1960s.

"I was an enlisted man and didn't have a whole lot of money for souvenirs, and postcards had two advantages -- they cost only a few pennies and fit into my sea bag," he said with a laugh.

He got the idea for "Greetings" after looking at his postcards and realizing that no one had ever published a book about Baltimore as seen through postcards.

So, two years ago, he showed a a proposal to Robert J. Brugger, an editor at Johns Hopkins Press who was as enthusiastic about the idea as he was.

He had plenty of research assistance from his wife, Anthea, a painter, who checked facts and did much of the historical research he used to write the introductions to each chapter.

Loves the city

Smith confesses to having an unabashed love affair with the city where he has spent most of his life. Besides his time in the service, Smith spent a brief period in the South. He and his wife operated a design studio in the 1970s in Hope, Ark., the town made famous as the birthplace of Bill Clinton.

"You get emotionally attached to a place and I certainly feel that way about Baltimore," Smith said.

"No place in America quite looks like Baltimore with its mixture of architecture. There is so much here. A quick walk up North Charles Street takes you from the modern architecture of Mies van der Rohe, and in the next block you're looking at buildings from the Beaux Arts period."

In designing the book, Smith said he wanted the postcards to be the stars. He enlarged them so the viewer could see such details as the style of clothes on pedestrians and signs on the sides of buildings.

"I wanted to keep it as breezy as a postcard and I had to keep in mind that people would be buying the book for the power of the images. These cards have a certain romance about them," he said.

Early postcards from the turn of the century, which Smith described as the "Golden Age" of postcards, were delicately hand-tinted copies of photographs and mainly produced in Germany.

After World War I, cards were no longer hand-colored and not quite as delicate. Cheaper linen cards were the rule until today's photographic variety made their appearance during the 1950s.

The postcards in Smith's collection are from a variety of publishers, some of which include Albertype, Rinn, Tichnor, and such locals as the Baltimore News Co., Ottenheimer, Traub, Cann and Hugh Gwynn.

"I really like the cheaper linen postcards with their yellows and oranges, which are more expressive of the Streamline Age and very American. They really are folk art," Smith said.

In the days of hand-tinting, when cards were colored by artists working in sweatshops, assembly-line fashion, the choice of colors was often left to the artist.

"There are examples of a building being painted a brick red when it wasn't, or an auto being purple-colored. You could always tell that card was done by someone in New York or Chicago," he said with a chuckle.


Smith has carefully arranged the book around 40 categories or themes, including "Working and Playing Downtown," "White Marble Steps," "Sunday in the Park," and "Just Passing Through."

The most fervent Baltimorean or postcard fan should delight in what he finds here. But the images are also bittersweet, often acting as reminders of what we have lost.

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