History is slippery. We like to think of the past as being made up of a knowable series of events that time and study have neatly sorted and sifted by order of importance. It’s comforting to imagine that if we know about an event or a person, that person must surely have been interesting and significant. And if we haven’t heard of a person, the reverse is probably true.
For me, few things turn that cozy sense of order upside down faster and more firmly than riffling through a stack of real photo postcards—photographs of daily life from a century ago, caught on the fly or in the studio, and preserved on 3½-by-5-inch pieces of card stock. They survive by the millions, and even a single box can contain whole worlds. That’s partly because of the way these cards were made. Postcard cameras used, appropriately, postcard-sized negatives—much bigger than 35 mm film—and the images contain what can seem an almost infinite amount of detail.
The cards carry scenes of amazing intimacy and immediacy. There are portraits and train wrecks, shop interiors and picnics, construction sites and political rallies. Most of the scenes are familiar in a general sort of way, but only some of those worlds come into focus when you study them carefully. Take the two postcards of hamburger stands here. Both are from around 1910, and both are full of revealing details: hamburger buns, half-empty jars of ketchup, piles of roasted nuts, shopworn signs. If you look closely, you can almost imagine yourself in line, shifting from one foot to another in anticipation, maybe getting a little impatient as the wafting scent of burgers on the grill stirs your hunger.
But the postcards also diverge in an important way. In the picture of the man leaning out of the truck, there is just enough information written on the card that a bit of research can unravel a rich story. He is Eugene McInturff, of Hutchinson, Kansas, who owned and ran a hamburger cart near the corner of First and Main for several decades in the early 20th century. Gene lived his life in those extraordinary decades—before radio, before TV—when nearly every town in the US had a newspaper, and the newspaper served almost as the town square. The everyday details of life in those decades can survive in print to a degree almost unmatched in world history.
Reading those newspapers, and digging in the archives (both paper and online), reveals an extraordinary amount about “Hamburger Gene.” We know where he was born, and when he died. We know about the photography business he owned with his brother. We know he took a vacation to Flint, Michigan, in 1917, because the local paper noted that his car was gone. We know he loved and collected bells. One name is a key that opens up a whole life.
By contrast, the other card is mute. It’s full of almost-clues that tease and hide. There are no words on the front, and none on the back. There’s no postmark or address, because no one ever sent the card. The tantalizing painted billboard on the wall behind the cart doesn’t give away much of anything, and the buildings that line the street could exist almost anywhere in the US. There’s no key that lets us turn the lock on the picture and look inside.
None of this is because Hamburger Gene was more important or interesting than the other guy. No, it’s because one image gives us something we can grab—and from that we can spin a tale. The result is a surprisingly detailed picture of a life, and maybe even some faint insight into a character. Gene makes his small way into history, and the other man does not. It’s just chance.
I’ve been thinking a lot about chance lately, and not just in historical terms, for I parse the present the same way. There is too much information, too much going on, to keep a clear perspective. To sort through the events of the day, and the myriad names I hear, I inevitably prioritize some and put others on a mental shelf, labeling them as good or bad, important or ignorable.
But how to decide? For me, it’s often based on human connection. Every atrocity, every war crime—even every feel-good story—becomes that much more vivid and personal, and possibly comes to seem that much more important, when chance grants me a name or a picture. At the same time, I fear that every event that does not come with a name runs the risk of becoming nothing more than a number. It’s easy to become numb.
We know Eugene McInturff’s name; we do not (yet) know the name of the man in the other picture. But both of their life stories were rich and vivid, for all lives are, in their ways. It’s just luck that allows us to tell one of those stories in detail. Postcards teach many lessons, but for me one of the most important is about the urgent need to remember the role of chance, and of fate, in whose stories survive. Unidentified does not automatically mean unidentifiable, and even if we can’t always tell the stories, we must always remember to try.
See these two works and more than 300 other real photo postcards drawn from the MFA’s Leonard A. Lauder Postcard Archive in “Real Photo Postcards: Pictures of a Changing Nation,” on view through July 25, 2022.