Images courtesy Princeton Theologicl Seminary library
Postcards were introduced in the late 19th century and quickly gained popularity because they were a cheap and easy way to stay in touch with loved ones. In 1898, U.S. postcard stamps cost just a penny (as of July of this year, they were up just more than fifty-fold).
The design of postcards changed over time, but the standard format we know today – image on the front, with a divided back for a message, an address and stamp – was in place by 1900.
Around that time, a young John Christian Tanis of Pennsylvania began collecting postcards that featured pictures of churches and other religious buildings. Tanis continued building his collection for decades, ultimately amassing tens of thousands of cards. His son, James Robert Tanis, Ph.D. – a minister, professor, librarian, lecturer at Harvard Divinity School and Yale University, and director of libraries and professor of philosophy and religion at Bryn Mawr College – donated the postcards to Princeton Theological Seminary’s Special Collections and Archives.
In 2020, after digitizing postcards from the collection, the Wright Library at PTS made them available for viewing. There, the James R. Tanis Collection of Church Postcards offers some 20,000 cards from all 50 states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia, searchable by city, state, and denomination, along with roughly the same number depicting religious buildings outside the U.S. While most have not been used, many others bear postmarks and stamps, travel highlights, and well-wishes to friends and relatives.
A collection of some 40,000 postcards depicting religious buildings from the 20th century is now digitally archived at Princeton Theological Seminary’s library – a window into the history of religious architecture in the United States.
First Chinese Church of Christ, Hawaii
The collection provides an extraordinary overview of U.S. religious architecture, while friendly notes jotted on some of the cards provide insight into how early 20th-century Americans talked about faith during their travels.