After almost twenty years of collecting his images, postcard collector and historian Jerry A. McCoy is still haunted by one Willard Ross. The photographer got McCoy hooked in the first place, yet his identity remains shadowy. It doesn’t help matters that Ross died 10 years before McCoy was even born.
No one is sure how many postcards D.C. resident Ross (1860–1948) shot between 1910 and 1920, a period McCoy calls a decade of tremendous postcard production. (Ross did number his creations, and McCoy says he’s seen one as high as 1,400.)
“I don’t even know what the guy looked like,” McCoy says. “I have one photo where the sun was behind him… and it cast a shadow on the ground.” But that’s the sort of mystery that keeps him collecting.
McCoy learned of Ross when District resident Robert Truax (an expert on Washington streetcar history, according to McCoy) showed him an assortment of Ross’ postcards.
“[Ross] would take what I termed ‘hometown Washington’ views,” McCoy explains. “Things like churches, schools, and street scenes. He wasn’t really interested in federal Washington…the tourist, picture-postcard Washington.”
McCoy, who estimates that he owns more than 500 postcards, shared some of his secret stash with a crowd of about two dozen last Saturday—the final day of National Postcard Week—at the National Postal Museum. His presentation, “Greetings From Washington, D.C.,” veered off of the beaten tourist path to now-defunct structures and businesses: the YMCA that stood at 1732 G St. NW when William Howard Taft was inaugurated; the player-piano store that occupied the Northeast corner of 13th and G Streets NW in 1912.
Deltiology is a hobby seemingly tailor-made for the Silver Spring resident. After working in photography, McCoy eventually became a librarian at the Washingtoniana Division of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library and at the Georgetown branch’s Peabody Room. He also founded the Silver Spring Historical Society and spearheaded an effort to preserve Silver Spring’s New Deal–era post-office mural.
To McCoy, the appeal of postcards doesn’t end with their ability to preserve images of vanished places. “I think of postcards really as windows into time where you can hold…[one] in your hand and sort of make this psychic connection to something that happened 50, 75, 100 years ago.”
McCoy also takes an interest in the messages scrawled on the cards’ flip sides: A missive from March 4, 1909, for example, notes that a blizzard will dampen festivities for Taft’s forthcoming inaugural, before adding, “Went to a basketball game last night Washington vs. Atlanta.”
A 1936 postcard of Strayer College—then at 13th and F Streets NW—hints at a passion greater than sports: “‘Dear Lydia,’” McCoy reads. “‘Thanks for the invitation. Swell of you to help me after S. J. jilted me. I am sure that we will have a swell time together.’”
“Hmmm,” McCoy intones with a smile.
Then there’s the card picturing the Pepsi Cola Center for Servicemen at 13th and G Streets NW that Pvt. Richard Wahler mailed to his family in Freeport, Ill., during World War II. McCoy explains that he typed Wahler’s name into Google one day.
“Lo and behold,” he says, “I found a Richard Wahler Jr. living in Freeport, Ill.” When he dialed the number, he continues, an elderly woman answered and told him that the senior Wahler was “my husband, and he passed away two months ago.”
It’s experiences such as this that inspire McCoy to keep up the chase.
“I’ve always maintained that I’ll be on my deathbed and somebody will shove a D.C. postcard under my nose that I’ve never seen before,” he says, “and maybe that will snap me out of it.” —Joe Dempsey