“Here is where Al Capone and a few others are spending their vacations?”: Tracing How Alcatraz was Portrayed in Postcards, 1924-1971

by Franchesica Kidd, graduate student of history

Prison Posts.gif
Alcatraz, the infamous prison which long boasted to be inescapable

Sitting in the San Francisco Bay, the Rock was a prison that housed some of the United States’ most heinous criminals— Al Capone, “the Birdman” Robert Stroud, and the original George “Machine Gun” Kelly, just to name a few. But what happens when Alcatraz closes and becomes a popular tourist attraction to oddity seekers from around the world? What else, then to be printed on a postcard and sent to friends, family, and loved ones all over the United States. Between the 1920s and the 1970s and as Alcatraz was decommissioned as a federal prison and bloomed into a booming tourist industry, the Rock saw a change in the way that the postcard industry portrayed it via photos on the back of postcards. As time went on, Alcatraz was depicted more as a tourist hotspot than a warning place to stay out of. Photo postcards of Alcatraz shifted from black and white photos and printed photos toward lively colored photos that had the message “Wish You Were Here!” printed on them, suggesting a cultural shift in attitude toward this notorious prison (Cavendish, 2013).

So, what was Alcatraz? According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons (FBP), Alcatraz was actually first written about in 1775 and its name is derived from the Spanish word “Alcatraces”, and coming from a Spanish explorer in 1775, also known as Juan Manuel de Ayala. Ayala was reportedly the “first to sail into what is now known as San Francisco Bay,” and this name of Alcatraces was later Anglicized to Alcatraz. In the year 1850, President Millard Filmore issued an order that reserved Alcatraz island as a possible site for use as a reservation for the United States Military. This order was a result of the booming time of the California Gold Rush and the importance of protecting San Francisco and her Bay from the rapid boom of migrants to the area. Along with this order, the United States Army built a fort at the top of the island in the beginning of the 1850s, also planning to install “more than 100 cannons on the island, making Alcatraz the most heavily fortified military site on the West Coast.” Along with being a military fortification, Alcatraz was also home to the first operational lighthouse on the West Coast (Cavendish, 2013).

If you look closely at how Alcatraz was portrayed through the David P. Campbell collection of postcards, housed in the Cummings Center at the University of Akron, it is very noticeable to trace how the images of Alcatraz go along with what happened to the tourism industry between the 1920s and the 1970s, or the extent of the collection of Alcatraz prison postcards. The first cards of Alcatraz feature a small island in the San Francisco Bay without much of any context, aside from some of the messages that could be found on the back of the cards that discuss Al Capone being housed in there. These images started off being black-and-white aerial photos of the prison with captions “Alcatraz” or “the Rock”. The early postcards illustrate the curiosity with Alcatraz and how a small island could house such big-named criminals, being careful not to get too close to the prison and keeping a safe distance away from it, almost mirroring the curiosity and intrigue that perhaps some of the general public had about the prison and how it was operated.

To finish reading this analysis on Alcatraz, visit Student Project from the Archives this summer to find out more! Have you visited Alcatraz? What did you think of it? Is it worth the trip?

Cavendish, Richard. “Alcatraz Prison Closes.” History Today 63, no. 3 (March 2013): 11.


Prison Postcard Messages

By Franchesica Kidd

What types of messages do you think you would find on a postcard with a prominent U.S. prison on the front of it? Warning messages for those to behave and “be good” so they’ll stay out of them? What about messages about health, greetings, or even pointing out where Al Capone was once housed? In the David P. Campbell collection, you’ll find messages like these and more.


“Here is where Al Capone and a few others are spending their vacations? The boat to Sausalito passes close by one side going over and the other side coming back.”

Upon going through this collection, I was of course intrigued with the subject matter of prisons on a postcard—why and who would be sending these cards to loved ones, family, and friends? But another aspect of the cards I was perplexed by was the messages that were written on these cards. It seemed as though people were more concerned with the messages that were being sent rather than what was being depicted on the card.


In the first card that I found in the Prison binder was actually written in Dutch! The message reads, “I thought to send you this because I think my wife and daughter are with you right now. I arrived safe and well at home. The boat was late. It was 9 before we arrived in chicago. I worked half a day today. Next week a new letter. Everything is good. Greetings Richard.” Why on Earth would someone, let alone someone with a Dutch background, be writing a a personal message to someone close on the back of a postcard that featured the Illinois State Penitentiary on the front of it. Maybe it was the cheapest card that this person could find? Something quick to grab just to send this message out? Perhaps.


A postcard that featured the Women’s State Penitentiary in Joliet, Illinois that was discussing a very personal matter. “Dear Clare, I am down here but not in the Building [sic] yet. Am taking baths for rheumatism, one every day. I have to swallow four raw eggs daily and rest a whole lot. I like that part the best. Mrs. S.” Mrs. S. was very open with her communication to Clare and this might illustrate that people needed to send quick notes to home and writing a postcard with a short note took less time and effort to send a long, drawn out letter.


The Illinois State Penitentiary was also a feature of someone else’s message to home addressed to the writer’s children. They write, “Hi Kids, Isn’t this some place? (To stay out of)”. This was an interesting message that I found because it was here in this card where someone was warning young children to stay out of this place because the implied thoughts of prisons were they were bad places for bad people, and good people don’t go here.


Like the previous card, the writer of this next card that features the County Jail in Johnstown, New York warned their son that “This is the place they send bad boys if they are not in after eight oclock [sic] at night. Not from me.” This implies that maybe this writer is sending a passive-aggressive message to a young boy, perhaps a son or nephew, to scare him into behaving better and staying out of this scary place.


So what might these variations in messages show us? Perhaps people were just trying to write to home to send a quick message stating they were doing well, or threatening little sons or nephews into behaving like a good little boy should, or to warn kids that prisons are someplace to stay out of. For decades, people have been using the back of prison postcards to send well wishes, warnings, and health updates just like it was any other type of postcard regardless of the image that was on the front. It goes to show that people were more concerned with sending the message versus the content of what was already printed on the postcard.

The David P. Campbell Postcard Collection, searchable at postcard.uakron.edu, is a key collection of the CCHP’s Institute for Human Science and Culture. This blog series chronicles student efforts to make a select group of these postcards more accessible through an Unclass offered through the EXL Center and the English Department at the University of Akron.

Greetings from Venlo

By Cris Shell

Your brother goes on a vacation to the Netherlands, or your mother, or friend, or grandfather. Someone you know goes on a vacation to the Netherlands and they tell you that they’ll send you a postcard. They’re not sure how long it takes for a postcard to go through the post internationally and that’s fine. You know that eventually, you get a nice snapshot of another country, one you may never go to. One day, between bill number one, a newspaper of local ads, and bill number two, you find this:

CS_Rainbow Postcard

“Oh my,” is right. There is so much to break down on this postcard from the “Unusual Textures” box that I hardly know where to begin. I would say that the most unique feature of this postcard would have to be the paper rainbow design that comes to life when you open this card. Before spending time with the David Cambell Postcard Collection, I had never seen anything even remotely close to this type of design in a postcard so when I first stumbled upon it, there was so much joy involved in opening this card for me.

Aside from our living rainbow, there are a few little forest friends to find. I don’t know if there is some Fairy Tale or Folklore behind this image (If there is, let us know. Please!), but it is so strange that I don’t mind not knowing. On the left we see a happy little gnome proposing a toast to a beetle, they both have a glass of wine. Now there are a few things I wish I understood about this card. First, I want to know if that gnome is the size of a beetle, or the beetle is the size of a gnome. If the former is true, then I also want to know where they found a miniature glass of wine and tiny wine glasses. If the latter is true, I want to know where there are beetles the size of small children so I can never go there. Beyond that, I want to know why they are drinking. I know that there are some beetles that drink beer (Ambrosia Beetles I beleive), but wine with a gnome?

Putting my lack of understanding of Dutch Fairy Tales and Folklore aside, this card is just fun to open. Every time I see the gif open up, I smile a little. There is something about an interactive postcard like this that just gives it life and longevity, but can we talk about the sun straight from the Teletubbies?

The David P. Campbell Postcard Collection, searchable at postcard.uakron.edu, is a key collection of the CCHP’s Institute for Human Science and Culture. This blog series chronicles student efforts to make a select group of these postcards more accessible through an Unclass offered through the EXL Center and the English Department at the University of Akron.

Postcards… of Prison?

By Franchesica Kidd

Aren’t prisons something to stay as far away from as possible, whether they’re active or not?

Many of the United States prison postcards in the David P. Campbell collection are not from prisoners or their families back and forth to one another. Instead, these postcards seem more like the prisons around the US were hot tourist sites that garnered a number of visitors each year. Passing through any of the major cities where these prisons are housed, people sent short and quick notes home about where they were, what they were doing, or maybe telling family how you were holding up after a medical procedure.



These prisons are absolutely beautiful and the architecture is mesmerizing. For this analysis of prison postcards, I’d like to be a little selfish and focus on one of my favorite prisons, or reformatories in this case, that I visited and was completely mesmerized by. The Ohio State Reformatory (OSR), housed in Mansfield, Ohio, that is better known for its role in various films such as Shawshank Redemption, Air Force One, and more recently Escape Plan 3: Devil’s Station. Before gaining the attention from producers of films and music videos, the OSR was a medium-security prison that was in operation from 1886 until 1990.[1]“In 1884, the Ohio General Assembly passed a law creating the Ohio State Reformatory at Mansfield in Richland County. Beginning in 1896, it’s construction delayed due to funding, this facility was an intermediate facility incarcerating male inmates between the ages of sixteen and thirty who could be reformed…the institution was established on more than 850 acres of land, less than ten of which was used for the prison. The rest of the acreage…was used for agricultural purposes where inmates would labor producing food for the state’s institutions.”[2]However, the beginnings of the OSR began earlier than 1886. According to the website of the OSR, beginning in 1861 more than 4,000 soldiers were trained during the Civil War on the grounds that would later become the site of where the OSR was built. “Opened in August 1861, the training center was known as Camp Mordecai Bartley. It was named in honor of the man who served as governor of Ohio in the 1840s.”[3]


The Ohio State Reformatory is of course a permanent fixture in Mansfield’s local history. Some of the building has since been torn down, but by local advocates in the Mansfield Reformatory Preservation Society, action have been taken in order to preserve the not only the building itself, but also the history of the prison system in Ohio. The OSR was built in 1880, with the architectural design by Levi Scofield, of Cleveland. He designed the OSR with Victorian era architecture in mind. Scofield was the first Cleveland architect “taken into membership in the American Institute of Architects” and was a friend of John D. Rockefeller. Scofield was also the sculptor of the Cuyahoga County Soldiers and Sailors Monument. He worked on the monument for seven and a half years without ever being paid and contributed $57,000 of his own money to the sculpture.[4]Scofield “was chosen for the task of coming up with a design for the new penal institute in Mansfield because he embraced the visionary philosophy that inspired the place. It was to be an experimental new prison with a specific intention: to keep young convicts away from old convicts who might school them in the ways of crime…To this end his design was based on a historic 16th Century castle in France—the Chateau de Chambord—whose turrets and spires echo back to a civilized age of high ideals and chivalry in order to inspire the young men of OSR to a renaissance of their character and an uplifted code of ethics.”[5]


2019-04-25_1420                                                                                                                                                          [6]

For anyone that has visited this beautiful place, or any prison that resembles the castle-like façade, it is a wonder that a place so beautifully built could be a place that housed criminals from all walks of life and even seen some of the most horrific sites. And for these to be images that are found on postcards are even more insightful and tell us more about ourselves and what we like to do than what we know.

What prisons have you visited? Have you traveled to a specific state just to see a famous prison? What catches your eye first when you look at the building?

[1]“Film and Television.” Website, online source. https://www.mrps.org/learn/history; United States Department of the Interior National Park Service. National Register of Historic Places. 2002.


[3]“History of the Ohio State Reformatory.” Website, online source. https://www.mrps.org/learn/history

[4]“Levi Scofield.” Cleveland City Planning Commission. Online source. http://planning.city.cleveland.oh.us/landmark/arch/archDetail.php?afil=&archID=217&sk=birth&sd=ASC

[5]McKee, Timothy Brian. “The Genius of Design behind OSR.” Richland Source. June 01, 2014. https://www.richlandsource.com/area_history/the-genius-of-design-behind-osr/article_9944d778-e92b-11e3-8045-10604b9ffede.html.

[6]Photograph courtesy of google images

The David P. Campbell Postcard Collection, searchable at postcard.uakron.edu, is a key collection of the CCHP’s Institute for Human Science and Culture. This blog series chronicles student efforts to make a select group of these postcards more accessible through an Unclass offered through the EXL Center and the English Department at the University of Akron.


Centennials and Tourism with the U.S.S. Merrimac(k)

By Janos Jalics


I found this postcard of the Merrimac while looking for inspiration for my second blog. This postcard is a somewhat abstract painting of the Merrimac, and it is a sharp contrast to most battleship postcards that I have seen. Most of the battleship postcards in my “Ships” binder have photos or more realistic paintings and stats on the ship. This postcard didn’t have that. The painting is of the ship during its times of service in the U.S. Navy during the nineteenth century.

Even though there was no replica of this ship at Hampton Roads, it’s clear that the ship was important to area’s history. It was not something a person could visit, but it still encouraged tourism. It even made for a postcard that would attract buyers.

The front of the 1958 postcard is a relatively abstract painting of the ship while it was serving in the U.S. Navy. The back is a message home for a Mr. and Mrs. Earl Pierce received on June 29thfrom a friend or relative named Evelyn.  She visited the Merrimac Motel in 1958 on summer vacation. Evelyn sent the message before the end of her trip and planned to return home. She enjoyed her trip and the weather.


The couple of Earl Alvin (1888-1967) and Lavina Pierce is not documented with any children. However, Earl had a son named Joseph (1918-2008) from his marriage to Marea Rebekah Reed (1912-1948). He married Lavina (1909-1984) in 1950 and the couple stayed together until his death in 1967[1]. Clearly, Evelyn was close to the Pierces and was stable enough to get a vacation to Virginia. I was unable to find the Merrimac Motel, but I can find much from the postcard. It was built to house tourists who were visiting the site of Hampton Roads.

The battle of Hampton Roads (1862) was one of the most important Civil War naval engagements and involved two ironclad ships, the U.S.S. Monitor and the C.S.S. Virginia (Merimac(k)). The Merrimac was a U.S. Navy ship retired in 1861 shortly before war broke out and the postcard acknowledges this, calling it “Pride of Dixie”. It was a three-mast steamship with 40 8-inch and 10-inch cannons and was 275 feet long with a beam of 38 ft, 6 in. Its propeller was unused when the ship switched to sails, causing drag and the need for a brass device called a “banjo”[2]. Shortly after it was scrapped, the Civil War broke out and the Confederate Government converted it into an ironclad, taking down the masts and covering it with iron plates. The Confederate Navy was desperate for ships and was outnumbered by a Union blockade. The ironclad was 4,500 tons and sported 12 guns[3]. It dueled several ships in the blockade, sinking them all as cannonballs bounced off it. The Union soon met it with its own ironclad, the Monitor. The two dueled to a standstill in the Battle of Hampton Roads, which had nearly reached its centennial during Evelyn’s visit. Centennials are a fascinating time, as I can attest to in my study of the First World War. I studied it with the aid of the highly successful YouTube show The Great War. The Merrimac was later sunk to avoid Union capture. In short, celebrating centennials is always great.

[1]“Earl Alvin Pierce”. We Relate. https://www.werelate.org/wiki/Person:Earl_Pierce_%284%29 (March 10, 2019)

[2]“CSS Virginia (USS Merrimack)”. Military Factory. https://www.militaryfactory.com/ships/detail.asp?ship_id=CSS-Virginia-1862 (March 10, 2019)

[3]“CSS Virginia (USS Merrimack)”. Military Factory. https://www.militaryfactory.com/ships/detail.asp?ship_id=CSS-Virginia-1862 (March 10, 2019)

The David P. Campbell Postcard Collection, searchable at postcard.uakron.edu, is a key collection of the CCHP’s Institute for Human Science and Culture. This blog series chronicles student efforts to make a select group of these postcards more accessible through an Unclass offered through the EXL Center and the English Department at the University of Akron.

Can you crack the code?

By Aubrey Baldwin

All throughout history people have been writing secret codes to try and hide information that they don’t want other people to see. There are codes like skip codes and Morse code. There was even the code that the Germans used to try and hide things from the allies during the war. Codes are an important thing in our society, and they are also an exciting thing too. When I was a kid, I loved codes and I would try and learn how to do different codes with my friends to see if we could crack what the other was saying. Codes are very exciting!

At the Cummings Center for the History of psychology they have a postcard collection that includes a binder called “Interesting Messages, Handwriting” full of postcards with unusual writing on them. One of these postcards are written in a code using pictures.


Here is what we have been able to decipher from the post card: “My dear Phillip, we are having unintelligible lovely time with aunty and uncle unintelligible being well. Unintelligible here for unintelligible has got 2 more weeks” and then it is unintelligible until the part they say, “perhaps I think that” and then unintelligible until the end which says, “I will send you another card like this tomorrow.” The rest we are unsure of though.

Why don’t you give it a try. Test your code breaking skills and see if you can crack this code to figure out what this person was saying. Test your friends and family to see if they can figure it out.

Let us know what you TH-🖋 in the comment section below.

The David P. Campbell Postcard Collection, searchable at postcard.uakron.edu, is a key collection of the CCHP’s Institute for Human Science and Culture. This blog series chronicles student efforts to make a select group of these postcards more accessible through an Unclass offered through the EXL Center and the English Department at the University of Akron.

Erotique 1900

By Cris Shell

Close your eyes and imagine if you will, you are going to get your mail. Okay, so I realize that you won’t really be able to follow what I’m saying if you actually have your eyes closed. Maybe you can just follow along mentally. You are going to get your mail. For me, that involves fishing my mail key out of the drawer I designated for junk, walking downstairs, and unlocking my mailbox at my apartment. For you, it could be any number of things, but the one thing uniting almost all of our experiences is that A) we all get mail, and B) we all have a drawer for junk against our better judgments. I mean, we all know it’ll get out of hand, but we still put stuff in it and tell ourselves that it’ll be fine. Anyway, you get your mail and start to flip through: Phone bill, electric bill, an ad to some local store, and then BAM!

beach postcard watermark

This card shows itself and you proceed to pull the white tab on repeat like some looping gif. Who in their right mind would send you this? To be honest with you, I have no idea. Perhaps it’s from a friend from college, someone off on vacation, or a brother with a sense of humor, but I can’t see just anyone buying this card. If my mother sent me this card (or even more shockingly my grandmother) I would lose my mind.

There is something about this card, found in the David P. Campbell Postcard Collections’ “Unusual Textures” collection, that is just fun. Interacting with a postcard is not too terribly common, so I found myself continually coming back to play with this card while shuffling through the collection. I think that the pull tab gives the card longevity that the message may not. To be honest, this card, named on the back as “Erotique 1900,” most likely won’t have a message about someone’s declining health (at least it shouldn’t, even though having this card with a message about someone dying on it would be funny in an ironic way). This type of card would probably have a generic message like “Wish you were here at [CITY/VACATION SPOT], John.” Something like that doesn’t really mean anything, and it certainly won’t stay with you, but only half of the postcard is the message and this postcard has a picture that carries the message. I wouldn’t be disappointed if I was sent this with no message attached.

With all of this said, the misogynistic tone of the card is problematic. The sort of action happening on the card isn’t necessarily culturally appropriate anymore. Playing off what can be considered sexual assault as a joke doesn’t slide. Defending that sort of topic by suggesting that comedy is used to push boundaries and be daring, as many comedians with misogynistic overtones claim, doesn’t hold up. Repeating a troupe that has existed for decades, or even centuries is not pushing boundaries or being bold. I don’t think that cards like these still belong in stores or our society in a larger sense. Although, they can be used as a good reminder of just how far we have come and I personally can laugh at how ridiculous societies standards once were.

The David P. Campbell Postcard Collection, searchable at postcard.uakron.edu, is a key collection of the CCHP’s Institute for Human Science and Culture. This blog series chronicles student efforts to make a select group of these postcards more accessible through an Unclass offered through the EXL Center and the English Department at the University of Akron.