“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.


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.

No Valentine’s Day Spirit

By Aubrey Baldwin

Now that Valentine’s Day has come and gone we can talk about how sometimes the holiday is not so nice. When most people think about Valentine’s Day they think about love and chocolate and being happy with your significant others or your friends.

During the early 1900s though an English postcard maker started making postcards that really had nothing to do with Valentine’s Day, yet there were a part of his volume of postcards for valentines day. One of the postcards he made is a postcard called “All down but nine”: (Postcard 43).

ValentinesUnusVol11_ 043a_mrk

This postcard is about a bowler and how he is unable to make a strike. Not exactly a sign of a successful Valentine’s Day!

Another card shows a man in a rugby uniform (Postcard 44) and it talks about how a girl “think he’s a charmer” but he looks “like a lobster in armor” and “his hair makes him look like a fright.”


This message doesn’t seem like something you want to get on Valentines day.

During this time people began to send Vinegar Valentines — cards that use Valentine’s Day as an excuse to send insulting messages — and I believe that these are examples of those. They are quirky and funny to look due to the images being so comical. I enjoy looking at these Valentines and thinking about what the people who received them in the mail thought. I hope no one sent these to their significant other on Valentine’s Day because some people might take that the wrong way.


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.

Ships and Scandal: The S.S. President Harding

By Janos Jalics


I found this postcard while just looking through my binder of postcards, labeled “Ships,” and was shocked to see one named after Warren G. Harding, president from 1921 to 1923.[1] Obviously, there are many ships named after presidents. But I was shocked to see a ship named after Warren Harding given his involvement in the Teapot Dome Scandal – a political event that jeopardized the very navy that honored him with a ship.

Named for the Wyoming oil reserve of the same name, the Teapot Dome Scandal was when Harding’s heavily bribed cabinet transferred the U.S. Navy’s oil reserves to the Department of the Interior. Its secretary Albert Fall then leased the land that held the navy’s oil reserves to large corporations, who bribed Fall for the privilege.[2] Harding’s full involvement is not known since he died while the scandal was being leaked. Considering that Harding’s administration was involved in such a large scandal involving the navy, it’s hard to believe that a ship would be named after Harding.

The ship itself was a steel passenger ship first launched on January 6, 1923 and has digitized passenger records until 1927.[3] Its sister ship was the SS President Theodore Roosevelt and that is some hilarious irony to have a ship named after corruption that has a sister ship named after one of the best presidents in U.S. history.


The back of the card makes clear that its printers wanted to reach a certain audience. It includes information about the mechanics and function of the ship. This suggests that the people who would buy this card are interested not so much in the history but care about the engineering of the ship.

The ship was propelled by two steam turbines (unusual in an age when oil was propelling more and more ships). Its speed was 18 knots and its tonnage was 18639 grt (gross registered tonnage). Its dimensions were 157.3 x 21.9 x 8.5m. It ran aground after an air raid on May 17, 1940 and it came under the ownership of the Belgian Société Maritime Anversoise of Antwerp.[4]  This was a fascinating jump into research on an obscure ship.

[1]  Warren Gamaliel Harding lived from 1865 to 1923 and served as president from 1921 to 1923. He was noted for standing up for minorities and women, but also had a reputation as a womanizer. “Warren G. Harding”. White House. https://www.whitehouse.gov/about-the-white-house/presidents/warren-g-harding/  and https://www.hardinghome.org/fact-vs-fiction/ (accessed January 29, 2019).

[2] Roberts, Phil. “The Teapot Dome Scandal”. Wyoming History. https://www.wyohistory.org/encyclopedia/teapot-dome-scandal. (accessed January 29, 2019)

[3]  “S.S. Harding Passenger lists”. Gjenvick-Gjonvick Archives. https://www.gjenvick.com/Passengers/Ships/PresidentHarding-PassengerLists.html. (accessed January 29, 2019)

[4]“President Harding SS (1929-1940)”. Wreck Site. https://www.wrecksite.eu/wreck.aspx?169140. (accessed January 29, 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.

Valentine’s Day Postcards: It’s Academic!

By Aubrey Baldwin, Janos Jalics, Franchesica Kidd, David McCann, and Cris Schell

This past Thursday, the Cummings Center for the History of Psychology hosted an event called “It’s Academic!”  Three professors — Dr. Brian Bagatto (Biology), Dr. Toni Bisconti (Psychology) and Dr. Jon Miller (English) came to the event to discuss the question “What is Love?” from a perspective of their personal fields. Our ENG 489/589 UnClass attended, since we are working to digitize a binder full of postcards called “Valentines Unusual Vol. 11,” from the David P. Campbell postcard collection.

We could easily connect our postcards to the way that love was discussed, even though some of our cards seem to veer away from the emotions usually associated with Valentine’s Day.


This card, postmarked from 1907, brings to mind the ways that Dr. Miller discussed art as a way of expressing complicated emotions. Its message reads “to my valentine”, and it depicts a young girl with a green dress and a leather apron on, forging a bright, vivid red heart with an axe and an anvil. Through this art form of blacksmithing and creating something, this young girl is able to forge, and ultimately express the large amount of love she feels for her valentine.

That’s a sunnier presentation of what turns out to be a common image on Valentine cards. This card features hearts being toasted over a fire, in a way that might look more gruesome that loving:


The “It’s Academic!” panel suggested that the most likely link between love and fire is passion. But beyond passion, they noted that almost all of the language and metaphor we use in terms of love involves fire or heat in some way. Even physically, Dr. Bagatto said, love in terms of reproduction tends to make us warmer. I would think that the physical warmth brought on led to the language surrounding love as well as the ties to passion.


On this late 19th-century postcard, two angels with golden wings are forging a heart. The forging apparently brings the heart together and makes it stronger, much like love itself. This postcard was made in Germany and has postcard translated into several languages such as Hungarian, Croatian, Spanish, and Slovenian. This leads me to believe that it was circulated in Austria-Hungary, where postcards evidently served the need for communication seems to have crossed national and linguistic boundaries.

Some of the postcards in our binder, however, seem far less romantic. Instead, they represented the day-to-day communications Dr. Bisconti described that are so important to maintaining love. This card, for example, has a Valentine of the front, but is all about practicalities on the back:



The message on the back is from a man to his mother discussing when she will be in town to visit. This highlights an important relationship in most people’s life, a relationship with one’s parents. Nowadays we just send text messages but 100 years ago they were sending postcards to keep up their relationships with their loved one to tell them they want to stay in communication.

In the end, this postcard seemed to sum up the It’s Academic! panelists’ remarks.



This postcard postmarked from Edgar, Wisconsin April 9, 1908 4AM contains the simple message, “Am sending the book to-day hope you will get it by Friday” . Given the date in April, this postcard probably was taken from the leftover Valentine Day postcard pile, perhaps signaling that the need to communicate was more important than selecting the card with the right picture. But the raft on the cover, in a heart shape, still portrays passion, and maybe a little panic, portraying the postcard writer’s sense of guilt, perhaps, for not having got the book, earlier, to the recipient Melvin LaQua of Rib Falls, Wisconsin.

From a postcard you can learn so much about human history. One postcard – a peek into history – and a reference to the three talking points of the professors: it all adds up to “Love”.

Wrong Portrayal of Women with Meaningful Thoughts

By Allan Christopher

In the state of love, much can go on between a couple. A sweet kiss under the moon or in the tunnel. How about a summer afternoon photo under a tree? No one would stop to think that those things would be out of line. Yet, how about a woman kidnapping a man in the name of love? Or being ridiculed as being worth less than a dog? How could you consider this as love?


In short, love is sacrifice. Across the lot of cards that went into the David P. Campbell collection that I came by, some of these postcards show lovely couples doing romantic things, sure, but there are a handful more that poke and jest towards how the woman is either the sexual toy object or the maker of food. When either of those roles are not filled, they are made fun of as the cards above and below does.


Postcards even make clear what a lady should look like. In the card below, there is a woman putting peroxide in her hair to whiten it. So, even fashion is involved in reinforcing how women should look, not to mention how women should act with a lot of it also being in how they should ‘correctly’ behave since, you know, it is on most of the common cards how a woman is to act and be. And since it is common, doesn’t that mean it is correct? (Hopefully you can get, reader, it does not.)


While there is a considerable amount of portrayal of women wrongly, when looked upon at what these postcards actually said, it was more among mundane things. For example, upon examining the above postcard with ease, this “Clyde” needed to be told that “that is what he needs” from Edith. What could you think Clyde needed? What was so important (or unimportant for that matter) that an entire postcard needed to be sent to confirm simple questions? If we are to look to the back of this particular one, you should begin to easily notice (as shown below) that there is no message or stamp to begin with.


Again, it preposes the idea that it might not have ever been mailed, but as a form of quick communication to tell someone something lest the day be over and thus not being able to be reached again until tomorrow.

To see the work of love of other people in written form was in some sense rewarding – to meet up and go to school together, to try to see one another after a missed Sunday – especially when someone wrote in secret code. It made it worth it despite the reinforcement of bad stereotypes of women on most of these.