The desire to present a glamorized version of one’s life existed long before online profiles. The Facebook of 1906 was the personalized picture postcard, a fad made possible by changes in camera and printing technology. Among the homesteaders of the early 20th century, who risked everything to stake their claim on undeveloped property, this new method of communication quickly gained popularity. Rather than update their relationship status and summarize their talents, they had a single snapshot taken with their finest possessions—chickens, wife, guitar—in front of their homes. They then had the image printed on photo stock paper, wrote a note on the back, and sent it home: a proud profile of life on the plains.
The images in this gallery were gathered over a period of 20 years by snapshot collector Michael Williams. They are featured in his book, Who We Were: A Snapshot History of America and at The Life and Death of Buildings, an exhibition currently on display at the Princeton University Art Museum. The latter features an array of architectural photography, including famous works by great photographers. (You can see the exhibition here). There’s something about these simple portraits, however, that grabbed people’s attention and kept them lingering, curator Joel Smith said.
Perhaps it’s because each postcard tells a story of a new beginning. The Homestead Act offered people an opportunity to claim 160 acres of undeveloped property for free, so long as they lived there for five years and “improved” the property. Improvements generally meant building a home, but it didn’t matter what this home was made of—tar paper, sod, bricks, wood—so long as it stood.
Williams has spent more than 15 years gathering these images at flea markets, antiques stores, and postcard fairs. Although all the images were taken in South Dakota, North Dakota, or Montana, he almost always finds them far away, in the states where the recipients lived.
Thank goodness for people’s impulse to brag. The Homestead Act took effect in 1862, but it wasn’t until 1906, when personalized postcards emerged and allowed people to show off for the folks back home that we got this fascinating visual account of life on the frontier.
See more interesting images of people’s homes on the Web site for The Life and Death of Buildings exhibit. Learn more about “Who We Were” here.