Collecting Venice and Ocean Park Antique Postcards

A rich photographic history of a beach town amusement resort such as Venice and adjoining Ocean Park can be obtained by collecting antique postcards. While many of the original B&W photographs used to make postcards have been lost, postcards, which were printed in the tens or hundreds of thousands, have survived.

Postcard companies at the turn of the century, bought 8 x 10 inch B&W photographs from local photographers and sent them to Germany via printing agents. There they were hand-tinted using supplied color descriptions, and printed by the lithography process where the image for each color was transferred to a separate stone plate. The result was a random dot color pattern, unlike the diamond dot pattern that is used today, to print on offset printing presses. (Use a magnifying glass on a picture in a magazine, then compare it to the pattern observed on an antique postcard. Not all postcards were printed in Germany, for many of the B&W postcards were printed in the United States.

German printers had the best printing process and were capable of printing outstanding color images. The cards were shipped back to the United States, distributed to stores and magazine stands where they were sold for one penny. Many people bought these cards as souvenirs of their trip, but if they were mailed to friends and relatives, the postage was also a penny. The postcard business flourished until the beginning of World War I in 1914 when shipments out of Germany were infrequent. After the United States entered the war and helped win it in 1918, postcard production resumed. But during the four year interval many United States printers entered the postcard manufacturing business. While the quality wasn't nearly as good, it was cheaper since the government had instituted a tariff on German postcards after the war.

By the time the Depression hit in the early 1930's, postcard manufacturers faced with rising paper costs, turned to linen paper. Those postcards had a much rougher or coarser surface, and the printing wasn't nearly as good. Then after World War II, the printing industry invented the crome postcard, a photo-offset process, which enabled them to use original 35mm color slides as source material. In a sense they were more realistic as they portrayed accurate colors.

Since Venice and Ocean Park often attracted as many as 300,000 visitors on a busy holiday summer weekend, and likely 100,000 visitors at other times, tens of thousands of postcards were likely purchased. About 80% of the postcard images were produced by 1915. They consist of Venice and Ocean Parks most popular scenic attractions; the Abbott Kinney Pier with its Ship Café, Dance Hall, Auditorium and rides, Ocean Park's Fraser and Pickering Piers, the Venice of America's canals, the Venice Miniature Scenic Railway, the Venice Plunge and Ocean Park bathhouses, Windward Avenue's arcaded Venetian-style buildings, and scenes of the beach and surf. There is much repetition in the images as different publishers all wanted a place on the postcard stands. In addition, various hotels and restaurants printed post cards of their businesses. In addition there were Real Photo Postcards (RPPC) scenes that were produced on postcard stock photo paper that were made by various photo studios. They were printed in small quantities by the photographer and don't have a dot pattern if one uses a magnifiying glass. There were also portraits done in a photo studio, usually with a prop or painted backdrop of a Venice scene. These are one-of-a-kind real photographs with a postcard back.

While there weren't as many postcards after 1914 because the postcard collecting fad had ended, there were still many new images of the new amusement piers, which replaced those that had burned in the 1920 and 1924 fires. Publishers produced even fewer in the 1930's, and after most of Venice's canal network was filled in and its amusement pier removed, there were few tourists looking for postcards after World War II. Venice had become a ghetto by the sea with cheap rents for artists, beat poets, and retired people. There was nothing to see but the beach.

The tourist postcard business didn't revive until 1979 when Venice's boardwalk finally became a tourist destination where people came to try or observe the new sport of outdoor roller skating on polyurathane wheels that could roll smoothly over cracks in the pavement. Shops and restaurants catered to the tourists. Jeffrey Stanton, a Venice photographer, was looking for a way to promote his dormant photography career. He produced 24 Venice scenes of Ocean Front Walk, Windward Avenue, the Muscle Beach weight pen, the Venice canals, disco and slalom roller skating, and sidewalk performers. In addition he reprinted 18 historic hand-colored scenes from Venice's past. Stores along the boardwalk, unaccustomed to selling cheap quarter postcards, initially didn't want to sell his postcards. Jeff began selling his cards from a tricycle in the middle of Ocean Front Walk near Windward Avenue. While initial sales were strong because residents liked the novelty of sending postcards of their town to their friends and relatives, tourists, especially American, didn't relate to Jeff's unusual images. European tourists liked them because they were so different than the run-of-the-mill postcards available elsewhere. However, sales dwindled and he was lucky if he sold a couple dozen postcards on a busy weekend. Tourists, perhaps looking for non-Venice postcards, insisted that they could find better scenes elsewhere.

Sales didn't pick up until 1984, the Olympic year, when competitors put in card racks, which gave tourists a choice of postcard images and styles. Frankly, most of the postcard sales are scenes of Los Angeles, Hollywood, Beverly Hills, and Santa Monica. Competitor's 50-card racks only have two or three Venice scenes. Stanton's few scattered racks have as many as 40 Venice scenes. While postcard sales peaked in 1988, fewer and fewer bought postcards after 2000. It was the age of E-mail and the Internet, and few people were collecting his postcard images. While Stanton used to print 6-10 new scenes each year, he has been printing only a scattered few every three or four years. The remainder are reprints depending on popularity. As far as promoting Jeff's photography career, it didn't work at all. He didn't obtain a single photo assignment during his company's first 25 years.

Number of Different Venice / Ocean Park Postcards

Before E-bay, Venice and Ocean Park postcard collectors attended the various postcard shows in Southern California. While the Pasadena show was the largest, there were monthly shows in Culver City, semi-annual ones in Arcadia and Orange County, and even ones in San Diego. In 1979, when I started collecting, one could look through at least 1000 Venice and Ocean Park antique cards at any one show. Some dealers that specialized in Southern California postcards, often had an entire box of Venice postcards. They were considered common, and most sold for one dollar; RPPC sold for three or four dollars. I attended many of the shows in the early 1980's with a retired Venice grocery store owner, who was trying to rebuild his collection that his first wife had thrown in the trash during World War II. George described postcard scenes that we never found. I wasn't trying to collect one of every image, just the ones that had the best views of a particular attraction such as a roller coaster. Since I had a chance to photograph several of the larger Venice collections on slide film for my history lectures, I had a good idea of what was available or simply scarce. There was even a postcard club that meet bi-monthly in Santa Monica, and still does.

The survival of each postcard image printed up to 100 years ago depended on the quantity printed and whether the were collected by people who preserved them. Then if they were passed down through several generations of family members before being sold to an antique dealer, they may have survived. The number sold of each image depended on the popularity of the scene or attraction, and how long a particular amusement pier or ride lasted. For example, once most of the Venice of America canals were filled in 1929, publishers no longer printed canal views. Cards might still have been sold for several years after, depending on the publisher's inventory.

Over the years various known Venice-Ocean Park collectors had built up moderate or large postcard collections. Most of us were on a tight budget, so we didn't often buy from Ken Prag, a San Francisco dealer, who usually had images that we had never seen. However, he was quite expensive, and since he had a photo memory for images, any card he hadn't seen had a high price. His RPPC in the early 1990's were $35 and up, but by 2000 he was asking $65, and now in 2006 $300 and up. His rare regular cards sell for $35-50 and up and his high prices enable him to keep a fairly large inventory.

I've had a chance over the years to look at three of the five largest Venice - Ocean Park collections. At least two of the collectors, possibly three, considered Ocean Park part of Santa Monica and didn't collect those images. Although someone in 1985 had alerted me to a possible collection of 1300 cards that had been for sale for several years, the man had retired and sold his hobby shop to someone who would not tell me how to reach him. The largest collection I saw was about 1000 cards, but hadn't been worked on after 1990 when it became too frustrating for the lady to find cards that she didn't have. One postcard dealer had a collection with some very rare Venice and Ocean Park images, but I had first crack at most of it when she decided to sell them. The archivist for the Venice Historical Society built up an impressive collection of Venice only cards, but she only had a couple of cards from the Venice Military Academy that I didn't have. A retired art professor, who grew up in Venice also had a large collection that some postcard club members said that had images of cards in his slide presentations that no one had ever seen. Unfortunately he was angry that I had reprinted some of the old postcard images in 1979 and wouldn't show his collection to me. He looked at his hobby as an investment, and thought that my color reprints would depress the market. Luckily for him it turned out that the market was too small for reprint cards, and I'm still trying to sell them one at a time. The professor had a friend with big bucks, who bought many rare Venice images from Ken Prag, but I never saw his collection either, and he moved to Las Vegas 10-12 years ago. My own collection isn't as large as some because I never purchased many of the B&W cards, nor any beach scenes that could be anywhere.

There was a discussion among collectors in the late 1980's to make a check list for all known Venice-Ocean Park postcards, but I thought that any card not on our list would be immediately priced very high by dealers. It was more fun to discover a one of a kind card at a reasonable price. Cards that were once fairly common are rarely for sale any longer. What I did learn from collecting for over 25 years was the relative rarity of various cards and the foresight to buy duplicates for trading purposes.

Once E-bay became a phenomenon by 2000, antique postcards that would have eventually made there way to postcard dealers through antique shops, were now being sold by individuals. The number of Venice cards at shows had dwindled to not more than 200 per show among all the dealers, and most if not all of them are common cards. Although a rare card occasionally appears, frankly it has become a waste of time for any advanced collector to attend shows.

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