Postcards of Rochester

As a postcard collector with over 30,000 postcards in my collection (a couple hundred of which are of Rochester), I’ve always been fascinated by these snapshots in time that so succinctly catalog our cities through the years.

Just look at the postcard below of downtown Rochester’s Main Street (looking East from the Four Corners) sometime around 1955. It is at once unmistakable, and yet almost unrecognizable.

It's somehow comforting to recognize the landmarks in this view: the Reynolds Arcade, the Granite Building, the Wilder Building, the Sibley Building. Yet it is also sobering to see what has been lost: the former Chamber of Commerce Building (which dominates the right side of the frame), the cupola atop the Alliance Building, and the vast sea of retail activity that bustled with energy.

This postcard reveals so much about what our city once was, which is not necessarily good or bad. Certainly there are some things about downtown Rochester that are better now than in 1955—and there’s a lot more exciting progress in the works! Nevertheless, images like these demonstrate the power of the picture postcard to take us back; to capture a singular snapshot in time like no other medium.

In this one simple street scene we can see so much…

The clothing styles of the people on the sidewalks. The bicycles that comfortably shared the road with a colorful menagerie of automobiles. The incredible diversity of storefronts loudly advertising their wares with protruding signage. The pedestrian-scale street lights, densely spaced for as far as the eye can see. The grime on the already-aged buildings that would soon forfeit their existence to the impending wave of urban renewal.

Perhaps that’s why I have always been enamored with postcards, particularly postcards of cities. Through postcards you can literally trace the life cycle of a city decade by decade. For example, look at the trolleys and bicycles dominating the roadway in the postcard below, some 50 years prior to the similar perspective of Main Street above.

Main Street Rochester circa 1905

The other truly unique element of postcards, of course, is that they can contain a very human element if they were actually mailed to someone. In fact, sometimes the reverse side of an old postcard is more interesting (and fun) than the front! The postcard back below is the actual reverse of the postcard above, mailed in 1909.

Notice the quaint addressing requirements… you used to be able to simply write the recipients name and town to ensure delivery (for a penny no less). Reading the message itself, we even gain some insight into the challenges of traveling some 110 years ago: Alice sent this postcard on April 6, but she’s waiting for the roads to get better before trekking the 45 miles from Rochester to Perry.

Then again, maybe not that much has really changed! *sarcasm

Below is another of my favorite postcards of Main Street. The hustle and bustle of turn-of-the-century Rochester is awe-inspiring, as thousands of people (in full heat-stroke inducing attire) share the crowded streetscape with horse-drawn wagons and electric trolleys. Still recognizable is the Granite Building in the background to the left.

Main Street Rochester circa 1910

And then there are the ones that got away. Postcards often reveal to us the architectural jewels that were lost to "progress". Three notable examples in Rochester’s history were the Chamber of Commerce Building (which was razed in 1980 to make way for the Rochester Riverside Convention Center), the Hotel Rochester (demolished in 1999), and Claude Bragdon’s glorious NY Central Train Station (which was lost forever in 1965).

But they can be remembered in all their glory in the postcards of yesteryear...

Chamber of Commerce Building circa 1920

Hotel Rochester circa 1920

New York Central Station circa 1915

If you find these images of the past as interesting as I do, there are couple of web sites that hold a treasure-trove of historical postcards of Rochester.

For a fascinating trip back in time, check out this collection of over 1,000 Rochester postcards.

The fantastic (and missed) Rochester Subway blog also displays a magnificent collection of vintage Rochester postcards.

By Mike Gilbert - June 29, 2018

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