Catholic chronicles Arkansas history through postcards

Ray Hanley displays some of the postcards from his collection of more than 25,000. He and his brother Steven have published 16 books featuring the col-lection, with two more on the way.
Ray Hanley displays some of the postcards from his collection of more than 25,000. He and his brother Steven have published 16 books featuring the col-lection, with two more on the way.
Postcards originated in Europe and began to gain popularity in America in the 1800s. This one was mailed to Milwaukee, Wisc., from Atkins Nov. 3, 1908. Image courtesy of The Hanley Collection
Postcards originated in Europe and began to gain popularity in America in the 1800s. This one was mailed to Milwaukee, Wisc., from Atkins Nov. 3, 1908. Image courtesy of The Hanley Collection
When a 1909 tornado flattened every other church in Brinkley, parishioners were amazed to see the Catholic church still standing. "It quickly became the town morgue," Hanley said. This card was mailed to Little Rock from Brinkley, March 26, 1911. Image courtesy of The Hanley Collection
When a 1909 tornado flattened every other church in Brinkley, parishioners were amazed to see the Catholic church still standing. "It quickly became the town morgue," Hanley said. This card was mailed to Little Rock from Brinkley, March 26, 1911. Image courtesy of The Hanley Collection
Postcards featuring churches were unique in that companies produced images of the interior as well as the exterior, such as this undated card depicting Immaculate Conception Church in Fort Smith. Image courtesy of The Hanley Collection
Postcards featuring churches were unique in that companies produced images of the interior as well as the exterior, such as this undated card depicting Immaculate Conception Church in Fort Smith. Image courtesy of The Hanley Collection
Postcard companies printed cards that featured photographs, as well as artist's renderings taken from photos, such as this image of St. John Church in Hot Springs, mailed May 14, 1914. Image courtesy of The Hanley Collection
Postcard companies printed cards that featured photographs, as well as artist's renderings taken from photos, such as this image of St. John Church in Hot Springs, mailed May 14, 1914. Image courtesy of The Hanley Collection
This is another example of an artist rendering taken from a photograph, an undated card featuring St. John Church in Hot Springs. Image courtesy of The Hanley Collection
This is another example of an artist rendering taken from a photograph, an undated card featuring St. John Church in Hot Springs. Image courtesy of The Hanley Collection
This undated postcard features a photo of an early version of Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Little Rock, of which Ray Hanley is a parishioner. Image courtesy of The Hanley Collection
This undated postcard features a photo of an early version of Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Little Rock, of which Ray Hanley is a parishioner. Image courtesy of The Hanley Collection
Decades before camera technology evolved into something everybody could afford and operate, postcards were the only way to preserve memories from a trip or share images on one's hometown. This card was mailed to Minden, La., from Mena in 1908. Image courtesy of The Hanley Collection
Decades before camera technology evolved into something everybody could afford and operate, postcards were the only way to preserve memories from a trip or share images on one's hometown. This card was mailed to Minden, La., from Mena in 1908. Image courtesy of The Hanley Collection
Despite postcards' runaway popularity, most parishes failed to capitalize on them as a way to raise funds. The vast majority of antique cards were produced by professional postcard companies. This one was mailed to Terre Haute, Ind., from Morrilton, May 26, 1909. Image courtesy of The Hanley Collection
Despite postcards' runaway popularity, most parishes failed to capitalize on them as a way to raise funds. The vast majority of antique cards were produced by professional postcard companies. This one was mailed to Terre Haute, Ind., from Morrilton, May 26, 1909. Image courtesy of The Hanley Collection
The most valuable cards are those that captured an image from a one-time event or only lasted a day or two -- like an Arkansas snowfall! This undated card was mailed from Paragould to St. Louis. Image courtesy of The Hanley Collection
The most valuable cards are those that captured an image from a one-time event or only lasted a day or two — like an Arkansas snowfall! This undated card was mailed from Paragould to St. Louis. Image courtesy of The Hanley Collection
It was initially against the law to add personal notes to postcards. It wasn't until 1907 -- when this card was mailed to Indianapolis from Pocahontas -- that people could legally scrawl "Wish you were here!" to friends and relatives. Image courtesy of The Hanley Collection
It was initially against the law to add personal notes to postcards. It wasn't until 1907 — when this card was mailed to Indianapolis from Pocahontas — that people could legally scrawl "Wish you were here!" to friends and relatives. Image courtesy of The Hanley Collection
Most cards were printed far from where the subject matter was located, which is probably why this card -- manufactured by New York's Souvenir Post Card Co. -- features an image of "Sebbeaca"(Subiaco) circa 1909. Image courtesy of The Hanley Collection
Most cards were printed far from where the subject matter was located, which is probably why this card — manufactured by New York's Souvenir Post Card Co. — features an image of "Sebbeaca"(Subiaco) circa 1909. Image courtesy of The Hanley Collection
Personal messages give a wonderful glimpse into the people of the time. This undated card, mailed from Shoal Creek, Ark., to Luzern, Switzerland, features a message densely written in tiny German script. The signature is not decipherable, but followed by initials "O.S.B." Image courtesy of The Hanley Collection
Personal messages give a wonderful glimpse into the people of the time. This undated card, mailed from Shoal Creek, Ark., to Luzern, Switzerland, features a message densely written in tiny German script. The signature is not decipherable, but followed by initials "O.S.B." Image courtesy of The Hanley Collection

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Poking around a flea market in 1975, Ray Hanley scooped up some antique postcards displaying scenes from Arkansas’ yesteryear. The lot set him back about a dime, he recalled.

Thirty-plus years later, the collection contains more than 25,000 images, making Hanley, a member of Our Lady of Good Counsel Church in Little Rock, an authority on antique postcards and the Arkansas history they capture.

“It’s interesting to see how far we’ve come in some areas,” Hanley said. “At the same time, people worried about a lot of the same things then as they do now — everyday life, who’s sick, who died.”

Given the nature of today’s postcards — garish tchotchke discarded almost as quickly as they reach the recipient — it’s hard to appreciate the significance of the medium’s ancestors. Long before cameras became an omnipresent accessory, few people could afford photographic equipment, which didn’t travel well anyway and were complicated to operate. Thus, professionally shot and mass-produced postcards became filler for photo albums and the era’s version of text messaging.

“The most sought-after postcards are the ones that captured events that only happened for a day or two,” said Hanley, who spends his day as the president and CEO of the Arkansas Foundation for Medical Care.

For example, the inaugural United Confederate Veteran’s Reunion was an event that ballooned Little Rock’s population from 45,000 to 150,000 in May 1911. An avalanche of postcards was produced to meet public demand, many of which are now prized specimens in the Hanley collection.

Other “spot news” events — storm aftermath, train derailments and natural disasters — were also highly coveted. Popular, too, were more sinister images. Ku Klux Klan rallies, racial, ethnic and religious bigotry and even lynchings found their way through the lens and onto the market as easily as landscapes or a prize-winning hog.

And, although pictures are in fact worth a thousand words, it’s the 20 or so on the reverse that sometimes speak the loudest. Hand-scrawled, the notes on the back — on Halley’s Comet, 1910 (“We’re still here,” reads the card), or a job picking Jonesboro berries, “for two cents a quart,” or even the decidedly blunt, “I’m landing me a big Arkansas man,” — all give poignant glimpses of daily life, love and struggle.

From the start, Hanley zeroed in on cards from the 1800s through about the 1960s, featuring scenes of all manner of things Arkansan, including houses of worship. The collection includes a number of cards featuring Catholic churches, most of them long gone wooden structures but some, like Little Rock’s St. Edward Church and the Cathedral of St. Andrew, appear almost exactly as they are today.

“With churches, some postcards pictured the outside while some showed the inside,” Hanley said.

As always, there’s a story behind the image. Pondering a postcard picturing an early St. John the Baptist Church in Brinkley, Hanley said, “In 1909, a tornado came through town and destroyed every church but the Catholic church. It quickly became the town morgue.”

In packaging images with these tantalizing historical bits, Hanley and his brother Steven have found a wide and enthusiastic audience. In 1986 the column, “Arkansas Postcard Past” debuted in the Arkansas Gazette and has been in print ever since. From there, it didn’t seem like a big leap to publishing books drawing from the collection; at least until Ray wrote a grant proposal to get the first project off the ground.

“I got back this snotty letter saying I was a career bureaucrat who didn’t have any credentials as a historian,” he recalled. “It made me mad and made me want to figure out how to do this on our own.”

To date, the brothers have published 16 books, each telling the story of a different corner of the Natural State, with a particular affection for scenes from Main Street. Several books focusing on individual communities or counties benefit local historical societies, such as the one done for the Hanleys’ hometown of Malvern.

As with all things collectible, most postcards today are in the hands of dealers looking to make a profit. Not so the brothers Hanley; their postcards aren’t for sale, although they frequently lend them out for educational projects. And while finding shoeboxes full of cards on garage sales happens only occasionally, the collection continues to grow, albeit slower than it used to. With two more books in the works, there’s plenty of stories left to tell.

“I’ve always been interested in history,” Ray Hanley said. “It’s interesting to me to see how in 100 years, human nature hasn’t changed all that much.”

Dwain Hebda

You can see Dwain Hebda’s byline in Arkansas Catholic and dozens of other online and print publications. He attends Our Lady of the Holy Souls Church in Little Rock.

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