Mr. Postman, Look and See

The postcards showed Japanese generals, Siberian tundra and the King of Siam — the son of the monarch with whom Anna would dance in “The King and I.” Some were black-and-white photos, others were color drawings. Some had elaborate trim glued around the edges by hand, small embellishments added to the postcard by the writer. Most of the postcards were sent between 1904 and 1908. Many were posted at rail stations along the Trans-Siberian Railway, the network of railways that links Moscow with the Sea of Japan and runs nearly 6,000 miles.

I don’t normally get dewy-eyed when I think back on the world before the Web brought us together electronically and made things like grace notes, handwritten love letters and postcards all but obsolete. But I did the other day when I was visiting a college friend of mine in Ann Arbor, Mich. Dan Freidus shared those postcards with me and the experience left me a little wistful, in part because I was in the midst of a long bout of travel myself. The postcards were sent by a diplomat named Hunter Sharp to his family back home, in some cases written in the pen of a father jotting a brief note to his daughter.

Now I travel alone a lot, but I am in touch with my family all the time via e-mail, text messages and good old-fashioned cell phones. I could make video calls on my laptop via Skype. But a hundred years from now, there will be no record of my exchanges with my family, no paper trail of generals and monarchs and spectacular vistas of snow. Freidus, who has a Ph.D. in biology and advises roughly 700 students a year at the University of Michigan, came across the postcards while Dumpster-diving. He was living in Manhattan in the mid-1980s, a recent college graduate, and he passed a big green garbage machine filled with antique steamer trunks. And so he decided to investigate — just climb right in.

Most of the trunks were in bad shape, the locks broken open with a crowbar. One, however, was intact, and when he lifted the lid it was as if he had discovered a trunk from the first class deck of a luxury liner from the early part of the last century. Imagine a trunk that was supposed to have been hefted aboard the Titanic but was lost before loading and thus was spared a watery tomb. Inside was a pair of women’s white wedding shoes, clearly worn a few hours at most, and an elegant brown velvet gown that Freidus would sell to a vintage clothing store. (“They paid me $300 for it,” he recalls, “but they told me they would have paid $600 if it had been red. And this was $300 over 20 years ago.”) There was antique women’s lingerie. And there were all those postcards.

Today, a quarter-century later, he still has the postcards. Freidus clearly has the soul of a collector. He also collects coins, paper money, and newspapers from the 18th century. But the postcards meant something slightly different to him. “The postcards had fairly small monetary value, but I felt they had value as a cultural artifact,” he says. “The communication between Sharp and his wife and kids over a few years is a type of view of ordinary life that’s usually hidden. The fact that his daughter saved them says a bit more about her life. That the entire trunk was then discarded in the 1980s, almost 80 years after some were written, says yet more about our society and what we value.”

Someday he expects to give the postcards to our alma mater: “While it may not be a perfect home, I think in Amherst College’s Russian culture collection they may teach a future student or researcher something about either the U.S. or Russia in that era.”

And about parents and children. For that student or researcher, the postcards may offer a special window into that period. But they remind us all of something timeless. Even in 1906, a father would want to share with his daughter a story as magic as the tale of a Siamese king.

(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on March 15, 2009.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.