Miami History, As Told by Vintage Postcards
By Jon Warech
A postcard of the still-new Deauville Miami Beach Resort Hotel, built in 1957, celebrates midcentury America’s vision of the perfect getaway
There are days in Miami when the weather is too humid, the streets too crowded, and that car in front of you stops at that thing that’s not a real stop sign unless someone is in the crosswalk. There are nights when the clubs are too packed, and moments when your car gets towed because the public lot you parked in is actually private.
Miami is not perfect, unless of course you are looking at it through a collection of postcards.
In 1896, Henry Flagler's train tracks made their way down south and Miami was officially incorporated as a city. Two years later, the postcard hit the mainstream when Congress passed the Private Mailing Card Act of 1898, allowing for private publishers (postcards had previously been printed and pre-stamped by the government only) and inadvertently creating a lifelong marriage between Miami and the postcard.
Those days weren’t perfect, either. There was a devastating freeze that wiped out crops to the north, a fire that ruined much of the rising Miami business district, and a pesky yellow fever that left locals feeling blue. But Flagler saw sunlight at the end of the tunnel, and used postcards to tell the world of the paradise he was helping to create.
“Greetings from Miami”
“You can trace Miami from its infancy in postcards,” says Patricia Kennedy, author of Miami in Vintage Postcards. “The earliest street scenes, the first post office, the people going across to Miami Beach even before Miami Beach was incorporated—you can trace Miami’s history from almost the very beginning. It’s wonderful.” In recent years, the scenes have shifted to everything from beautiful seascapes to wild club nights to sexy and sandy bikini bottoms, but one thing remains true: The Miami postcard, when stamped and sent, can send jealousy coursing through the veins of any recipient.
Over time, what made Miami beautiful changed, and thus postcards changed with it. From early photos of Native Americans to the Miami River to fruits and endless amounts of sunshine, Miami was postcard heaven. This came at a time, around the turn of the last century, when some 700 million postcards were sent through the US mail, so when Flagler’s Royal Palm Hotel went up on the Miami River in 1897, he knew the postcard would sell the city as well as the resort.
“Miami was always promoted from the beginning as a tourist destination in terms of selecting views the photographer thought might be of interest to the recipient of the card,” says avid postcard collector Robert S. Carr, the executive director of the Archaeological and Historical Conservancy in South Florida.
A golden age of postcards followed up until World War I, including the popular alligator-border cards, sepia-toned sets of the Florida railways, and gorgeous hand-painted postcards showing off the rise of Miami Beach from a tropical getaway with a handful of bathing (not gambling) casinos to a booming city with an actual hotel—the Browns Hotel, built in 1915, that is currently the home to Prime One Twelve. At the time, businesses like the Ocean Beach development company were promoting everything from sun to surf to show the potential of the city. If you lived anywhere else, you couldn’t help but want to visit after seeing these images.
Vintage image of the Liberty Hotel circa 1940s
“People would come over to Miami Beach from Miami by ferry boat, walk across the dirt trail to the casino, rent a locker, rent a woolen bathing suit, and then they could go to the snack bar or the saltwater pool, or they could go in the ocean,” says Seth Bramson, author of 22 books mostly centered on the people and history of South Florida and owner of the largest private Miami memorabilia collection. “The great likelihood is that the Ocean Beach Company was sending these images out to people to get them interested in coming to what is now Miami Beach.” All of this in an era before sunscreen and flip-flops were even invented. But hey, at least Joe Weiss was already serving up fish sandwiches by 1913 at his lunch counter, better known today as Joe’s Stone Crab.
Miami and Miami Beach had so much to offer visually that the postcards continued to fly off the shelf. Carl Fisher, often referred to as the “father of Miami Beach,” led the charge promoting the city to the world, even bringing in elephants to help with construction as sort of an early publicity stunt that would set the tone for the Miami Beach flash and pomp of today.
“They were brought in as much for a tourist attraction as to actually help with construction,” Bramson says. “And they did help with construction by schlepping telephone poles and carrying heavy material."
The Depression Era cast Miami as a ray of sunshine in an otherwise dire economic time for the nation. Pan Am opened a hub for its sea planes at Dinner Key and provided breathtaking views of the Clippers, captured marvelously in postcards, and Art Deco-style buildings began going up in Miami Beach, filling tourists with hope for brighter days. A new kind of postcard, formed with linen, made its way to the forefront, and what it lacked in crisp, clear imagery, it made up for in an artistic style that fit the Art Deco movement. People fortunate enough to make it to Miami used these cards to write home and speak of the paradise down south; “Wish you were here” was more like “You wish you were here.” The postcard was the original “selfie,” a pre-Instagram way of branding your awesome life.
An early picture postcard of the Florida East Coast railway
“You get the feeling that they never dreamt there was a place like this that they could go to in the United States,” says Iris Garnett Chase, the director of retail operations at Miami Design Preservation League. “So when you read some of them, you can tell it was very glamorous to them to come here and see palm trees and to get a tan. It was the combination of coming to year-round summer with extra-beautiful buildings and entertainment.”
While Chase and the rest of the MDPL team enjoy the words on the backs of their postcard collection, their goal is to preserve the stunning buildings featured on those classic cards.
“What’s most beautiful about Miami is that parts of it still look like Miami always looked during the Art Deco era,” Chase says. “That’s what we save here. The colors are still beautiful. The natural resources are what make Miami a beautiful place to keep all the historical buildings.”
Other cities in the Miami area have taken a different approach to the battle of development versus preservation, allowing the postcard to serve as more of a history lesson. Sarasota-based writer Liz Coursen started her postcard collection 30 years ago, but this summer when she taught a program at various Miami-Dade public libraries entitled “Having Fun, Wish You Were Here!: An Illustrated History of the Postcard in Florida,” she set foot for the first time in some of the cities depicted on her cards.
Postcard of the Billows Hotel on Collins, postmarked 1950
“One of the places I lectured this summer was Sunny Isles, and I had some postcard material from the ’50s, so you can imagine how shocked I was when I began to go north on A1A,” Coursen says of the city that has seen high-rises built where classic motels once stood. “I didn’t necessarily think it was going to be like it was in the ’50s, but I was frankly unprepared for what I saw. I was totally shocked.”
Back in the 1930s, when Art Deco fans were flocking to Miami, those visitors might have been shocked from time to time as well, since the linen card allowed for a great deal of airbrushing in the scenic shots.
“There was a lot of image manipulation,” says Coursen. “For instance, you might have a hotel on Miami Beach and they had the postcard publisher erase the hotel next door, so when you actually got there, you were like, ‘Wow, there’s a hotel right next to this big hotel.’” Ocean Drive hotels like the Breakwater would not only appear as if directly on the sand instead of separated by a paved road, but also surrounded by palm trees and lush, green pasture.
Miami was certainly worth writing home about during World War II, when soldiers—including the likes of Clark Gable—took over many of the hotels in Miami Beach and areas of North Miami and Opa-Locka, providing incredible postcard images. Miami was exotic to any wide-eyed kid from Kansas, and postcards allowed them to show their families that they were more than okay being stationed here.
“The Army and Air Force took over Miami Beach; however, the Coast Guard and Navy took over Miami, and most people forget about that completely,” says Bramson. “The boys and the women were buying postcards and writing on them, ‘It’s December here in Miami Beach and it’s 79 degrees,’ which stunned their families back home.”
Pre-Miami Vice pink flamingos and blue peacocks, from 1947
Of course when the war was over, many soldiers moved their families to Miami (who can blame them?), leading to a housing boom in places like North Miami and North Miami Beach, while many more returned to Miami Beach in the 1950s and ’60s, prompting the rise of great hotels like the Fontainebleau, the Eden Roc, and the Deauville. Postcards were sent, and Miami Beach developed into the resort capital that it is today. Fifty years before “#miami” was trending, word of our town’s glories was being spread in cursive handwriting.
“In the ’50s and ’60s especially, postcards with beautiful images of the Fontainebleau played a significant role in showcasing the hotel and Miami Beach to the world,” says Joseph Gerbino, the director of public relations at the hotel. “Postcards are not only a great keepsake but also a fantastic grassroots-marketing tool, and they can tell the social history of the resort.”
It was during that mid-century era that the postcard redefined itself with a glossy chrome style that captured the greatness of the hotels as well as the beauty of those frolicking on the beaches behind them.
“It was the beginning of real pinup cards associating young, good-looking women with Miami—like Bettie Page, who was on a lot of the early Miami cards,” says Carr, the archeologist by day and postcard lover by night. “Bunny Yaeger was a key photographer who was promoting these risqué Miami postcards. That addition probably had a big effect on visitors, who would associate these women to a place like Miami.” From there, it was off to the races. Cards of the ’70s and ’80s showed off string bikinis and a Miami Vice-ish attitude that was less family friendly and more fun in the sun, and likely had Bettie Page detractors rolling over in their graves. They were the kinds of postcards you hid from your parents and cruelly sent your friend who spent winter break in Indiana.
The heady mix of beautiful people and beautiful beaches expanded in the following decades, and as the city grew larger, the postcard grew with it in order to truly capture Miami’s magnificence. Lincoln Road morphed into the mall we know today, and Brickell and downtown developed an iconic skyline. After all these years, even in an age where mailing a letter seems archaic, the postcard lives on at places like the MDPL gift shop, where they sell around 100 a day, and in Bleau Signature, the Fontainebleau shop, which offers five different postcard styles featuring the historic resort.
“It is the same as it was when the Ocean Beach Company was publishing its postcards—sun, sand, surf, and beautiful people,” says Bramson. “We’re still showing the same scenes but updated. We’re showing beautiful people with skimpy attire. We’re showing people walking on Miami Beach in the dead of winter, and we’re sending those postcards back, and we’re still writing on them, ‘It’s 76 degrees here in Miami Beach and I’m just out of the ocean.’”
People are still in love with Miami, both the elevated notion and the reality, and even on the days when the air is humid and the traffic is terrible, you can look at a postcard to remind you of what has made this city great for more than 100 years, and you can write your friends and tell them that you wish they were here. And as always, they’ll wish they were, too.
To view historic postcard collections, visit HistoryMiami, 101 W. Flagler St., Miami, or University of Miami’s digital collection at merrick.library.miami.edu/
PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY OF SPECIAL COLLECTIONS, UNIVERSITY OF MIAMI LIBRARIES, CORAL GABLES, FL (deauville, railway, liberty; curt teich archives/getty images (greetings); lake county (il) discovery museum, curt teich postcard archives (billows hotel, flamingos)