Nostalgia IS What It Used To Be

PostMark Press is a treasure trove of stock vintage imagery, that runs into the thousands and thousands of carefully selected images – many categorized and digitized. From “Family” to “Suburbia,” one can take a time warp trip down Nostalgia Street; to a time when men in hats came home at 6pm to a chilled martini, and kids never even knew what a “seat belt” was.

Boston's notorious Scollay Square, c 1910.  Scollay Square was demolished in 1962, as part of Boston's  "Urban Renewal" Program.
Boston’s notorious Scollay Square, c 1910. Scollay Square was demolished in 1962, as part of Boston’s “Urban Renewal” Program.

Kathy Alpert founded PostMark Press in 2001 as a manufacturer and wholesaler of greeting cards. In 2005, PostMark moved into licensing. Winner of the the prestigious 2008 LOUIE stationery awards sponsored by the Greeting Card Association, PostMark Press has gone on to establish a benchmark resource for licensees including Leanin’ Tree (greeting cards/magnets); Sellers Publishing (greeting cards/calendars/books); and a major grocery chain.

Can you remember at what point that your life-long passion for collecting ephemera gone from a hobby to a business?

Kathy Alpert: My “Eureka” moment came in May, 2001. While shopping in Harvard Square, I spotted a greeting card with a vintage image that resonated in a big way. I tracked down the designer, Ken Brown, who – like me – was an avid postcard collector. Ken told me he’d been using old postcards in his design work for years. The images were, he explained, in the public domain.

Once you had realized that, how did you develop your business plan?

Once I came up with the idea of launching a greeting card company, I created prototypes and tested the cards in a variety of retail settings. When I discovered they had flown off the shelves, I developed a business plan, hired an attorney, and in October of 2001, I founded PostMark Press. The company designed, manufactured and wholesaled a line of greeting cards with whimsical imagery and humor, inspired by my old postcards.  Each vintage postcard’s original handwritten message was printed on the back of the corresponding greeting card.  The line quickly grew from 24 to 300 SKUs. At the peak of our business, we had a 24-page color catalog and were in 500 retailers across the country. A few years later, I signed my first licensing deal with the greeting card company Leanin’ Tree and decided to wind down the manufacturing side of the business to focus on design and licensing.

Cover of the Retro Mama wall calendar, published by licensee Sellers Publishing of Portland, Maine.
Cover of the Retro Mama wall calendar, published by licensee Sellers Publishing of Portland, Maine.

How do you source images?

My images are drawn from my personal collection of thousands of postcards, magazine ads, photographs, and other ephemera dating [back] to the late 19th century.  To source images, I go to postcard and ephemera shows, antiquarian book fairs, and flea markets, including the Brimfield Fair.  Of course, great material can be found on line, but I prefer to acquire mine at events, where I can examine each piece to verify [if] it is an original. Plus, it’s fun and exciting to go to ephemera shows; being among my “tribe” gives me a shot of energy and inspiration!

Are there are any use issues or is it all public domain?

PD related issues are complicated. I can say that I steer clear of celebrities, corporate logos, and anything created by a famous artist or photographer or bearing a copyright notice. Perhaps most important is carefully considering the date and circumstances of the publication of the original image.

Are there any circumstances that you might refuse to license for, if you think a client’s caption might gets too raunchy or ironic, or is that all part of the fun?

My licensees are manufacturers of greeting cards and calendars. My ability to offer humorous copy along with an image gives me a unique selling proposition. Since my licensed products are marketed to the mainstream, humor can be sly, self-deprecating or even borderline racy. Drinking and shopping are popular themes. Sometimes the licensees write their own copy, and that’s cool. Since I’m selective about my licensing partners, I haven’t had to worry about crossing the line. That’s not to say I wouldn’t consider a controversial project with merit.

At my first Visual Connections event, I was excited to meet a whole new group of clients – among them, photo researchers, book designers, and authors. These clients are simply looking for images, which actually makes my life easier. I will be unveiling two new image collections at this year’s show.  Lost Boston includes vintage postcard views, colorful and quirky ads, photographs, maps, and rare Boston memorabilia, as well as a cache of material related to the history of the New Haven Railroad. Wild Women features remarkable female entertainers – both known and unknown – from the late 19th to early 20th century, including Sarah Bernhardt, Lillian Russell, and Evelyn Nesbit.

America's first supermodel, Evelyn Nesbit, c 1902.  The original Gibson Girl, Ms. Nesbit was once the mistress of famed architect Stanford White.  After they split, Evelyn married psychotic millionaire playboy Harry Thaw, who shot White dead in a jealous rage on the Rooftop of the old Madison Square Garden in 1906.
America’s first supermodel, Evelyn Nesbit, c 1902. The original Gibson Girl, Ms. Nesbit was once the mistress of famed architect Stanford White. After they split, Evelyn married psychotic millionaire playboy Harry Thaw, who shot White dead in a jealous rage on the Rooftop of the old Madison Square Garden in 1906.

What do you put down to the current massive increase in interest in memorabilia and nostalgia? Why are these images so resonant?

Suburbia was the center of the universe in the 50s, and many young people discovered this watching Mad Men.  Along with television, vintage postcards, photographs, and advertisements provide a rare glimpse into popular culture at mid-century. This imagery is especially appealing to Millennials, who find the trappings of the 50s lifestyle quirky and amusing. Meanwhile, older adults are often comforted by their memories from the “good old days.”

The media, including Antiques Roadshow, American Pickers, and a slew of online websites and blogs have contributed to the recent surge in interest for nostalgia. People of all ages now realize that repurposing and recycling will lead to a healthier planet. Consignment stores and vintage marketplaces have become go-to destinations for those seeking vintage jewelry, clothing, home furnishings, and just about everything imaginable. You can always buy a quality repro, but I think there’s a hunger for authentic items with ties to the past. You can’t buy those in a big box store…

An ad for Cat's Paw rubber heels from a 1916 theatre program.
An ad for Cat’s Paw rubber heels from a 1916 theatre program.

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