Postcard collecting craze began in 1890s

By Terry Maurer, What's It Worth?November 17, 2013 

An artist better known for Latin music than for his paintings plus a mailable salute to Turkey Day are the features of today's What's It Worth?

Q. We received this original Xavier Cugat painting from my mother-in-law. The wood and fabric frame -- which has some water staining -- is approximately 37 inches wide by 27 inches tall. The painting itself has great color and is in good condition. It shows a man sitting at a flower vendor table. It is signed X. Cugat on the bottom right. This picture has been in my father-in-law's family for approximately 50 years. We plan to keep the piece in the family, but would like to know more about it. Do you have any idea of the value, and a little history? -- Janet in Kennewick

A. Born in Spain in 1900, Xavier Cugat's family moved to Cuba when he was 5 years old. There he trained as a violinist and played with the national orchestra. In 1915, he moved to New York City.

Cugat was a superior musician who, after arriving in the United States, played violin solos in recitals with the great tenor Enrico Caruso.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s -- when sound came to the movies -- "Cugi" (as he was called) put together a tango band and cashed in on the Latin music craze. He appeared in a number of films in the '30s and '40s, starting with the Fred Astaire-Rita Hayworth movie You Were Never Lovelier.

His band spent 16 years as the house orchestra at New York's Waldorf Astoria Hotel. At the same time, he shuttled to Hollywood for films with the likes of Esther Williams, Red Skelton, Jane Powell and Basil Rathbone.

Not only a talented musician, Cugat was also an artist. At one point a cartoonist for the Los Angeles Times, his work was later nationally syndicated.

In 1957, he was the host of a short-lived TV show -- filling the 15 minutes following the nightly NBC newscast. His music remained popular well into the 1960s.

During the last decades of his life, Cugat turned more to his art and produced a great quantity of paintings very much like this example.

We have seen similar works sell at auction for anywhere from $100 to $400. Cugat died in Spain in 1990.

Q. You probably see these all the time, but we hadn't. In clearing a relative's estate, we came across a large group of postcards and some were for holidays -- like these two Thanksgiving cards. Neither of them have anything at all on the back. No writing or postage stamps. Are they of any value? -- John in Richland

A. Postcard collecting has been going on as a hobby for more than 100 years.

Today, we are most likely to purchase souvenir postcards while on vacation. A happy "wish you were here" greeting on a card showing sunny climes; that sort of thing.

Postcards were once a primary means of written communication. In my family, Grandma and Grandpa courted by sending one another postcards back at the turn of the 20th century.

Postcards were such a big deal then that, in 1913 alone, Americans purchased 968 million postcards. Many, but not all, were mailed. Some were bought to add to a collection.

The mania for postcards started in the 1890s and lasted more than two decades. These two Thanksgiving cards are from that time period.

England, America and especially Germany produced most of the cards. The collecting craze came to a screeching halt with the beginning of World War I.

The hobby was neglected until the 1960s, when people began finding stashes of old cards in albums and cigar boxes while going through the things left behind by departed relatives. As our reader John points out in his question, those discoveries are still going on today.

These old postcards cover every subject -- city street scenes, mining in the Yukon, aviation, California ostrich farms. You name it, there is a postcard -- probably more than one view too.

Today, vintage postcard values vary widely and prices are driven by topic, scarcity and condition. While it makes little difference if the card has been used, collectors look for perfect cards.

Each of these Thanksgiving examples would be valued at $5 to $10.

-- Terry Maurer, Tri-Cities personal property appraiser, is a member of the Certified Appraisers Guild of America. For possible use in a future column, direct questions on your antiques and collectibles to What's It Worth? by email to tchwhatsitworth@gmail.com.

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