Postcards offer a different view of Hamtramck’s past

By Greg Kowalski

“Having a wonderful time, wish you were here.”

That’s the cliché that is most associated with postcards. It probably was written on some because there isn’t much room on a typical postcard to put in much more. Still, postcards have proven to be a popular form of communication for more than a century.

But they are more than that. They can be valuable pictures into the past, carrying more information than they ever intended. That’s good news for local historians who are known to pore over the smallest photo with the biggest magnifying glass looking for minute details.

Cheap postcards can be priceless for the stories they meant or didn’t mean to tell. The Hamtramck Historical Commission has a modest collection of Hamtramck postcards. It’s “modest” because not many postcards of Hamtramck were made.

Here’s why:

Postcards (which incidentally are different from postalcards. You have to put a stamp on a postcard; postalcards come prestamped by the U.S.Postal Service) were first developed in the late19th century as a cheap, easy alternative to sending letters.

With the growing popularity of photography, it didn’t take long for picture postcards to be printed. Itinerate photographers roamed the country shooting pictures of cities and towns, which they converted into postcards and sold to the local population.

Hamtramck was a bit different, however. We know that a particular photographer named J.H. Cave passed through here in about 1913. His postcards were distinctive because of his writing style that is seen with his labeling of the scenes depicted on the cards. At that time Hamtramck was at the beginning of its massive growth spurt prompted by the opening of the Dodge Main factory. Thousands of immigrants flooded into Hamtramck to work in the factory. Most were Polish and poor. Many didn’t even speak English or couldn’t write. They had little use for postcards.

So, few postcards of early Hamtramck were produced. But there were some.

An early card shows Dodge Main shortly after it opened in 1910. An even more intriguing shot by Cave is labeled “M.C. Roundhouse,” and shows a large water tower, a low brick building and piles of rail ties. “M.C.”certainly refers to “Michigan Central” — the rail line, which runs across southern Hamtramck. So we are able to roughly place the scene.

Another early postcard depicts the first St. Florian Church and School building. It poses a mystery, however, since the building depicted only partially resembles the building there today. It has been remodeled over the years but exactly how is unclear.

An even more mysterious card is the color postcard that dates at least to
1926 depicting “Davison School, Hamtramck, Mich.” But Davison School is in Detroit. It still stands on Jos. Campau near Davison, but it looks nothing like the building on the postcard.

Postcards span a spectrum of subjects. A number were done to promote popular bars, like The Nut House and The House of Rau. Businesses, like Margolis Furniture and Liberty State Bank, have been depicted on post cards over the years. Great events, like Pope John Paul II’s visit to Hamtramck also have been the subjects of postcards.

Each is a unique picture of Hamtramck’s past.

Recently the Hamtramck Historical Commission presented a slide program on Hamtramck postcards at the Hamtramck Public Library. If interest is shown, that program may be repeated.

(Contact Greg Kowalski, chairman of the Commission at

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