Local author tells area history through postcards of the early 20th century

Elephants marched through town right past the Point of Rocks. It's not a sight you'd see today, but at the beginning of the 20th century, when the circus was in town, it happened. Still, this image can be seen today, thanks to a postcard depictin...

Elephants marched through town right past the Point of Rocks.

It's not a sight you'd see today, but at the beginning of the 20th century, when the circus was in town, it happened.

Still, this image can be seen today, thanks to a postcard depicting the march that was released in 1908.

The postcard and many others can be found in Tony Dierckins postcard book, "Zenith: A Postcard Perspective of Historic Duluth," which will be released at a reception from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday at Barnes & Noble, 1600 Miller Trunk Highway.

The book combines historic postcards with descriptions of the places and events they portray. {IMG2}


The postcards focus on the early days of Duluth's history up until about 1939. The earliest postcards were made from photos of Duluth taken in 1871 and made into postcards early in the 1900s.

The year 1939 was chosen as a stopping point since this was the year postcard production began to change from lithography (colorizing black and white photos) to photochrome, which looks just like a color photograph.

The year is also a turning point in Duluth history. In 1939, the incline railway was torn down, logging was finished, Enger Tower was built and different industries took shape, Dierckins said.

"There aren't really any color history books of Duluth," Dierckins said. "It presents a whole different perspective once you've seen it brought to life like that."

Many of the first postcards were colorized in Germany, where the lithographic process was best. Since the printers were far from the postcards' subject matters, they sometimes misinterpreted the colors of buildings. In two postcards in "Zenith," the Depot appears to be a red brick building. Others took liberty to make a postcard more exciting by adding a sunrise or sunset, sometimes even to a photo facing north or south.

Old history pictures are black and white, so most history books are black and white. It's nice to see these historic photos in color, said Mary Norton, Duluth historian, librarian and researcher for "Zenith."

Many aspects of Duluth history are not covered in the book because there were no postcards made of them, she said.

For example, there are no postcards of Glensheen or Fairlawn because they were private residences at the time, Dierckins said.


The book is divided into sections focusing on the waterfront, buildings, parks, events, Arrowhead industry, Superior and the north and south shore.

It's interesting to see what was made into postcards, Dierckins said.

Today, most of the postcards feature the canal, ships, nature or novelty, but in the past postcards covered a much broader span.

Business groups would print postcards to entice people to come to Duluth and start a business here, Dierckins said.

There are postcards of the mining process, commercial buildings, the incline railway and historic events, Dierckins said.

Early in the 20th century, people could make their own black and white postcards from photographs. So the book also contains postcards of the Mataafa storm, the 1906 wreck of the Interstate Bridge and the 1920 lynchings.

Postcards were used differently in the early 1900s then they are today. Then, many Duluth postcards were purchased by immigrants stopping in the city on their way further west or loggers working far from their families.

A lot of people coming through Ellis Island would take a boat across the Great Lakes and get off in Duluth. A postcard was a way of letting loved ones know you got that far, Dierckins said.


Dierckins did most of the layout before he wrote the book.

"I wanted the cards to be the main thing about this," he said.

Dierckins said he enjoyed working on the book because he learned something new each day.

"I thought I knew a lot about Duluth history before I started this project, but now I know how vast and rich it is," Dierckins said.

Dierckins has printed Duluth postcard images in the past in two volumes of "Greetings from Duluth." Both books feature tear out versions of historic postcards that can be used as modern postcards. The popularity of these books led Dierckins to publish "Zenith." A slip-cased hardcover version of "Zenith" will be available at the launch, online at or at XComm, 1604 W. Superior St., for a limited time.

Where do the postcards come from?

The book started with postcards. And just as Dierckins couldn't have done the book without postcards, he also couldn't have made it without postcard collectors.

Several local collectors contributed to the book with Jerry Paulson, Bob Swanfeld and Tom Kasper contributing the most cards.


Swanfeld, was attracted to postcards because of history.

Swanfeld collects postcards from all eras, of anything, all around the world.

His favorites are the postcards of his life. The ones sent by his family members or the ones that depict places he's visited or seen. He especially enjoys the postcards depicting buildings he's worked on or in, he said.

"I worked for an architectural firm, and we worked on a restoration of the Depot," he said. "And that started a real interest in history."

Swanfeld has a total of about 100,000 postcards. Many are from Duluth.

He's collected the cards over a number of years from private individuals, at auctions or antique stores or as gifts, he said.

Each postcard has a story.

The greatest postcard contributor to "Zenith" was Jerry Paulson, who has more than 600 postcards, all of Duluth.


What Paulson enjoys most about his collection is sharing the images with others. About 600 of his postcards are available to view online at .

Anyone interested in beginning a collection of their own may find local postcards for sale on e-bay.

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