"Wish You Were Here": Postcards from the Collection By Collection Manager Hilary Fleck and Voluteer Rod Spaw


Postcards give us a unique glimpse into life gone by. Whether a love note, travel souvenir, business advertisement, or well wishes, postcards have been for used for over a century to connect people.

The Monroe County History Center in Bloomington, Indiana, has an extensive collection of nearly 3,000 postcards. These snippets of history invite us into personal relationships and illustrate scenes, structures, and events that a community values. Postcards often depict what is special about an individual community and the character of its people. The postcard collection at the History Center contains many beautiful insights into Monroe County's past, and we share just a few of them with you in this online collection. As you scroll through the collection, volunteer Rod Spaw shares his knowledge about the various types of postcards as well as his favorite topics.

Types of Postcards

The type of postcard you have can help you identify the date range of when it was created, whether or not the postcard was mailed and has a postmark with a date.

Post Card Period


Monroe County Court House, ca. 1900

This card depicts Monroe County’s second courthouse as it appeared near the turn of the 20th century. Two details of the reverse side identify it as being from an early period of mailing cards. One is the use of the words “Post Card,” which was not permitted on non-government printed cards prior to 1901, and the other is the absence of a dedicated message area. It wasn’t until 1907 that postal regulations allowed messages to be written to the left of an address and postage.

Divided Back Postcard Era


Reverse of Monroe County Courthouse postcard, 1909.

German printers dominated the post card market prior to World War I with superior lithographic technology that produced sharp, vibrant colors, as evident in this view of the third Monroe County Courthouse. It is postmarked 1909, the year after construction was completed. Separate areas on the rear of the card for message and address led to this era being known as the Divided Back Period.

White Border Period


Monroe County Courthouse, ca. 1920. Note the railing to which

The quality of postcard images declined noticeably after the start of World War I, and American printers also saved ink by not printing all the way to the edge, hence the name “White Border” for this era of cards. Borders also could be used to identify the image, such as this view of the courthouse, which was postmarked Aug. 24, 1928.

Linen Period


Monroe County Courthouse, ca. 1930

Printers in the 1930s produced cards with higher rag content, giving them the appearance of linen. New technology also produced brighter colors than in the previous period. Many cards retained the white border, but some were printed to the edge, such as this view of the courthouse. Note the Graham Hotel building seen to the left the courthouse; it was constructed in 1929.

Photochrom Period

Monroe County Courthouse, ca. 1960

The most common type of postcard today is the photochrom, so named because the images look much like photographs and are usually in color. The first photochrom postcards were published in 1939, but it wasn’t until after World War II that they began to dominate the market.

Highlights from the Collection

Lake Monroe and Lake Lemon

Both Lake Lemon and Lake Monroe were built to serve as drinking water reservoirs for Bloomington's expanding population in the mid-20th century.

Lake Lemon is located 10 miles northeast of Bloomington. It was created in 1953 and covers 1,650 acres. It was Bloomington's primary water supply before the construction of Lake Monroe in the 1960s. Lake Lemon remains a popular area for outdoor recreation. It is maintained by a conservancy district of property owners surrounding the lake. Lake Lemon also is home to the Indiana University rowing teams.

Lake Monroe was built as a flood control project by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, covering 10,750 acres east of Bloomington in Monroe and Brown counties. Construction began in 1960 and finished in 1965. Besides providing additional areas for boating and fishing, among other recreational activities, the lake now is the primary source of drinking water for Bloomington.

"Shawnee Bluffs, the Indiana University Alumni Association family camp, was built in 1982 on the shores of Lake Monroe, Indiana's largest inland body of water, with 164 acres of mature forest and 3 miles of shoreline, offers a perfect setting for a family adventure or an educational conference retreat."
"Lake Lemon, Water Skiing, boating and fishing are enjoyed at this large recreational area near Nashville and Bloomington, Indiana."
"Lake Lemon, Miles of Recreational, boating, and fishing areas near Nashville and Bloomington, Indiana."
Lake Lemon is a popular area for "day sailing" on small, 1- or 2-person sailboats. Besides a boat launching area and swimming beach, Lake Lemon also has a marina to serve boaters.
Lake Lemon was named for Thomas Lemon, the mayor of Bloomington who championed its creation. It briefly was called Beanblossom Lake, which caused confusion with another lake of that name in the nearby Morgan Monroe State Forest.
"The Operating Tower at Lake Monroe Dam. It is off Indiana Highway 37 about 10 miles south of Bloomington. Here the outlet flow is regulated to reduce flood downstream."

Limestone Quarries

The limestone quarries are what built Monroe County. The first quarry was opened by Richard Gilbert in Stinesville in 1827, before even the railroad arrived in Monroe County. These postcards from the collection illustrate how limestone was quarried and carved to adorn buildings across the country. Indiana limestone was used to construct the Empire State Building in New York City, the Pentagon in Arlington, VA., the National Cathedral and the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C. Although there are only ten active quarries in Monroe County today, limestone continues to be part of our local heritage. Click on the postcards below for historical views of quarrying in Monroe County.

McMillan's Stone Mill, Bloomington, Indiana

Theodore Dreiser Visits Bloomington

Author Theodore Dreiser attracted little attention in Bloomington when he visited on Aug. 26, 1915. The writer of Sister Carrie and other novels was on an autobiographical tour of Indiana, which he would turn the next year into his book A Hoosier Holiday.

Dreiser had spent the 1889-90 academic year at Indiana University as a freshman, but he had not seen the town since. Dreiser visited places where he had boarded during his brief college career, ate lunch and walked the campus. He would do one other before leaving Bloomington that day; he would buy postcards.

It was something the author did everywhere he went. As he explained in A Hoosier Holiday, “Walk into any drug or bookstore of any up-to-date small town today, and you will find in a trice nearly every scene of importance and really learn the character and charms of the vicinity … The picture cards told all, in a group, of what there was to see.”

Thanks to the Dreiser Collection at the University of Pennsylvania, we know what he thought there was to see in Bloomington. Copies of several of the mass-produced postcards Dreiser purchased here can be found in the Monroe History Center’s collection.

Many of the postcards he picked up in Bloomington concerned Indiana University. Among them were views of Owen and Wylie halls, in which Dreiser likely had attended classes during his days as a student, as well as buildings constructed after he left, such as the Biology Hall and Student Building. Other Bloomington cards depicted buildings such as the Church of Christ and the Bowles Hotel.

Biology Hall, Indiana University
Owen Hall, Indiana University
Bowles Hotel, Bloomington
Student Building, Indiana University
Church of Christ, Bloomington

Monon Railroad

The Chicago, Indianapolis & Louisville Railroad, also known as the "Monon," opened its 300-mile long route from Lake Michigan to the Ohio River in 1853 and carried passengers and cargo across the state. The Monon was essential to the development of Monroe County because of the limestone industry. The railway connected the quarries of Ellettsville, Bloomington, Stinesville, Clear Creek, and Harrodsburg to the larger cities of the Country. The Monon was also vital to the development of Indiana University as a leading center for higher education in the state. For over a century, the Monon carried students to and from Bloomington and many postcards were sent by students to their parents back home.

Miscellaneous Subjects

The collection has many picture postcards that depict scenes of everyday life in Bloomington throughout its history.

Top Left: The remains of First Christian Church after a fire on New Year's Eve, 1917; Top Right: Two motorists posing for a photograph "crashing" into the 1910 Center of Population Marker, then located outside the Showers Brothers Furniture Factory, ca.1910; Bottom Left: A advertisement postcard from the Brownstown Poultry Farm to Mr. C. Haynes, of Bloomington, 1922; Exterior of Whetsell's Shoe Store, located at 107 W. Kirkwood Ave, ca. 1910.