Black women, my grandmother and their hats
  • A congregation of women’s fancy hats
  • Who sends postcards anymore
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    Auction Finds

    Postcards of black women with hats

    In the auction catalog, the description of the postcards sounded a lot like “Crowns,” a book of photographs about black women and their love affair with hats:

    “Group of 275 real photo post cards of African American women, indoors, outdoors, portraits, etc. … Includes a sub-group of seventy-five photos of women in hats.”

    The postcards were from 1900 to 1930 and had been in a private collection. I obviously was intrigued, had to see them and wanted them. I thought they, too, would make a lovely book. (Click on photo below for a full view.)

    Real Photo Postcard of African American woman in hat, sold at auction.

    They were being sold not at one of my mom-and-pop auction houses but at a sale of African Americana manuscripts by a major New York auction house. They were expected to sell for $800 to $1,200. I knew the chances of my getting them were nil, but, boy, would I have loved to have that collection.

    I previewed the postcards before the actual sale, and saw that they were about more than just the hats. They were about the look: The women were dressed to the nines, and the hats topped off their outfits like a cherry on a sundae. The photos were just as amazing as the modern-day “Crowns,” published in 2000.

    Who were these women and where did the postcards originally come from? They were obviously from different families because there was no familial likenesses among them. Did someone collect them from antique and junk shops, or rescued them from auction houses or trash over the years? I’d love to know.

    These types of postcards – made from real photos and called RPPC, or real photo postcards in the industry – were a hit in this country in the early 20th century. Bands of photographers combed the country snapping photos of people, buildings and sites, or families took their own photos with the then-new Kodak folding cameras, according to one website on the history of RPPC’s. African American photographers took similar photos in their own studios. One site suggested that families use these postcards to trace their genealogical roots.

    I’m always delighted to find them bearing the faces of African Americans. From the images perpetrated on commercial postcards from that time, we all were ragged, had red lips and ate watermelons.

    Real Photo Postcard of African American woman in hat, sold at auction.

    These photos were ones done by us to show us in all our diversity, class and at our finest. This was what we were about, and like people in any culture, we found our own ways to distinguish ourselves from the negative portrayals.

    Two months ago at auction, I came across another group of real photo postcards of white women in fashionable clothing and hats. That, too, was a lovely group of 80 cards in notebooks, with the women posed in studios, outside their homes and in gardens. They sold for $80.

    This current batch, though, sent my heart aflutter because these were images of people who looked like me, staring into the camera, just as proud as they could be. Some of the postcards were a bit faded, but most were in good condition inside their plastic sleeves (an indication that the previous owner had valued them). Those I find at the auction houses I go to were usually kept in shoe boxes or dank basements.

    Real Photo Postcard of African American woman in hat, sold at auction.

    Only a handful these postcards had messages on the back; most had never been mailed. One card had the year 1920. One with an inscription had the photographer’s imprinted name: C.E. Kerfoot, Washington, D.C. Maybe these were women from the Washington area. I Googled Kerfoot and found his name attached to postcards for both African Americans and whites, all apparently posed in his studio on Pennsylvania Avenue.

    When the photos came up for auction, the bidding started at $1,000, and the collection sold for $4,000 – way above the estimate and my pocketbook.

    Here’s a sampling of the postcards. Click on the first photo to get started.

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