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Passion for Postcards Goes Digital

For most of us, postcards are simply reminders of vacations we've taken and places we've seen. But for others, postcards are glimpses into the past and true collector's items. Now one Carol Stream man is taking his passion for Chicago-themed postcards online.

Neil Gale is clearly getting a kick as he flips through a long box filled to the brim with postcards of Chicago.

ambi: sounds of cards flipping

GALE: Oh, look what I found, I found a card that is worth a mint. It's New Northwestern Rail Depot. It's dated from 1909. But there's a misspelling on this one. Chicago is spelled C-H-I-V-A-G-O, and I haven't seen another one like it. So it's very cool.

A few months ago, Gale decided he should do more with his postcards than just tuck them away in acid-free boxes. So last November the web designer by trade took his collection into the digital age. He launched the virtual Chicago Postcard Museum, a Web site complete with special exhibits, themed rooms and informational tidbits on the history of postcards.

GALE: You know, me having 2500 cards is a little selfish in a way that nobody of my friends cares to see them and my wife's tired of listening to me about them. And I wanted to share them with people it would be of interest to.

Gale spends more than 20 hours a week scanning and posting the images of both sides of his postcards. That doesn't include the time he spends on Ebay and at fairs searching for new additions.

He's been collecting since he was seven, and he looks for unique Chicago images from the early 1900s, those depicting other locations than just the Michigan Avenue and Sears Tower shots of today's postcards. But Gale says the messages written on the back of cards, many times by visitors to the city, are often the most interesting part.

GALE: I do have one card from the gangster days and written on the card says something about, "I was in a restaurant and the restaurant was shot up and I'm coming straight home." So I thought, "Wow, that was, you know, a real piece of history right there."

Postcards were first sold commercially in the U.S. at the 1893 Columbian Exposition. Later, the Chicago-based Curt Teich and Company would produce the most postcards in the world during the 1920s, 30s and 40s. Today the Curt Teich Postcard Archives is located in the northwestern suburb of Wauconda. It's considered one of the largest public collections of postcards in the world.

Chicago's also long been home to collectors. The Windy City Postcard Club started in 1948 and is now celebrating its 60th year. Club treasurer Gene Palys of LaGrange has been a member for almost 30 years.

PALYS: I tried getting the grandchildren started in postcards, I gave them for birthdays and things like this. That didn't stir them, so the young people are not into it. It didn't rub off on the old chip off the block.

Palys says membership has declined so much that the Club no longer has formal meetings. Now the Club focuses on organizing its postcard auctions and shows, like an upcoming one in Countryside this March.

Like the collectors' fair, the online Museum has helped bring together postcard enthusiasts, known as deltiologists. In fact, Washington resident Gregg Durham recently contacted Museum curator Neil Gale. Durham had visited the Web site and donated a few cards Gale was missing from a series featured there.

DURHAM: It's kind of an obscure hobby and it's like, you know, I'm glad someone asked, it's kinda like that, and to find someone that has the same interest you do.

Back in his local library, Neil Gale is appreciating the craftsmanship in some of the oldest pieces of his collection.

GALE: These cards are from the 1893 World's Fair. All hand done lithography on the front. It's quite a card. The images are just absolutely awesome, and you get lost looking through these cards.

Gale hopes other will think the same thing when they visit his virtual Museum. And maybe that way, he can recruit more people to his beloved hobby.

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