At a time when most people send notes via email, text or tweet, Steve Howell delivers greetings, well wishes and updates the old fashioned way.
“I send out about 1,500 to 2,000 postcards a year,” Howell said.
He sends two or three postcards a week to a buddy with cancer. During a recent trip along Route 66, he sent 130 postcards to his grandkids. And when The Tribune published a fetcher seeking interesting collectors last January, he promptly replied with two postcards, each depicting 1950s Cambria and featuring Howell’s neat, tiny handwriting.
“Now this hobby of mine has grabbed me like a monster,” he said from his Morro Bay home. “Everything has got to be in postcard form, my madness has taken over so much.”
While “snail mail” correspondence has taken a back seat to more technically advanced forms of written communication, you can still readily find new postcards, particularly in a popular tourist area like San Luis Obispo County. But people don’t send postcards like they used to, said Lew Baer, a collector who edits the newsletter for the San Francisco Bay Area Postcard Club, of which Howell is a member.
“When picture postcards were first developed in the 1890s, there was an enormous surge of interest in them,” Baer said, noting that, for postcards, “1898 to 1915 is what generally is thought of as the Golden Age.”
Most people who send postcards merely want to brag about places they’ve visited. So a typical postcard will feature a photo of the place they’ve visited on the front, along with a short message on the back.
When Howell first sent postcards, he was in the Navy during the Vietnam war, and he would send cards from places he visited during his leave — like Japan, Hong Kong and the Philippines.
“When I wasn’t gathering tattoos, I was gathering postcards,” he said.
After the Navy, though, the Fresno native didn’t travel much, so he stopped buying postcards. Then, about 25 years ago, he was reunited with some of the cards he’d sent during his time on an aircraft carrier.
When the original recipients died, their children sent the cards back to Howell.
“That’s how I got started,” the 64-year-old Howell said. “A buddy of mine, whose parents died, said, ‘I found a bunch of postcards you sent in the ’60s.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll take ’em back.’”
Since then Howell has been on a quest. Not only to collect postcards — he has more than 800,000 — but also to circulate thousands through the mail.
“Steve is an unusual type because he really sends postcards,” Baer said.
There are two types of collectors, Baer said: those who collect cards for the images and those who collect used cards, with messages written on the backs.
Howell has both.
As he shows off a few of the cards — many more are stored at another residence in Fresno — Howell spreads his postcards on a table, the colors of the cards blend ing in with his colorful postcard-themed shirt and the flame tattoos along his arms. Those tattoos cover scars he received while working as a painter with flammable lacquer.
“Painting almost killed me once,” Howell said. “I got burned real bad.”
Now retired, Howell has more time to dedicate to his hobby.
Specializing in cards from the Central Coast and Central Valley, many of Howell’s cards feature familiar sites, like the Madonna Inn, downtown San Miguel or Pismo Beach (“The world’s longest and safest beach”).
Some of the used cards have simple messages on the back, like “We are all well and hope you are the same” and “We are now in Yosemite Park. Will sleep in a tent tonight.” But others are more interesting.
A card sent in 1966 by a woman visiting Cayucos relates how she spent two days learning how to surf, only to suffer an accident in the water. “I had a ball until I stepped on a sharp something out in the ocean,” she wrote, adding that she wound up getting eight stitches in her foot — “and I can’t go in the water any more.”
A card from 1909 shows a painting of a somewhat different looking Port San Luis, with a description that spells Pismo Beach with a “z:” “Port Hartford near San Luis Obispo, Pizmo Beach in distance.” On the back is a neatly written message to “Little Emma Meisner” that begins: “My darling baby ... I hope you are a very good little girl and mind grandma always.” Then the sender — the little girl’s mother — promises to come home with a present.
“I’ve got some from the late 1800s,” Howell said. “A lot of them are from the first decade of the century.”
Howell finds cards in a variety of places.
“I go to yard sales, estate sales, moving sales, garage sales — all kinds of sales,” he said.
At the sales, he hands people a card, which states, “Wanted — used, unused postcards.”
One time he posted an ad seeking postcards and got a call from a woman in Bass Lake who had 35,000.
“I made three trips out there to buy all of her collection,” Howell said.
Howell’s pursuit of the postcard hasn’t fazed his wife, Patty, who has a small collection of her own postcards.
“It was a bit overwhelming at times,” she said. “But I can appreciate it now. Everyone enjoys getting a card. And when he writes, it’s always to the person. Everybody gets something really special.”
Howell tries to personalize the cards and the vintage stamps he uses to match each recipient.
His favorite cards feature small towns, particularly those along Route 66.
Used cards from Route 66 can be especially interesting, he said.
“If you get that one period— the big exodus, where people were leaving Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas during the Dust Bowl — it was all they could do to buy a postcard and buy a penny stamp,” he said. “There’s some hard luck stories there.”