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Spring Antique Section — The Altamont Enterprise, May 22, 2008

Drew: Deltiologist finds collecting postcards educational and therapeutic

By Tyler Schuling

ALBANY — We collect things. 

For some, collecting is a wanted challenge, a search for that one last item to complete a series that has taken time and patience to acquire.  Collecting may also be a means to stay connected to the past.  Some collectors spend large sums of money and others are frugal.

Robert Drew is a deltiologist — a postcard collector.  A retired chief administrative law judge for the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, he finds collecting is therapeutic and educational. 

Originally from Long Island, Drew has lived in Albany since the early 1960s.  He began collecting postcards when he was a boy, and, for the past 40 years, he’s been collecting more seriously. 

For his job, he traveled throughout the state, holding public hearings on major conservation projects, and, as he traveled, he collected many postcards from around the state.

“I was in a stressful job for many of my years, and it was really cheap therapy, I used to say, to go down on a Saturday afternoon after a bad week, sit quietly, look through a box of cards, buy $20 worth, come home, sort them out, and it takes my mind off of everything else,” Drew said.

As his collection of postcards, and also of books, grew, Drew built an extension to a room in his house three years ago.  Two closets are now filled with boxes of postcards from throughout the United States and almost every country in the world.  He estimated he now has about 200,000 postcards.  Ninety percent of them, he said, are worth less than $1.  The rest are worth between $1 and $5.

He’s always distinguished “between going out and looking for something” and becoming obsessed “where you have to get it or spend more money,” he said.  “In any collection, if you’re taking money away from your wife or family or house or other things just to collect more things, that’s a dangerous addiction then.” 

Over the years, he said, he’s kept his collecting within range. 

Recently, Drew completed six months of chemotherapy for colon cancer. 

“And personally,” he said, “recently, when I’ve been going through the chemotherapy, some days I’d be wiped out.  I said to my wife, ‘I just want to take out a box of postcards and escape in there.’”

Collecting postcards, as well as being therapeutic, has been educational.

“I learned a lot about places I never even knew existed in New York State until I started getting cards,” he said, like railroad stations that have long since closed or a mine that’s been ripped up. 

A knowledgeable collector

Postcards have been sold in the United States for decades.  They have been printed on many mediums — paper, aluminum, and wood — and their size and price have varied.

The number and kinds of cards is endless.

There are novelty cards, misprinted cards, propaganda cards, comic cards, presidential cards, cards of landscapes, and of old cars.  Cards depicting any of the world’s fairs and early Olympics, Drew said, are highly collectable. 

A lot of postcard collectors specialize. 

“Obviously, the more specialized you get, the harder it is to find cards because you go to a show and the dealer says, ‘I don’t have anything like that,’” he said. 

Drew has not specialized.

“I just go eclectic as to what I see and what I like,” he said. 

Drew trades postcards with others by mail and frequents dealers’ shows, garage sales, and antique shops.  Three to four times a year, shows are held in the area and dealers bring millions of cards.  Drew looks through their bargain boxes and picks out whatever catches his eye.  There may be a card he doesn’t have or a variation of a card he already has.  He has many postcards of Albany’s Washington Park during the tulip festival and other scenes during different seasons. 

To sort his collection, Drew puts his cards in boxes that look like long shoeboxes.  He does not arrange his postcards alphabetically; he puts them in order geographically.  For the city of Albany, he starts at the Hudson River and moves uptown.

“You can buy a majority of postcards from 15 cents retail up to $5,” he said.  “And, then, like anything else, any other kind of collectables, whether it’s stamps or coins or anything else…you can go up to hundreds of dollars for a card.  You’re really stretching it once you get over a hundred, but there are cards that go that high.”

The most valuable cards he has are of old ships — of great ocean liners from the 1920s —which he estimated are worth $10 to $20 each.

Value, with anything that’s old, Drew said, depends on condition. 

“For instance, some people want the cards unused,” he said.  “Others are interested in the messages on the back or when they were posted and the condition.”

“You can put on a card whatever price you want and, if it doesn’t sell at that, eventually dealers lower it or they bulk it out,” he said. 

Many postcards contain correspondence.

“I don’t care for what’s written on the back,” Drew said.  “Other people do.”  He said he is more concerned about whether it is a clean card without bent corners.

Evolution of the postcard

At one time, in the early 1900s, Drew said, you could only put an address on the back of a postcard. 

During their golden age — the 1920s and 1930s — a lot of postcards were printed in Germany, Drew said, where printers did a higher quality job than in the United States.  “Although there were some good U.S. printers,” he added. 

“But they were commonly known as the penny postcard,” he said.  “You bought them for a penny, and you mailed them for a penny.  And it wasn’t until the 1950s that they went up to two cents.  I remember, as a kid in high school in the ’50s, you mailed a letter for three cents.  You mailed a postcard for either one cent or two cents before the rate went up.”

“With some people, they have cards they never want to part with,” Drew said.  “I’m at a point where no one card means that much — that, if I find somebody else who really has an interest in it, I’ll sell or trade with them just so they can have it.”

By the book: A family’s history is embodied in a century-old Dutch Bible 

By Ellen Zunon

My grandmother used to chant the Psalms in Dutch. Her children did not like the way this sounded; it was so mournful, they thought. She had probably learned the Psalms from the family Bible, which she brought from the Netherlands when she and my grandfather emigrated as newlyweds in 1911.

In bygone days, a family Bible was often the first textbook from which children learned to read. It was also used to record births, marriages, and deaths before copies of legal documents were widely available. My siblings and I now share the family Bible that once belonged to our grandparents.

To say it is “a hefty tome” is a gross understatement. It is a two-volume set, bound in bright red leather, with gold lettering, each volume weighing 18 pounds. It is a Dutch Bible, published in Arnhem, Netherlands in 1870, with a dedication to the Dutch royal family.

The fact that my grandparents made the effort to bring this voluminous Bible when they left Holland is evidence of how important their Dutch reformed faith was to them. One volume in the set, stored too long in a leaky attic in my aunt’s house, shows evidence of water damage. Its companion has fared better.

The red leather binding is still as bright as it was a hundred years ago, and the engravings by French artist Gustave Doré still impress with their detail and artistry. In fact, my mother remembered being frightened as a child by the graphic images of the drowned in the story of the flood in Genesis. In it, bodies are draped all over the landscape and the ark on a mountaintop in the background.

With my rudimentary Dutch and the help of a bilingual dictionary, I can decipher a few phrases here and there, but none of my generation is fluent in Dutch. Our mother and her sisters could converse quite comfortably with Dutch cousins when they visited the United States. Speaking the Dutch language, rich in puns, made those visits full of fun and laughter.

From photos in the family archives and reminiscences of my mother and her siblings, we have pieced together the story of how our grandparents came to this country after the turn of the 20th Century. Our grandmother was born Elisabeth Daams in Loosdrecht, Holland, in March of 1886. At the age of 13, she was sent out to work as a domestic servant, probably after the death of her father. Her first job was at the home of the local pastor, where she started out as a scullery maid, scrubbing pots and pans in the kitchen, and eventually worked her way up to pastry chef.

We have an old photograph of Elisabeth and her sister Hendrina, who worked in the same household, in their white starched maids’ uniforms, looking like characters from that old British drama, Upstairs, Downstairs. The neatly creased and starched aprons and caps must have been pressed with an antique iron heated by charcoal, such as you see in museums.

My grandmother was a very good pastry chef. The pastor’s wife frequently entertained the church ladies, and my grandmother had to prepare special pastries for these tea parties. She would often be summoned to the parlor at the close of the occasion to receive compliments from the ladies: “Lijse, your cake was delicious.” I still have Grandma’s recipes for Dutch apple cake and Dutch sand cookies — rich with butter and sugar!

“Lijse” (Dutch for Lizzy, pronounced “Lisha”) understood that her success as a chef depended on fine ingredients and the right tools, well maintained. She was a spunky young lady, unafraid to ask for what would enable her to maintain her reputation as a talented baker.

The dominie or pastor, being a frugal Dutchman, was a bit too thrifty in his purchase of household soap. The amount rationed for washing the dishes was not sufficient to get them clean, and Lijse informed him of the situation in no uncertain terms. He was apparently taken aback by being accosted by such an outspoken servant

I picture the scene, he in his stiff black clerical garb, she in her starched white apron. Household servants did not talk back in those days.

For once, the sermonizer was left speechless, his pipe dangling from mute lips. I’m sure that Lijse got the soap she needed.

While working at the pastor’s home, Elisabeth already made up her mind to emigrate. She told her fiancé (my future grandfather), “Ik ga naar Amerika”  —  “I’m going to America.” I’m sure that, like so many other immigrants, she was hoping for a better life in America, where her own children would not have to work as servants.

Elisabeth worked hard and saved every penny she could in hopes of purchasing passage to the New World for herself and my grandfather. She hid her money upstairs in the room she shared with two of her sisters.

One day, her elder sister, Louisa, came upon this cache and decided it would be a nice idea to help the pastor out with a gift of money. The pastor would be impressed by Louisa’s wealth and generosity. As Elisabeth was coming in the back door on her way home from work at the pastor’s house, Louisa went out the front door with her sister’s money.

She proudly presented the pastor with Elisabeth’s savings, knowing all the time that she was actually giving his own money back to him. I don’t know what altercation ensued between the two sisters after this incident, but I can only imagine the scene between Louisa and Elisabeth when the theft was discovered. Perhaps it only strengthened Lijse’s determination to start anew in another country. At some point, she found a new employer — a schoolteacher — who helped her replace some of the lost savings.

We don’t know as much about our grandfather’s early life. He may have worked as a gardener on a wealthy family’s estate, perhaps cultivating the tulips we know so well in the Capital Region. Or perhaps he was a carpenter, since he worked for a wagonmaker once he and Elisabeth arrived in Albany.

Elisabeth’s marriage to Barend Jan VandenBergh took place on May 18, 1911, and shortly thereafter they embarked on a ship headed for New York harbor. The passage took 10 days.

Lijse’s determination to save money for their tickets had paid off. In later years, Grandma wanted people to know that they had purchased second-class tickets, not steerage! I picture the young couple setting foot on American soil, Elisabeth perhaps humming to herself a phrase from one of her beloved Psalms: “The lowly shall possess the land; they will delight in abundance of peace.”

After living in downtown Albany for a few years, my grandparents moved to the outskirts of town, into what was countryside in 1920. It is now a residential neighborhood near Eagle Hill Elementary School. Grandpa built a small house, then a larger one for the growing family.

Grandpa learned English more quickly than Grandma because he went out to work. He taught himself to read English by reading the newspaper. Grandma stayed home to take care of the eight children she bore. The couple became American citizens in 1917.

Today, seeing the paved streets and rows of houses in the neighborhood where I grew up (a block away from “the old homestead”), I try to imagine what it must have been like there in the 1920s. The main road, Route 20, was paved, but there were no streets yet adjacent to their house. The family had to walk through a grassy field to get to the road, where a trolley would take them downtown.

Since the area was still countryside, they had a cow to provide milk, as they would have had in their native Holland. The cow had a calf, which became the family pet. The cow and her calf grazed in the fields around the house.

Eventually it was decided to slaughter the calf, and so Bessie became beefsteak. The children watched with morbid fascination from a bedroom window; the event was so traumatic that the family decided never to do such a thing again.

In the family archives is a photograph of the family, standing in the yard among the fruit trees they had planted. The 1937 snapshot shows five girls and two boys (the last child did not survive infancy). Both sons fought in World War II. Jasper, who was killed in the Battle of the Bulge, is buried in Grandma’s hometown in the Netherlands.

Since our grandparents’ generation, the extended family has certainly followed the Biblical imperative to go forth and multiply. Today, only two of their children are still living, but we now count as descendants of the immigrant couple 23 grandchildren, 41 great-grandchildren, and 29 great-great-grandchildren scattered across the country and beyond — a grand total of 93 descendants.

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