Monday, April 02, 2007

Lives in Letters: Postcard from a Nun

This is a tough postcard to appreciate for it's picture -- black and white and pretty beat up. But there were things about the note I found appealing. One ironic thing is how the writer talks about the colors, which we have no way of appreciating visually. Luckily, Sister Gertrude throws in a little imagery to help out....

Homer NY
October 11, 1933

Addressed to
Mr. & Mrs. Orville D. J-
Wilmette, Ill.

1933 Homer, N.Y.
Am here as Delegate from
our Church, left Attica this
morn at 7:45 arrived 9:45
77 miles. Will leave after the
meeting this afternoon. The
trees look beautiful as some
one termed it looks like Oriental
rugs. Had a wonderful ride
Sunday thru Boonville Gorge
to see foliage. All colors.
We are now having lunch.
Beautiful day. Love, Sister


Until I saw this postcard, my only connection between Sister Gertrude and Homer was from this wonderful movie. Let me take a little tangent here and say if you haven't seen this, it's worth a Saturday afternoon. And now I'll get back to the postcard with "Ay-ay-men, Ay-men, Ay-men!" in my head.
So, when Sister Gertrude wrote that she left Attica, do you think she meant this Attica...

...Or this Attica?
Either was possible. The prison was built in 1931, a full two years before this postcard was sent. Sister Gertrude might have been on a prison tour, doing good works and all that.
Attica Prison, of course, has attained a pop culture status from the references in many movies (Dog Day Afternoon being the most famous) and television shows to the 1971 prison riots. But even before Attica opened its doors it was the rock star of prisons. Just check out the following from

Shortly before it opened, Attica was hailed in the following article, which appeared in the New York Times on August 2, 1931:

Condemned by the Wickersham Commission for its maintenance of Auburn and Clinton prisons, New York State will have an answer to charges of inhuman penal conditions when the New York State Prison opens at Attica within the next few months with its full quota of 2,000 convicts. Said to be the last word in modern prison construction, the new unit in the State's penal system will do away with such traditions as convict bunks, mess hall lockstep, bull pens, and even locks and keys. In their places will be beds with springs and mattresses, a cafeteria with food under glass, recreation rooms and an automatic signal system by which convicts will notify guards of their presence in their cells. Doors will be operated by compressed air, sunlight will stream into cells and every prisoner will have an individual radio.

Perhaps because of the Depression economy, perhaps for other reasons as well, no Attica inmate has ever seen the institution described above.

The riots were a full 38 years after this postcard, but if you're interested in reading a little about them, you can check out wikipedia's article and their links.
The real issue I have with Sister Gertrude's account of her travels is that no map I've seen says you can get from Attica to Homer, NY in 77 miles. It's almost double that distance! I think she must have taken a little nap in the car, and nobody wanted to embarrass her by telling her how many miles they had really travelled.
October in this part of New York is really gorgeous ("like Oriental rugs"). Boonville Gorge, which is on the Black River Canal and not too far from the Erie Canal, has got to be one of the most picturesque places to take in the full foliage effect. Here's what the Boonville Chamber of Commerce has to say about the town itself. And here are a few wonderful pictures of the park.
Last thought... I wonder what Sister Gertrude was a delegate for? Any suggestions?


HipWriterMama said...

I really enjoy your musings about the postcards. Just curious, why did you start collecting postcards? It is very cool.

Nancy said...


Last summer I was browsing my favorite antique shop in Maine, and I stopped to look at the postcard rack. At first I was just looking for really cool old pictures of town squares and boardwalks, etc. But then I found myself reading the messages on the back, and realizing that the notes were much much more interesting than the pictures.

Once I posted my first one on the blog, and I started asking questions, doing research, and inventing stories to fit the messages, I was completely hooked.

The thing I've found is that especially in the pre-WWII postcards, people put so much of their lives on these cards. Often without even realizing it. I'm just so glad someone saved them long enough for me to find them!

This past Christmas, I even made presents out of some of the cards, just using a simple matte and frame. For each one I gave, I wrote out the message from the back of the card, and my notes about what I thought about it. It was kind of a nice way to give something unique and something that I was connected to.

I'm due to go postcard hunting again soon -- my stack is getting low and I've got a flea market itch.

Thanks for your comment!

HipWriterMama said...

I hope you will put this in some sort of collection for publication one day. This is really interesting.

Nancy said...

hipwritermama.... I'm thinking about it


runart said...

I live a few minutes from Homer, NY!!

Nancy said...

runart, I'm so glad I found one from your back yard!