About halfway through Charles Marohn’s Strong Towns presentation in York — after an hour of talk about city development and funding of capital projects and long-term debt — I knew something wasn’t right.
No doubt I brought a bit of a different background to the event, a “Curbside Chat” Marohn gives in locales across the country to talk about what’s wrong with our growth patterns. I majored in economics in college, studied the same in graduate school and still know pretty well my John Stuart Mill from my John Maynard Keynes.
Of course, the problem I’m talking about had nothing to do with economies of scale, or the law of diminishing returns.
The problem with Marohn’s speech was his antique postcard.
The image shown above — of a bustling Brainerd, Minn. — was included in Marohn’s presentation to help demonstrate how we in America used to plan our towns. Better than we do nowadays, he said.
Brainerd, Marohn’s hometown, was shown first in an old black and white photo, circa 1874, he said. That image showed what you might expect of the era — squat buildings lined up in orderly fashion, facing a dirt street. No surprises.
Then Marohn showed the above picture. He said it was from 1894 and without today’s bureaucratic quagmire isn’t it amazing how fast and well we could build our towns in 20 years?
Thing is, that second image wasn’t a picture. It’s an antique postcard.
And it’s not from 1894.
Now, the meeting ended late, so I wasn’t going to call sports editor and ephemera aficionado Chris Otto, or local amateur historian Blake Stough. I sure wasn’t going to call YDR editor and history buff Jim McClure at home at that hour either.
Anyway, I had a better idea.
I called my mom.
She, along with her late husband, my step-father, has bought, sold, studied and collected cards for decades. Her name is Shirley Cox, and she’s considered an authority on the subject in antique paper circles.
And she confirmed what I thought.
“No way,” she said.
That type of printed lithograph postcard wasn’t mass produced in the United States until after the turn of the century. It’s impossible to know the exact date of that Brainerd card without looking at it, and likely even then it would be tough unless the card was postally used and cancelled by the post office, she said.
But either way, such a card would date from perhaps 1903 or 1904, at the earliest.
In fairness — obviously — that discovery doesn’t have a lot to do directly with Marohn’s message.
Perhaps Brainerd did look like that in 1894, it just wasn’t captured on a postcard until 10 years later. Maybe Marohn can date the image to the 1890s through some other source, and it was just used later on a postcard.
I dropped him an email about it Thursday morning, but he’s continuing his Curbside Chat tour across Pennsylvania, and I haven’t heard back yet.
He seemed like an affable guy, and was certainly a good speaker, and I’m sure when things slow down he’ll clue me in.
In the meantime, it’s funny how as you get older you stumble across things that take you back. Who would have thought 30 years ago — toting boxes of old postcards into yet another Comfort Inn conference room for an antique show — I would (reluctantly) learn something that would prove important? I didn’t give it much thought as a kid, but today history seems so much more fun.
And Mom’s always glad when I call.
Part of Marohn’s talk focused on the value of individuals, and efforts that begin not with big government, but at the grassroots level. There’s plenty of dispersed yet important knowledge accumulated over time, he said, and we need to harness it.
Progress starts with people sharing, Marohn seemed to be saying.
No argument here.
UPDATE: Chuck Marohn was good enough to send an email reply later in the day, which read, in part, as follows:
“I’m not sure where I got the date because it was not on the photo, although I’ve been using that for quite a while. I just pulled it off of the state historical site again and it says there 1905. …
“So good eye, and thank you for bringing this to my attention. Definitely want to be accurate about all the details.”