Greetings From the Sunrise Trail

Vintage postcard collection offers glimpse of East Hampton’s bygone days
East Hampton beachgoing in days of yore. Courtesy of East Hampton Historical Society

Nancy Grover’s late husband’s family “had been in East Hampton forever,” she said, and when the couple took over the family’s summer house near Georgica Beach, she became interested in the early-20th-century resort history of the area. 

Spending the rest of the year in Hartford, Conn., which has one of the biggest ephemera shows in the country, “made it easy to start picking up postcards of East Hampton,” she said. Soon, “I began to branch out to other hamlets.” The hobby eventually yielded a collection of more than 200 postcards, mainly from the late 1800s to early 1900s, most of them of East Hampton, Southampton, and Sag Harbor, but also of Water Mill, Bridgehampton, Amagansett, Montauk, Shelter Island, Greenport, Quogue, and Shinnecock Hills.

“I simply have the collecting gene,” Ms. Grover said. 

Earlier this summer, she donated her collection of vintage postcards to the East Hampton Historical Society, where it is still being cataloged. 

“One of the things I find so interesting in looking at them is that south of the highway we’re now looking at a purely man-made landscape. The openness of the earlier landscape is gone,” she said. One of her favorites is of Jones Road, which runs between Apaquogue Road and Lily Pond Lane near her summer house. The houses shown on the postcard are still there today, but with very different surroundings. “I also love the very early postcards that show Main Street and the ponds.”

Many of the cards were printed or colored in Germany. Some include familiar East Hampton names — W.F.E. White, Dominy, and Conklin Co., which printed a lot of postcards of Amagansett.

They depict familiar churches, historical landmark houses, bathing beach scenes, and windmills, dirt paths, and stagecoach routes from New York City where now there are paved highways. One shows the Sunrise Trail in Montauk, a long-ago incarnation of what would become the Sunrise Highway. 

Another one from 1906 has a marriage proposal with the line “Waiting at the chapel” and a handwritten arrow pointing to St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, addressed to Miss Katherine E. Smith, 214 East 36th Street, New York City. On a card of the Sea Spray Inn in East Hampton, postmarked in 1962, the sender exhorts the recipient to read the inn’s printed screed  on “Americanism” versus “Socialism.”

Now in the process of getting out of the East Hampton house, Ms. Grover said she is “absolutely delighted that they’re at the historical society, in good hands.”

“The cards are wonderful,” said Richard Barons, the former director of the historical society and now its curator, “but it’s intriguing to read the messages.” 

Sydney Bebon, who will be a senior this fall at Deerfield Academy and who grew up summering here, has been doing just that while cataloging the cards. What immediately caught her eye was that “the perfunctory language that’s used sounds exactly the way it would today.” The four or five things that jump out are “the weather, who you’re seeing, what you’re doing, and who you’re missing. The space constraint forces you to boil down your humanity,” she said. 

Another interesting footnote is that between the late 1800s and 1950, mail was delivered twice a day: Locally, one could write a card or letter in the morning that would be delivered in the late afternoon. In the teens and 1920s, the post office would deliver four times a day to businesses in a village.

“I imagine they had mail delivered that frequently because it was convenient and necessary,” said Gina Piastuck, the head of the East Hampton Library’s Long Island Collection, which has its own extensive collection of vintage postcards. She cited a blog from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Postal Museum that pointed out that Section 92 of the 1873 Postal Laws and Regulations book stated that carriers were required to make deliveries “as frequently as the public convenience may require.” 

“The phrase was left open to interpretation by postmasters,” she added.