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POSTCARDS SEND OUT KITSCHY FLORIDA VIBE

I don't know exactly when the addiction started, but sometime in recent memory I began collecting vintage Florida postcards.

I've already bought hundreds of these fetching, often staged, glimpses into Florida's quirky past, and I have no intention of slowing down any time soon. I can spend hours in an antique store or dealer's booth rifling through piles of colorful images of what Florida looked like long before I was born.

I use my postcards around my house to make an interesting arrangement beneath a glass-topped table, and as conversation pieces scattered among art and books.

I buy to enjoy, never to sell.

Right now I'm considering having one blown up at a print shop, mounting it on foam board and hanging it above a sofa.

As a collection, old postcards are fun to look at, puzzle over, get lost in - and they don't take up much room.

They're also cheap to collect; I have some that cost as little as a quarter; the most expensive was $2.50.

I often lose my guests to my old postcards, especially native Floridians like myself who enjoy piecing together the visual and geographic puzzle of what used to stand when and where.

The oldest Florida postcards I own are from the turn of the century, more muted and serious versions of the crazy, bikini-girl-meets-alligator variety that came later on. I am as fascinated with what has been scrawled on the back as the glamorous images out front. I love the old messages written in fountain pen, the school-house cursive, the faded postmarks, the simple addresses without ZIP codes. One postmarked February 1906 is simply addressed to Miss Anna Smith, Buzzard's Bay, Mass. Then there are the wildly absurd public relations blurbs: "Afternoon Tea at the Poinciana, Palm Beach, Fla.: Where Society Entertains in the Afternoon. Famous Throughout the World!"

Back-of-postcard stories told by these everyman writers range from fantastic to banal, but are always fascinating nonetheless. The brief, sometimes sweetly poetic notes from the lucky sender to a poor sap usually somewhere in the cold North offer a glimpse into a completely vanished, ordinary moment long ago.

Occasionally, I don't know what to make of the messages. On one postmarked December 1951 depicting the state bird, the mockingbird, perched on a branch of oranges, the sender writes: "Dear Bruce, Thank you so much for the fragrant toilet soap, it's just what I need ... I have yours and Win's picture in a conspicuous place above my Christmas cards on my side of the trailer. Love, Ellen."

Another recent purchase, dated Dec. 22, 1914, depicts a picture of the "Pier and Unique Home of Mr. John Trice, President Citizen's Bank and Trust Co., of Tampa, Anna Maria Beach, Florida."

On the back, the writer, clearly a guest at the home, recounts an evening ride on a "large motor boat" and how the event went awry when the touring party encountered heavy fog and spent the night lost on the water.

Though I try to collect in an organized and scholarly way - I like images of old hotels, tourist attractions and citrus - when I find something that makes my heart race, I am often swept away by emotion and lose sight of any semblance of order.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation, which owns a collection of 18,500 historic postcards in 3,185 identified U.S. locations including Florida, explains on its Web site why the collection is so significant. One postcard depicts Luna Park, the fabled amusement park on Coney Island that burned in 1944. Another shows long breadlines at a cathedral after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

Old postcards are sometimes "the only existing visual image of a building, monument or place," an article on the Web site states.

Postcards offer an "authentic, view of the society in which they were produced and can reveal important insight into cultural attitudes of the time."

I love Florida postcards probably better than those from any other state because they are always fantastic depictions of the things that made Florida unique, including the downright weird:

Like the proper Victorian woman feeding a too-close herd of alligators. Or the mock sleigh ride on what looks like a hot Florida day across Tommy Bartlett's Deer Ranch. Or the girls in Crayola bright, Scarlett O'Hara hoop skirts fanned out on the lawn of Cypress Gardens, who knows when.

All I know is that I can't stop collecting them, and they don't hoard precious space in my home.

They're so much fun to look at, too.

Wish you were here!

Elizabeth Bettendorf can be reached at ebettendorf@hotmail.com.

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