“The scenery is simply grand, don’t you know,” raved Sophie after taking a drive down Fall Creek Boulevard in 1908. “It’s finest thing I ever saw,” exclaimed Aunt Bessie as she tried to describe the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument to relatives back in New Hampshire. “Ate a potato. This place suits me fine,” wrote Bertha to a friend in Kokomo when she visited Indianapolis in 1908. While most people collect old postcards for the pictures, if you take the time to read the back, you may actually catch a fleeting glimpse of how visitors saw Indianapolis in the early 1900s.

Postcards were an inexpensive way for travelers to collect and share pictures of the places they visited in the days before the advent of the Kodak Brownie camera, but even postcards weren’t readily available until after 1898, when Congress authorized the private printing of postal cards. If a family visiting Indianapolis in the late 1800s wanted to take home some pictures of the city’s grand buildings and beautiful parks, they probably purchased a view book such as the ones seen here, which date from 1888 to 1893.


View books from the late 1800s can be a little surprising, because they often feature places that the 21st century traveler would never dream of visiting on a vacation – places such as insane asylums, prisons and poor houses. But Victorian-era cities were proud of the recent advances in prison reform and also wanted to tout the considerable public investment in providing care and comfort to those in need. Prisons and asylums were often imposing structures designed by some of the best architects of the day.


The Indiana Reformatory for Women and Girls, as seen in this 1888 view book, set the standard for prison reform when it opened in 1873 as an independent women’s prison completely operated by women administrators and staff. The view book also featured the men’s and women’s buildings at the Indiana Hospital for the Insane, which was renamed Central State Hospital in 1926. Both buildings housed patients for nearly 100 years before they were demolished: the men’s building was razed in 1941, and the women’s building fell to the wrecking ball in 1974.

View books also pictured some of the city’s grandest homes and public buildings, including the Meridian Street mansions of Alfred Gates, president of Climax Baking Powder, and John J. Cooper, president of U.S. Encaustic Tile Company.


View books fell out of favor in the early 1900s as postcards became more prevalent. A few years later, the Golden Age of postcards also drew to a close when World War I blocked the import of fine German-printed postcards. Although postcards remained popular through the 1950s, other postal novelties gained favor with tourists, including tiny packages of miniature postcards that could be mailed for 2 cents in 1924.


But images of Indianapolis’ most beautiful buildings were not limited to postcards. The various stationary stores and gift shops scattered throughout the downtown area hawked plates, steins, cups, spoons, and other geegaws to tourists who wanted to take home a piece of the capitol city. These vintage souvenirs can be readily found on ebay, and range from utilitarian items (such as the two small steins which hold pens on my desk) to the downright bizarre, such as the china shoe Statehouse vase in the collection of the Indiana State Museum.

Monument tray Steins State capitol shoe

In addition to its natural lure as the state’s capitol and largest city, by the early 1900s Indianapolis also boasted a booming convention business. Its central location, criss-crossing railroad lines, and nearly 50 hotels made Indianapolis a prime location for a wide range of national conferences. In 1910, the Indianapolis Commercial Club launched a campaign urging citizens to be friendly to tourists, which resulted in Mayor Lew Shank placing a reminder notice in police officers’ pay envelopes urging those with IPD badges to make a special effort to treat convention delegates with special courtesy. Delegates could be easily identified by their own badges, which were designed as keepsakes and usually included an image of Indianapolis’ centerpiece monument.

The pendant below, which was used interchangeably on many delegate badges of the early 1900s, also featured the city’s informal motto “No Mean City”, a phrase first used to describe Indianapolis in 1897, when President Benjamin Harrison extolled the many virtues of the city and its citizenry in a speech to members of the Commercial Club. Watch fobs, such as the one below which is currently offered on ebay, were also popular convention give-aways.

Mean city Fob

Sporting events also drew crowds to Indianapolis at the turn of the 20th century, well before the city became a motor sports mecca. In 1898, Indianapolis hosted the League of American Wheelmen’s 19th Annual Meet at the Newby Oval. Participants were given commemorative keys to the city. Sadly, one of the fastest racers in the world, Hoosier native Major Taylor, was banned from bicycle racing in Indiana once he started winning and made a reputation as “The Black Cyclone”. Instead, the race was won by Tom Cooper, a Detroit cyclist who later partnered with Henry Ford to build race cars. Cooper was killed in an auto accident in 1906.


Ebay is probably the best place to find old Indianapolis souvenirs, although prices can sometimes be steep for “cross-collectibles”, which are objects that are collected for more than one reason. For example, an 1898 League of American Wheelmen key drew eight bidders in May, selling for $80 dollars. Last month, the 5″ statue of the monument pictured below sold for $80.99. However, some good deals are still out there, especially if good taste is not an issue. The satin pillow, which was billed as “gorgeous” by its ebay seller, sold last week for a mere $8.50.

Monument statute Indy pillow

If you’d like to check out more photos of Indianapolis souvenirs, or share photos from your own collection, go to the Historic Indianapolis facebook page.

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