The New York Academy of Medicine is bringing to light an incredible collection of over 2000 historic postcards that were collected by one man and focused on one topic: hospitals. The Robert Matz Hospital Postcards Collection at The New York Academy of Medicine Library showcases illustrated and photographic images of hospitals in New York and across the country from the late 19th century to the mid-20th century. Digitized and displayed online is a pilot collection of 118 hospital postcards from across the five boroughs ranging from the late 19th century to the mid-20th century.
“New York Hospital” Courtesy of The New York Academy of Medicine Library
Dr. Robert Matz’s collection is organized into three sub-collections: New York City, New York State, and the United States. Of the 962 hospital postcards in the New York City sub-collection, the NYAM Library states that they selected 118 of these to “highlight the variety of hospitals, building architecture, and cultural value of the postcards.” Dr. Matz donated the collection to the NYAM Library in several installments between 2015 and 2019, and volunteers researched and compiled data about each postcard.
Many of these postcards were featured on a wall of the 2018 “Germ City” exhibition co-curated between NYAM and the Museum of the City of New York, which mixed history and artifacts with visual art to show how diseases have impacted people and the urban environment.
“Aerial View of New York Hospital” Courtesy of The New York Academy of Medicine Library
In the pilot, there are 15 postcards from the Bronx, 26 postcards from Brooklyn, 55 postcards from Manhattan, 10 postcards from Queens, and 12 postcards from Staten Island. These postcards were printed using various printing technologies like lithography, chromolithography, and photo-reproduction. These postcards were digitized using software like Capture One, which divided the capture area into four quadrants so that one shot could capture four different images.
“The pilot offers an opportunity for users, researchers, potential funders, and the public to explore what has already been digitized, and to learn more about the collection,” Robin Naughton, Senior Digital Program Manager, wrote in a NYAM blog post.
The postcards reveal a comprehensive look at the evolution of different types of hospitals in New York City, including public, private, not-for-profit, government, and military hospitals. In one postcard titled “A Typical Ward, U.S. Army Hospital No. 1,” the black-and-white postcard shows both uniformed and robed soldiers posing while standing, in bed, or in wheelchairs at a hospital in Williamsbridge, Bronx.
“A Typical Ward, U. S. Army Hospital No. 1” Courtesy of The New York Academy of Medicine Library
Another sepia postcard titled “Ward 1 Fourth Floor” reveals an interior of a ward of Manhattan’s Debarkation Hospital No. 3 with sick and injured soldiers lying in their beds as doctors and nurses tend to their illnesses.
“Ward 1 Fourth Floor | U.S. Debarkation Hospital #3” Courtesy of The New York Academy of Medicine Library
Postcards include exterior shots of many hospitals like New Harlem Hospital, Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, Rockefeller Institute, Brooklyn Hospital, and many others, many of which do not exist today. In one postcard of Smith’s Infirmary Hospital on Staten Island, and horse and carriage is parked in front of the hospital building entrance. This complex stood until 2015 when it was demolished after the property went into foreclosure and the structures were deemed unsafe.
“Smith’s Infirmary Hospital” Courtesy of The New York Academy of Medicine Library
In addition to an exterior look at these hospitals, there are a handful of postcards of interior shots like “Recreation Hall” at the Home for Incurables in the Bronx which depicts men and women in wheelchairs and armchairs relaxing and talking.
“Recreation Hall | Home for Incurables” Courtesy of The New York Academy of Medicine Library
Some of the postcards have notes written on the back, such as an elaborately written message on the back of a postcard of New York Hospital from 1909. Some other postcards have simple notes from visitors and patients. One postcard from the Brooklyn Eye and Ear Hospital depicts the hospital building in front of a hazy sunset and a rather atypical bough of holly next to the message “The Season’s Greetings,” not something you would expect to see paired with a hospital.
“Brooklyn Eye and Ear Hospital | T. O. WOOLEY, M.D., House Surgeon” Courtesy of The New York Academy of Medicine Library
A similarly artistic postcard depicting Seney Hospital in Brooklyn shows a tree-lined street with horse and carriage in front of the hospital building accented with glitter.
“Seney Hospital” Courtesy of The New York Academy of Medicine Library
According to the New York Academy, “The Robert Matz Hospital postcards offer an opportunity to create a digital collection that can help researchers, local communities, and the public to better understand the evolution of hospitals from the late 19th to the mid-20th centuries, how they relate to current hospitals, the role of postcards in advertising, the conversations that one shares on a private, yet public medium, the printing process, and many more topics related to this collection.”
The pilot is only the beginning of NYAM’s larger project of researching these postcards and adding more to the digital collection. “Digitizing 2,000 postcards and creating metadata so that users can explore the collection in multiple ways will take time and resources, but the Library is excited about the opportunity,” Naughton wrote.
Next, check out 10 abandoned hospitals in and around New York City and discover the New York Transit Museum’s New Photo Exhibit Streetscapes and Subways!