Memory keeper

Susan Shea began collecting postcards of the Island 25 years ago.


Upon entering Susan Shea’s Edgartown home, I am greeted by her dog Sophie, named for Sophie Bloch, a weaver and wool spinner who lived on Music Street in the early ’90s. Shea’s parents began visiting the Island in 1959 from their home in Connecticut, and Susan first came to the Island as a 6-year-old, visiting Gay Head every weekend and all holidays, so she feels like she grew up on the Vineyard.

The family built their own home in Lobsterville, and Lynn Murphy brought wood over from Woods Hole on his boat, the Gladius X. As I sit down opposite her on the couch, I notice about a dozen binders standing up beside her — the home for her 1,000-plus Vineyard postcard collection, started about 25 years ago, when she was in her late 30s. Shea’s mother sent postcards, she says, and when she got return postcards, Shea kept them. Their neighbor, Dorothy Scoville, who lived in the last Lobsterville fishing shack during the summer (and on Lighthouse Road the rest of the year), was the curator of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, and shared her love of Island history with Shea. She says, “I started really when we joined the Friends of the Shakers, Sabbathday Lake, and saw their postcards and thought, mmmm, there must be some of the Vineyard.”

It turns out there were.

She began collecting by heading to flea markets, yard sales, and thrift shops on-Island. “I have to have that,” is the sentiment that guided Shea’s collecting. Her oldest cards date to 1885 to 1890, though they are not categorized chronologically. Some landscapes, though they say Martha’s Vineyard, are clearly not, but were made, according to Shea, because they were sold to tourists who couldn’t tell anyway. She’d shown some to Luther Madison, who told her that some of the M.V.-attributed images were of the Southwest.

Shea mentions she was the first librarian in Gay Head, back in 1974. Gay Head was her original focus before purchasing anything Vineyard. When she “started out, [she’d] go to this place in Bourne near Mass. Maritime, they had good postcards.” Of course she quickly learned the further she was from the Vineyard, the harder the cards were to find, but then she discovered a lot when visiting New Hampshire.

Tuckernuck Antiques owner Abby Armstrong used to hold postcard days for collectors who would trade and sell to one another. Armstrong’s business partner, Roy Meekins, a longtime collector, is, according to Shea, the most knowledgeable person on Vineyard postcards she knows.

Shea points out Elsie Greider in one postcard; Elsie had a little diner in a shack right after Moshup Trail, and Shea still can taste her giant chocolate chip cookies.

Cards have cost her from $2.99 to nearly $20 apiece, the most expensive found at antique shops. She points out a few cards that are stamped “Gay Head Post Office,” which was next to the school — now the library, or one when it was “Carl Widdiss’s ‘little house.’” She still looks for postcards stamped Gay Head, and has even found some in recent years. Shea tells me a story about meeting someone who’d been stationed at the old Coast Guard house she was pointing out in one of her cards; she gave him the card and he gave her a T shirt. “Sometimes you’ll see a card with one woman or some with two women, and they’re completely staged,” she says as we peruse images of Wampanoag locals. Shea points to a group photo and tells me, “This is John Vanderhoop, Phyllis Vanderhoop, and Beverly Wright’s [a former chairwoman of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head] great-uncle.”
We’ve gone through Cottage City, Cuttyhunk, and Gay Head, and keep opening new volumes. Shea tells me her favorites are “the ones that are very old, and the hand-colored ones from Albertine [Press].” She even has View-Master reels of the Vineyard tucked into one of the albums. Shea plans to leave parts of her collection to the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.

Shea likes to visit old friends and bring postcards to let them reminisce, or to bring comfort to them during illness. Shea admits, “The man I know with the biggest postcard collection is Peter Vincent,; I used to bid against him on eBay.” Shea loves to go through her collection; with every page turn we’re on to a different subject: “You always notice something different, especially now with a magnifier.”

I wondered what Shea’s most recent find that she didn’t have was, and it turned out to be a “really old one of the Cliffs with different colors.” Shea enjoys going through photo postcards that show people who are still alive today, such as a group shot she shows me that includes Gladys Widdiss, her daughter Dawn, and other familiar faces — Kristina Hook’s mother, Esther Tannenbaum, dressed as a native Wampanoag. We could have sat all day, but there are too many postcards to look, especially when you factor in Shea’s other compelling collections, from Shaker ephemera, bottles from Aquinnah dug up by Alfred Vanderhoop (given to her by his wife Lucille), Gay Head pottery, Cliffs memorabilia, books on the Vineyard, and more. This is one home I wouldn’t mind being stuck at during a blizzard, and even then I’d probably not get through all of Shea’s collections.