HIDDEN GEM: The DOE and the postcard collection at Landis Valley museum – a surprising connection


What do the Department of Energy’s superconductivity and hydrogen programs have in common with a postcard collection at Landis Valley Museum?

Russ Eaton.     

Named Volunteer of the Year in 2011 by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) for his work on the postcard collection at Landis Valley Museum (administered by the PHMC), Russ isn’t really your ordinary man.  And it isn’t just his distinguished white hair that sets him apart from the rest.


Born and raised in Ohio, Russ earned three degrees in Physics and spent over twenty years working for the Department of Energy. During his time as an engineer at the Department of Energy, Russ worked both in regional offices and at their headquarters in D.C. And as it turns out, it would be a good thing he had those three physics degrees…. Russ worked on research in both the former hydrogen program that explored the use of nuclear fissions in electrical energy applications and the development of high-temperature superconducting materials.


In 2003, Russ and his wife moved to Lancaster, PA…

…and a whole new side of Russ began to show.

Facing more free time than his career had ever given him, Russ began volunteering – something he hadn’t really done much of before retirement.  One day, when serendipity was apparently floating extra freely in the air, the Curator at Landis Valley invited volunteer Russ into the museum’s gallery to see the various collections maintained at the museum.  While in the gallery, Russ noticed a very large, and very disorganized, postcard collection.


It was love, of a sort, at first sight…


Or maybe it would technically be second, or even five hundred and seventy-second sight, because as fate would have it, Russ has been collecting postcards since he was a young boy.  Postcards have always held a special appeal for Russ, and he still has the cards he collected as a child because postcards still hold a special appeal for him.

So Russ began the work of cataloging, categorizing, and inventorying the vast postcard collection at Landis Valley (it’s actually one of the museum’s largest and most sophisticated collections).  It’s not necessarily easy work, despite the comfortable chair and climate-controlled work space. He’s had to develop a cataloging system for the collection, and then continue to develop that cataloging system as mini-collections within the collection start making themselves apparent over time.

His work often requires research – reaching out to historical organizations and agencies, postcard experts and collectors, tracking down personal histories and information about a sender or recipient, reading up on a particular postcard artist’s style and work, and more.

[sws_blockquote_endquote align=”left” cite=”” quotestyle=”style02″] “It’s not just about the art or the artifact, I find history in these postcards.”[/sws_blockquote_endquote] 

Like the history of the Ferman family that Russ stumbled across as he amassed a set of postcard correspondences between the Ferman family members, particularly from one of the brothers who served in the Navy.  Researching this brother, Russ discovered he could match the exact Naval cruises he made by cross-referencing the cities the cards were mailed from.

Or the set of cards mailed between a woman named Gussie Palmer and a man only known as “Carl” who courted Gussie quite humorously in a postcard romance.  This particular set of cards has stumped Russ – he’s been completely unable to identify who “Carl” is, or even where he’s from.

Russ sees postcards that range from the type of “real photo” postcards that Nettie Mae Landis liked to create and receive, the various postcards featuring the Dionne Quintuplets, to artist-signed postcards by local Samuel Schmucker – who’s cards can demand a price as high as $400+ each.

But the strangest category of postcards Russ has seen yet are the postcards that have pictures of lynchings on the front of them.  When I speculated that perhaps that wasn’t any less morbid than the gruesome pictures regularly printed in newspapers, Russ astutely pointed out, “But they wrote ordinary things on the back! So you’d buy a postcard with four dead guys hanging from a tree to say ‘I’ll see you later this week’!”

When he put it that way….. yeah, I guess I have to admit that’s a little weird.

The postcard collection isn’t the only work Russ has done at Landis Valley, but his citation from the PHMC for his volunteer work is specifically for his work organizing and preserving the valuable Landis Family correspondences, as well as the bigger hobby collection Nettie Mae collected from people across the nation and around the world that she exchanged postcards with.  The PHMC resolution issued to Russ notes, “Bringing knowledge of the history of postcards to this work, he identified many cards of historic and artistic importance”.

So why does he do it?


“I have a great reverence for things that are old and worthwhile,” he says simply.