It doesn't weigh much, this small stack of paper and cardboard Milt Hinshilwood produces from somewhere in his vast vaults of collectible Knoxvilliana. But it says a lot.
Hinshilwood, a polite older man with an index-like store of knowledge about this city and, it seems, all of East Tennessee, is one of the leading suppliers of tourist-oriented postal merchandise (a.k.a. postcards) to local stores. He is also a voracious collector of said items. But today, he has brought forth eight or nine specimens of a genre that no longer graces the shelves in most places: postcard folders.
You know the type—anywhere from 10 to 16 images of a city or region, which collapse together neatly into an addressable and postable pack. There's no space for a greeting, which may explain their fall from favor in an age that expects every interaction to be personal. But if these photo packets, which span nearly a century of Knoxville history, don't tell us much about the people who purchased and mailed them, they speak volumes about the city they represent.
Consider the oldest one, dated 1889. It has a fraying red cloth cover, and it expands out accordion-style to display more than a dozen detailed pen-and-ink drawings of Knoxville features: the river, the university, prominent churches and homes (many of them long since vanished), the Air Dome Theatre, the Knoxville "Female High School." There's the Vendome Hotel, which provided some of the finest apartments in town and sat on Clinch Avenue near its intersection with Walnut Street. And there's the Oxford House just down the block, where many of the judges, doctors, and other esteemed residents of the Vendome took their meals.
Most striking is the text at the back of the compact booklet, a tract that brims with florid civic pride and self-confidence. "Knoxville," it begins, "is today the literary, commercial, and political metropolis of the 33 counties of East Tennessee, and one of the best distribution centers of the whole South...
"The location is in the exact center of the valley of East Tennessee; surrounded by high hills and higher mountains in the distance; washed by the Tennessee River on the south and drained by two large creeks, flowing from the north directly through the city; midway between the blizzard stricken North and the torrid South; has an altitude of one thousand feet above sea level, and a climate, in consequence of those conditions, that is equal to that of the most favored country in the world.
"The population today is about 42,000 souls...Possibly no city in the country is more cosmopolitan than Knoxville. Eastern, Northern, Western and Southern people mingle in about equal proportion."
Of course, some of the things they bragged about then strike a chilling note: "There is no Southern city with so small a percentage of colored population. Our colored people are, as a rule, industrious, self-respecting good citizens."
But overall, it positively thumps with chest-beating Knoxvilleness.
A similar vein of urban celebration runs through succeeding packets. In one, copyrighted 1909 (and mailed in March of that year, apparently, to Mrs. Frank L. Siebers in Columbus, Ohio), the city's centers of commerce and civilization are celebrated: the "Public Hall" (a.k.a. the markethouse on Market Square), both the Southern Depot and the Louisville & Nashville train station, Lincoln Memorial Hospital.
And so it goes, on through the teens, '20 and '30s—photographs, often tinted, of grand hotels and mansions, wide city streets on which roll increasingly sleek automobiles. In a packet from the late 1920s is the introduction of new perspective: an "aeroplane view" of the University of Tennessee. The university figures ever more prominently in the folders, and in the accompanying texts. A boilerplate verbiage takes over in the pre-World War II era, emphasizing Knoxville as a center of manufacturing. "It is an exceptionally large textile center, its cotton yarn shipped all over the world," one version boasts. "Knoxville is also the largest heavy-weight cotton knit underwear manufacturing center in the world."
A 1939 aerial shot of "Shields Watkins Stadium" looks small and cozy by our current collegiate standards. On the other hand, it's hard to imagine the "John Sevier Yards" at the Coster Shop ever looked so grand and imposing as they do in a mid-'20s photograph.
Hinshilwood's collection tails off in the Eisenhower era. The last entry he owns—and as far as he knows, the last of its kind produced for Knoxville—is a folder from 1976. The text this time out is greatly diminished, and little of what's there pertains directly to Knoxville. For the first time, this most "cosmopolitan" of cities is billed merely as the "Gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains and the Tennessee Valley." Befitting that sense of functionality, and reflecting the era's concept of modernity, the 1976 views are remarkably gray, full of large expanses of concrete: McGhee Tyson Airport, the Civic Auditorium and Coliseum, the UT Hospital. Rather than historic Ayres Hall, the folder highlights the lumpish McClung Tower. Rather than anything on Market Square, it offers a parking-lot view of West Town Mall. The accompanying blurb stresses Knoxville's proximity to the mountains and TVA lakes and even Oak Ridge's Museum of Atomic Energy.
Twenty-five years ago, even though Knoxville was more than three times as large as it was when it inspired that heady 1889 prose, our civic promoters had apparently decided to tell tourists there wasn't really much here to write home about.