Jason Townsend is preserving the history of the line trade by collecting vintage photos, postcards, tin signs, insulators and other memorabilia.

Postcards from the Past

May 24, 2016
A Chicago lineman collects historic black-and-white photos depicting life in the field back in the 1900s.

The linemen who built the nation’s infrastructure traveled from one city to the next, not seeing their families for long stretches of time. Back then, they did not have the luxury of FaceTiming with their spouses and children or posting their status on social media, let alone easily making a long-distance phone call.

To let their families know where they were working, the linemen often mailed postcards depicting photos of themselves with their crews. Jason Townsend, a Chicago, Illinois, lineman and avid collector, says the linemen would often visit local photography studios in the towns they were working in to get a postcard made for each member of the crew. They would then sign the back of the card and drop it in the mail to their loved ones.

Collecting Lineman Memorabilia

Back in 1999, Townsend found a vintage hot stick at an antique store in North Carolina, which launched his entire collection. After showcasing some of his prized items at the International Lineman’s Rodeo in 2007, he has nearly doubled the number of items he owns, which he displays in the basement of his Chicago home.

“When I was an apprentice, I saw my company throw away a truckload of old stuff, and I was tired of seeing these historic items being discarded,” he recalled.

Townsend now owns an expansive collection of insulators, historic signs, and tools along with about 400 historic photos and postcards, which he keeps in a black leather album. The postcards date back to the early 1900s, and Townsend purchases them for about $10 to $15 each from antique dealers, live and online auctions, and shows.

“My favorites are the ones with the big crews and horse-drawn carts, and I also love my postcard featuring special linemen’s gloves from Tuff-Nut Glove Co.,” said Townsend, who is the first lineman in his family. “Also, any of them with the character called Reddy Kilowatt are very special to me.”

Townsend says the postcards are often hard to find and many are rare, especially those with handwritten messages on the back of them. For example, on one of the postcards, the linemen wrote the names of all 11 members of the crew, which included linemen, groundmen, timekeepers, and truck drivers from Georgia and Alabama. Another postcard—sent from someone named Harvey in Joplin, Missouri, to a Miss Elinor in Denver, Colorado — featured a personal message about pole climbing: “The one resembling a monkey is me. Yep, I’ve climbed ‘em, too.”

Documenting History

Along with the personal handwritten messages, the postcards also give a glimpse into the history of the line trade. By looking through the postcards, one can quickly spot the differences between the work garments, tools, and personal protective equipment worn by linemen of yesteryear and today. For example, in the historic photographs, hard hats and flame-retardant clothing are nowhere to be seen.

Instead, the linemen are shown working off the poles in caps and felt hats, overalls, vests, traditional button-down shirts and leather work boots. Rather than full fall protection and battery-operated power tools, some of the early linemen are photographed with axes, basic climbing belts and long lines of rope. Oftentimes, they also are shown posing next to their work vehicles, which ranged from horses and buggies to early model trucks equipped with long ladders.

Another stark difference is the size of the work crews. While today’s linemen often work in small teams, the bull crews of the early line trade sometimes had up to a dozen workers.

“They had to work hard and had it rough, but they had much bigger crews than we have now in the field,” Townsend said. 

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