Professor’s Postcard Collection Puts Stamp on Local History

Posted: July 5, 2005 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Tara Laskowski

It is said that Sally Cary, who became the wife of George William Fairfax of Belvoir, Va., was George Washington’s first love. She and her husband spent the Revolutionary War in England, but kept in touch with Gen. Washington. She died in Bath, England, in 1811, leaving a will. The original of Sally Fairfax’s will, an interesting piece of local history, is owned by Randolph Lytton.

Lytton, a professor of history at George Mason whose specialty is Greek and Roman history, is also fascinated with the local history of Northern Virginia. Looking for books, letters, Civil War documents, postcards, matchbook covers, political broadsides, or commercial advertising, Lytton scours antique stores and shows for pieces of the past—particularly pieces of the City of Fairfax’s past—and he has built a substantial collection one item at a time.

He recently donated a portion of his collection to the University Libraries. More than 200 postcards of places in Fairfax during the late 19th and 20th centuries were given to the Libraries’ Special Collections and Archives, where, with the help of the Washington Research Library Consortium, the images were placed online in a searchable database.

courthouse
Postcard of the Fairfax Court House circa 1930
Courtesy of Special Collections and Archives

Many of the postcards in the collection are from the early 20th century, often referred to as the “Golden Age” of postcards. Depicting motels to furniture stores to hospitals, each postcard offers a glimpse of history that might have otherwise been lost.

“The postcards are snapshots of different periods of the city’s history. They are our records of public buildings and private houses, many of which have been altered or torn down. Through these images, we can trace the physical changes that Fairfax has gone through over time,” says Lytton.

Lytton’s collection includes many postcards of the Fairfax Courthouse and other historic buildings. However, he says that some of his favorite postcards are the commercial ones that promote restaurants and motels. Decades ago, Route 50 in Fairfax was a major motel area, and many of the locally-owned motels—with names like the Lord Fairfax Motel, Sunset Grove Cottages, the Hy-Way Motel, and the White House Motel—used postcards to advertise, providing them in their lobbies for customer use. Very few of these old motels are left, says Lytton. Now they have been replaced by other businesses, especially car dealerships.

“The motels had such interesting names, like the Chilla Villa,” Lytton says. “I am amazed that I am still finding different ones.”

chilla
Postcard of the Chilla-Villa Motel
Courtesy of Special Collections and Archives

The images on the postcards are interesting, but perhaps more intriguing are the hand-written notes found on some of the cards. These messages reveal a moment in a person’s life, or tell a bit about the historic context in which the note was written. “In Fairfax for a few days. Why don’t you write? ~Annie,” is written on a 1907 postcard of Col. Joseph E. Willard’s residence. Another, written on a Fairfax High School postcard from 1942, reads, “Dear Mrs. McCue, Hope you are well. My cousin and I had a good time at a hymn sing last Sunday night. I am still hoping to visit you in February. Love, Elissa.”

Lytton and his wife Ellen, who also has degrees in history and who is now a librarian, have set up an endowment with Special Collections in Fenwick Library for the purpose of studying Fairfax history. The Randolph and Ellen Lytton Special Collections Endowment for the libraries will be used to support Lytton’s collection, which he will donate to the library in increments, and add to the library’s collection of local history. This year is particularly fitting to establish the collection, for it marks the 200th birthday of the City of Fairfax, which was originally called the town of Providence.

“Ellen and I thought that donating the collection was a nice way to contribute to the bicentennial by sharing these images with the community,” Lytton says. “I think that George Mason University could become a real focus for the study of Fairfax history. The libraries are well-equipped to catalogue and preserve these materials and make them available to a wider audience.”

University Librarian John Zenelis is thrilled to have the collection as part of the library’s materials and is grateful for the creation of the library endowment. “The Lytton collection clearly adds a significant dimension to Mason’s libraries holdings of original research sources,” he says. “And, certainly, the discerning eye of the professional historian and avid collector, Randy, gives the collection an imprimatur of not only eclectic content, but also of fundamental scholarly value.”

Lytton is very interested in historical material relating to the Fairfax family, especially Thomas, sixth Lord Fairfax, who inherited more than five million acres of land in Virginia in the 1700s. Last fall, as director of the George Mason Oxford University Honors Program, Lytton spent a semester at Oxford University, where Thomas, sixth Lord Fairfax, studied. Lytton was able to read some of his letters and papers and he met the present Lord Fairfax. He plans to go back to Oxford this fall.

Lytton, who moved to Northern Virginia in the early 1970s, has been involved with Historic Fairfax City Inc., the city’s historic board, for many years. He sat on the board for 10 years and was vice president and president. He also played an integral role in the 1992 opening of the Fairfax Museum and Visitor Center and helped with the restoration of several historic buildings in the city, including the 1812/1824 Ratcliff-Allison House. Lytton also was on the editorial board of the book, Fairfax, Virginia: A City Traveling through Time.

As for his favorite piece in the collection, Lytton has a hard time choosing. “The most interesting item is the next thing I find,” he says. “Each one is a surprise, and that is what keeps me looking and collecting.”

Write to at