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Yukon history is picture post card perfect

The most interesting gift I received at Christmas this year was the last package I unwrapped on Christmas morning: an old album of Yukon post cards.
Zaccarelli’s Store in Dawson City sold a wide range of products, including books, gramophones, domestic toys, dolls, games, hand painted chinaware, cut glass and novelties. They also sold the largest selection of post cards (displayed in the upper right-hand corner) of any store in the Yukon. (Gates collection/Submitted)

The most interesting gift I received at Christmas this year was the last package I unwrapped on Christmas morning: an old album of Yukon post cards.

It was something that we came across in Dawson early last summer. I thought that we might be granted permission to scan the cards upon our return later in the season. Unfortunately, I was told when we returned, the album had been given to a family member.

What I didn’t know was that my wife Kathy had secretly acquired this item and carried it back to Whitehorse without my knowledge. She kept it hidden for six months until I opened it on Dec. 25. I was truly surprised.

Between the black pressed cardboard covers are album pages holding six post cards each. I counted nearly 450 cards, many of which were sold by Zaccarelli’s Fruit, Book and Stationery Store in Dawson City, which, from 1906, until 1918, was located on the south side of King Street between Front Street and Second Avenue. A few of the cards came from Landahl’s Emporium, while several others were from Smith’s Book Store.

The subject matter of these cards leans heavily toward Dawson City and the Klondike Gold Rush. The most popular scenes were panoramic views of Dawson City. Pictures of mining and dredges and photos of individual Dawson buildings are equally well represented. Yukon sternwheel riverboats are a popular category, while other forms of transportation, such as dog and horse, are included.

I turned to my book shelf, where I keep a copy of the bible of Yukon post cards, a volume titled A History and Directory of Yukon Post Cards 1897-1942 by Ken Elder. Ken was a colleague of mine at Parks Canada many years ago. A restoration architect by profession, he has been a dedicated collector of post cards for years. His book is loaded with information about Yukon post card vendors and, more important, has detailed listings of post cards sorted by vendor, and by manufacturer.

I was pleased to find that almost all of the Yukon post cards in this album are found in Elder’s authoritative compilation. I learned that the oldest known post card from the Yukon is dated to July 22, 1901.The first post card-sized photo paper came out in 1902 and was readily available for purchase in Dawson City within a few years. Some of the post cards in this album were clearly custom printed on such photo paper, which has space for the address to be written in on the reverse side.

It wasn’t until messages were allowed to be written on the reverse side of post cards in December of 1903 that they really became popular.

There are a large number of post cards from other places, in this album. Many of them have addresses, messages, stamps, and cancellation marks, which leads me to believe that there was an active exchange of post cards taking place. All of such post cards in this album were addressed to either John Zaccarelli of Dawson City, or his wife, Elizabeth.

John Zaccarelli operated a retail store in Dawson City that carried an extensive line of post cards. Born in Pavia, Italy, in 1881, he came to Canada with his parents when he was a young boy, and settled in Nanaimo, British Columbia. He was only 16 years old when news reached Vancouver Island in 1897 of the discovery of gold in the Klondike. He booked passage to Skagway aboard the Canadian Pacific steamer, Islander, which left Vancouver on July 28.

Zaccarelli quickly became an active member of community life in Dawson City and was soon in business as Zaccarelli and Company in a store on the main floor of the Bank Building, at the corner of Front and King Street.

Late in 1903, he married Elizabeth Dooley, niece of the mounted policeman who operated the secret service operation in Dawson in the early days. About the same time, he moved his business into a new store located at 206 Third Avenue South, but a year later, the business and his residence at the rear of the building were destroyed in a fire.

He went to work as a clerk with another Dawson City stationer, Alvah Smith, until he opened Zaccarelli’s Fruit, Book and Stationery Store at 109 King Street in 1906.

In the fall of 1908, John Zaccarelli began selling a pictorial book titled Zaccarelli’s Pictorial Souvenir Book of the Golden Northland containing “192 superb views” of the Yukon. I have a copy of this pictorial book and deem it one of the most interesting photo references in my collection. I also note that many of the images found in this book were also produced as post cards.

Included among the post card messages placed in this album are several dated January to April of 1911. In early January, 1911, John and his son Buster took the stage to Whitehorse and went on to sight-see and visit family in Oakland, California. One card in the album from Buster in Seattle to his mother back in Dawson, dated Jan. 29, states that they would soon be heading to Oakland.

A second card sent the same day by John and Buster to Buster’s little brother Ralph, tells him to “be a good boy to Mama.” Another, a few weeks later in mid-March, back in British Columbia, from Johnnie to his “Dear Lizzie,” states that Buster was fine but didn’t want to come home. John followed up with a second post card telling her that he ordered a box of oranges and lemons to be sent to Dawson “over the ice.” He added that he was leaving Vancouver for “dear old home” on March 26.

The inclusion of such post card messages reveals that the post card album is a collection of cards of personal significance, and clearly shows that this is a family album. In my correspondence with Ken Elder, he advised me on the value of post cards in today’s market, but in my mind, the real value lies in the complete assemblage of cards and the personal messages they contain, which provide a small glimpse into the personal lives of a Yukon family.

To me, that makes the album priceless. I can’t imagine ever allowing this little treasure to leave the Yukon, and I can’t imagine selling off the post cards one at a time to strangers.

Zaccarelli’s business remained at the King Street location until he closed out in 1918 and left town on the last boat of the season. In Skagway, he boarded the Princess Sophia with his sister, Mrs. Charles Vifquain and her daughter Joy. Sadly, they all perished when the Sophia sank on Vanderbilt reef in the Lynn Canal a short time later.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, From the Klondike to Berlin, is now available in stores everywhere. You can contact him at