Article and Photography by Philip Roszak | Owl Staff
When Ken Jones, Associate Professor of Art and Design at Harford Community College, encountered a piece of ephemera he described as “folk art meets mail art,” his interest was peaked.
“I found the box I thought I was looking for, and when I opened it, was hit with a smell that brought back memories of my grandfather,” Jones reminisces. Jones’ grandfather was an amateur radio operator. Hams, as they’re called, use two-way radios to communicate with other operators who may be hundreds or thousands of miles away. Jones can remember his grandfather meeting strangers on the airwaves and holding long conversations.
Since the 1910’s, operators have been meeting each other on the RF spectrum, and after a particularly engaging or significant conversation, Hams would exchange homemade postcards through the mail, and these cards came to be known as QSL cards. They contained information on the Ham’s radio equipment, settings, and the operator themselves.
Independent, enthusiastic, self-sufficient, and untrained in art or graphic design, Hams crafted images and clever motifs that clearly expressed the individual they were. Jones knew he found something special when he rediscovered his grandfather’s QSL cards. “I love collecting things in the margins,” Jones says.
Due to the limited amount of information that exists on QSL cards, they are difficult to find and collections do not change hands too often. Most operators have an attachment to their cards; they hold memories of years of radio conversations.
Cards usually only change hands when an operator dies, so this made finding cards to study difficult. However, as Jones made more connections in the amateur radio community, he was able to amass a sizeable collection.
During the fall semester of 2010, Jones was granted a sabbatical to study the design of QSL cards. “I would say that Dean Paul Labe was very supportive,” Jones adds, “as well as Annette Haggray, the Chief Academic Officer, and the president of that time, Dr. Jim LaCalle.”
Jones shares, “I was happy to get the sabbatical because it gave me time to collect cards, talk to operators and work on the book.” In an exhibition entitled HPE 2 WRK U AGN SN: Ephemeral Communiqué 1920-1980, over 550 QSL cards from Jones’ collection were on display in the Chesapeake Gallery from June 6 to September 15.
Since Jones is writing a book about his QSL card discoveries, setting up and arranging the cards was helpful in getting some ideas flowing. The goal is to have the exhibition travel in order for Hams and QSL enthusiasts to share their knowledge.