Book of postcards shows Elizabeth’s history, transformation

‘Postcard History: Elizabeth’ tells the history of Union County’s largest municipality through a series of postcards.

ELIZABETH, NJ — Two local history buffs have produced a book that details the city’s history through historical postcards to shine a light on aspects of the city that have made it a “center of commerce in New Jersey” during the last two centuries.

Nayeli Riano, Elizabeth native and graduate of Elizabeth High School, and M. Earl Smith teamed up to create “Postcard History: Elizabeth,” released last month by Arcadia Publishing, which specializes in local history.

The beginning of the book states, “To the citizens of Elizabeth, young and old: may the history of your home be a guiding light in its future.” This is the entire purpose of the text, according to Riano.

“That completes what we think the book is meant to do,” she said in a phone interview on June 5. “There is no better way to teach people about history than through images of what their city used to be.”
“This book touches upon what makes Elizabeth unique in comparison to other major cities in America,” Smith said during the same interview.

The book is divided into seven sections, each highlighting a different aspect of Elizabeth and illustrating how the city has changed, including its transportation, businesses and residents.

Included with the more than 200 postcards is a short summary of when the various cards were sent and the historical significance of them.

The book includes postcards sent to residents after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963 and after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. More than 60 Union County residents lost their lives in the 9/11 attacks, six from Elizabeth.
Riano and Smith met at their work-study jobs while attending the University of Pennsylvania, and Riano realized that she knew very little about the history of her home city.

“I was a resident here for so many years and I didn’t know any of the history of the city until I left for college,” Riano said, adding that it took them approximately nine months to put together the book.

Riano said she really enjoyed working on the transportation section and that “some of the postcards speak for themselves. … I grew up seeing the train tracks here and seeing the importance that the railroad business has always had on the city,” she said.

“The captions supplement, but when people see a certain building or street, they will already know what it is, and the image is really what says everything,” Riano added.

Smith said a significant amount of time was spent researching local history since many of the buildings featured in the book have been demolished or replaced, such as the Graystone Presbyterian Church, which stood on Elizabeth Street before it was destroyed by a fire in 1992. This is Smith’s ninth book, and he has experience working with Arcadia Publishing, so Riano knew they would make a great team.

“We actually are friends, which was important when it came to completing the project. Not all co-author teams have that kind of friendship,” she said.

After graduating from Elizabeth High School, Riano went on to earn degrees from both the University of Pennsylvania and the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. Smith holds degrees from Chatfield College as well as the University of Pennsylvania, and is currently working on his master of fine arts degree at Pine Manor College in Newton, Mass.