Postcard Memories

Vol. V No. 3 - SPRING 1994

By: Sandra A. Remis

Attendees of EHS March 26, 1994 Annual General Meeting at the Edgewater Library were treated to an exciting visual and verbal history of the American picture postcard, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1993. The slide presentation and talk by Katherine Hamilton-Smith, Curator of Special Collections at the Curt Teich Postcard Archives, was both enjoyable and very informative.

The industrial archives of the Curt Teich Company of Chicago, which operated from 1898 through 1978 as the world’s largest volume printer of view and advertising postcards, is now the Curt Teich Postcard Archives at the Lake County Museum. The Curt Teich Company was originally located at Irving Park and Ravenswood, as noted in the National Register of Historic Places, but the building has since been rehabbed into rental apartments.

The Postcard Archives was created by the company’s policy of saving copies of every image printed. The company also saved the printing process production materials, including photographic prints and negatives, client letters (detailing if and how a view should be altered), layout drawings and physical remnants such as carpet, linoleum, or wallpaper, which had been sent to the company to serve as color samples. The Archives contains approximately 100,000 job files. Materials represent all the states of the USA and all provinces of Canada, as well as other foreign countries.

The Archives came to the Lake County Museum in Wauconda, IL, in 1982 and has been available for research use since 1985. It is computer indexed by location, date and subject with over 350,000 image records in the computer database. In addition to the Teich Company collection, the Teich Archives also houses 15 postcard albums dating from 1899 to 1965, the former Fort Sheridan collection of military postcards, the V.O. Hammon collection of Midwestern postcards dating from 1900 to circa 1925 and other smaller collections of postcards. These other albums and postcards number approximately 10,000 images.

According to Ms. Smith, valentines and Christmas cards predate postcards, which were first used in Germany a long time ago. But America holds the honor of producing the first set of 10 color picture postcards in 1893 for the World’s Columbian Exposition here in Chicago.

“The photograph was still young at the turn of the century,” Katherine explained. “Postcards were an accepted form of reporting and sharing local events. (Postcards shown portrayed a burial, a fire and a collapsed bridge.) This type of postcard almost disappeared in 1925 when photogravure took off.

“Postcards also record historical trends,” she went on, as she exhibited postcards enjoining people to buy war bonds and depicting the destruction of Prohibition alcohol, suffragettes with placards, the Panama Canal, sheeted members of the KKK, civil rights marchers and a commemorative on the death of Martin Luther King.

“Postcards provide historical evidence of 20th century life - of how America sees itself, its culture, at a particular time,” she continued. To exemplify, she presented an old postcard printed by an undertakers supply company, selling embalming fluid, with the message “I’ll be seeing you soon!” (A little dark humor here…)

In a lighter vein, she showed a 1959 postcard of a typical, clean-cut, four-member, American family enjoying take-out food in front of a TV at the dinner table - sad but true commentary on two factors contributing to the erosion of the family unit in our culture. “It is interesting to note,” she said, “that the most frequently drawn image by kids today is of McDonald’s”

A postcard of a prison dining room, dated between 1900 and 1915, demonstrating the use of postcards for architectural and historical documentation, finally brought out the question more than a few were aching to ask - “Who bought these postcards?” One answer might be “I guess you had to be there.” Same reason you buy postcards at Six Flags Great America.

The words “Having a great time. Wish you were here!” or the like, however, did not appear until 1907, when it finally became legal to write on the back of the postcard. Prior to 1907, only a stamp and the written address could be added to a card.

“Industry and commercial entities loved postcards for advertising,” said Ms. Smith. She went on to show us how a biscuit company produced a set of 20 postcards, based on every aspect of biscuit-making in 1915, and how a hospital immortalized its state-of-the-art operating room in 1911. She visually walked us through Curt Teich Company’s process of producing a postcard of the Blakely Laundry, from actual photo to airbrush alterations to postcard, with American flag flying where none had existed in the photo. “It was quite common for companies to request the addition of American flags to photographs,” she said.

While Ms. Smith did not expound on the reasons why clients so often asked to have flags added, she provided copies of the Image File, a Journal from the Curt Teich Postcard Archives, Vol. 7, No. 4, 1993, with an article by Emma Gerosa entitled “America in 1926: The Rush To Be Modern.”

In the article, Emma wondered why, as you might, if a flagpole existed on a certain building and the owners wanted the flag to be flown in the postcard view, didn’t they simply raise the flag? She first concluded that “it may have been impossible for the photographer to have waited until the flag unfurled in the breeze if his work schedule was tight.”

But during her inventory of Teich files, the frequency of the requests to add flags seemed to go beyond anything she could imagine, “even assuming… patriotism was running high.” And that did not explain a client requesting that a flag or “modern auto” be added to a photograph where there was no flagpole and no car.

As she studied the files and photographs. something occurred to her: “These materials served to suggest… what America may have been and what it wanted to be. I saw America on its way to becoming a modern 20th century nation. I observed some parts of America still in the process of becoming modern and, if some fell short of the mark, civic pride would not allow such a fault to be shown to the rest of the world. Just as a collage brings together common items that suggest a reality more meaningful than its parts, so too do these work files evoke an image of America that speaks of the romance and reality of the year 1926.”

In addition to imparting to us a small portion of her extensive knowledge and love of postcards, Ms. Smith highlighted cards specific to Edgewater and close environs during her presentation: the Belle Shore, Grandeur Hotel, Winthrop Terrace, the Sovereign Hotel, Kenmore Beach, the Coronado, the Winona, Villa Sweden, Brown Bear Restaurant, Angel Guardian Orphanage, Ebenezer Lutheran Church, Capitol State Savings Bank, Edgewater State Bank, a Lill Coal truck and the Edgewater Rink.

Thank you, Katherine Hamilton-Smith, for a wonderful presentation that showed us just how much postcards help us understand past and present times.