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Postcard America

Postcard America
Curt Teich and the Imaging of a Nation, 1931-1950

Extensively illustrated with representative images, this unique book illuminates the cultural significance of the highly colorized “linen” postcards that depicted a glowing America in the 1930s and 1940s and that fascinate collectors today.

January 2016
Active (available)
$45.00
520 pages | 7 x 10 | 213 color and 7 b&w photos |
ISBN: 
978-0-292-72661-1
Description: 

From the Great Depression through the early postwar years, any postcard sent in America was more than likely a “linen” card. Colorized in vivid, often exaggerated hues and printed on card stock embossed with a linen-like texture, linen postcards celebrated the American scene with views of majestic landscapes, modern cityscapes, roadside attractions, and other notable features. These colorful images portrayed the United States as shimmering with promise, quite unlike the black-and-white worlds of documentary photography or Life magazine. Linen postcards were enormously popular, with close to a billion printed and sold.

Postcard America offers the first comprehensive study of these cards and their cultural significance. Drawing on the production files of Curt Teich & Co. of Chicago, the originator of linen postcards, Jeffrey L. Meikle reveals how photographic views were transformed into colorized postcard images, often by means of manipulation—adding and deleting details or collaging bits and pieces from several photos. He presents two extensive portfolios of postcards—landscapes and cityscapes—that comprise a representative iconography of linen postcard views. For each image, Meikle explains the postcard’s subject, describes aspects of its production, and places it in social and cultural contexts. In the concluding chapter, he shifts from historical interpretation to a contemporary viewpoint, considering nostalgia as a motive for collectors and others who are fascinated today by these striking images.

Awards: 

Choice Magazine Outstanding Academic Title List

Contents: 
  • Acknowledgments
  • 1. "They Do Say It's Real": An Introduction to Linen Postcards
  • 2. Curt Teich and the Early History of Postcards
  • 3. The Linen Postcard: Innovation and Aesthetics
  • 4. Landscapes in Linen Postcards: A National Imaginary
  • Portfolio I: Landscapes
    • Representative Vistas
    • The Southwest: A Regional Aesthetic
    • Travel and Tourism
    • Scenic People
    • Resources
    • Infrastructure and Transportation
  • 5. Cityscapes in Linen Postcards: Images of Modernity
  • Portfolio II: Cityscapes
    • Overviews
    • Skyscrapers
    • Main Streets
    • Landmarks
    • Recreation
    • World's Fairs
    • Accommodations
  • 6. From a Rearview Mirror: Contemporary Reflections
  • Notes
  • Illustration Credits
  • Index
Author: 

Austin, Texas

Meikle teaches in the departments of American Studies and Art and Art History at the University of Texas at Austin, where he holds the Stiles Professorship in American Studies. His previous books include American Plastic: A Cultural History, which was awarded the Dexter Prize by the Society for the History of Technology; Design in the USA; and Twentieth Century Limited: Industrial Design in America, 1925–1939.

 

Excerpts: 

“They Do Say It’s Real”

An Introduction to Linen Postcards

Early in March 1937 a woman in western New York received a colorful postcard offering a vivid contrast to the gloom of late winter (fig. 1.1). Sent from Tucson, Arizona, the card illustrates a radiant desert landscape in nearby Sahuaro National Monument. Several majestic saguaro cactuses stand tall against a sky artfully streaked with reds, yellows, and purples. Long shadows, anticipating a gorgeous sunset, cross a dirt road curving toward a distant horizon of purple mountains. Although the recipient’s reaction to the card is unknown, the sender conveyed something of her state of mind in the fragmentary style of most such messages. “How come I haven’t heard from you,” she asked, “do I owe you a letter (as usual)?” Her question demonstrates a basic function of postcards, reminding friends or relatives that one is thinking of them without having to say anything more. She also offered evidence of a common problem with popular forms of visual representation. “Haven’t seen this,” she admitted, referring to the card’s desert scene, “but they do say it’s real.”

Her expression of doubt may merely indicate a belief that “seeing is believing.” From our perspective, however, the postcard’s image, composed of bold dark lines contrasting with delicate color washes, falls midway between the apparent realism of a color photograph and the imaginative license of a watercolor or pastel. An examination of the card’s surface reveals an embossed pattern of delicate parallel lines running horizontally and vertically, some more prominent than others, suggesting the weave of an artist’s canvas, on which the image is printed. Seen through twenty-first-century eyes, this image represents the general idea of a desert landscape but hardly seems a photographic slice of a particular moment of reality. Even so, this postcard and thousands of others comprise a popular full-color portrayal of the United States during an era often later envisioned as existing in monotone black-and-white. If these cards seem now to fall short of realism, they must have been accepted in their own time as at least approximating reality.

Linen postcards, so called for their embossed surfaces resembling linen cloth, dominated the American market for landscape view cards from 1931 into the early 1950s. By then, competing cards known as “chromes,” with shiny surfaces based on Kodachrome color transparencies, were in the process of replacing them. The linen variety, so unlike any other postcards before or since, was originated by Curt Teich & Co. of Chicago and widely imitated by other printers. Based on retouched black-and-white photographs, linen cards were printed by offset lithography on inexpensive card stock in vivid, exaggerated colors. Teich’s sales booklets celebrated the “striking note of smartness” of the “linenized effect” and praised these “beautiful miniature paintings” as the most “aristocratic of all post cards.”2 In fact, however, they were printed by the millions, were often sold for just a penny, and were sometimes given away by businesses as promotional items. Linen postcards offered a unique, recognizable vision of America. Whether representing natural landscapes, roadside attractions, or marvels of modern technology, the miniature images of linen view cards, about 3½ by 5½ inches in size, portrayed the American scene as shimmering with promise during the uncertain times of the Great Depression and World War II (fig. 1.2). Their saturated colors provided a popular view of the United States not displayed in grainy newspaper photos, high-contrast Life magazine photos, or the stark documentary work of photographers such as Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans.

These colorful postcards remained submerged for decades, hidden away in neglected albums and shoeboxes. Only recently has this alternative vision risen into popular and historical consciousness. Some linen cards have entered museum collections or historical archives after the deaths of original purchasers or recipients. Descendants have inherited and kept others. Most cards that survived natural attrition by now have passed to dealers and collectors through estate sales and auctions. Although postcard collectors have existed since the early 1900s, linen cards have attained status as true collectibles only recently as their era receded into history and their style acquired a desirable retro quality. As for historians, while some have reproduced linen postcards as illustrations in books devoted to other topics, no one has yet fully examined their significance as cultural artifacts. My interpretation of linen postcards involves a dual approach, considering primarily their meanings for the people who initially purchased, sent, received, or saved them, and secondarily their quite different meanings for people who later collected or drew inspiration from them. For a cultural historian, the encyclopedic iconography of these view cards offers a window onto popular middle-class attitudes about nature, wilderness, race and ethnicity, technology, mobility, and the city during an era of intense transformation that was often self-consciously referred to as “the machine age.” For a collector, on the other hand, despite the status of these cards as historical artifacts, they may awaken nostalgia for a lost world evoked by colorized images whose details were exaggerated in the first place.

Although postcards might seem simple objects, they have served relatively complex purposes. Acquiring a postcard has often verified one’s presence at a tourist site or other location and conveyed virtual possession of that place when a visitor left with its miniature image in hand. Although some tourists have collected postcards as personal souvenirs, others have mailed them to friends and relatives while en route or after returning from a trip. Postcards also facilitated communication with acquaintances in nearby towns during the early twentieth century, when postage was only a penny (half that of a letter), mail was delivered twice daily and in some places even more frequently, and long-distance telephone service was prohibitively expensive. Recipients often discarded such functional cards but sometimes kept them for their images. Cards sent by traveling friends or relatives have often played more problematic roles. Such cards might have aroused envy if recipients had not personally visited the pictured sites, or they might have evoked expanded horizons by suggesting places for future visits. A postcard acquired while traveling and saved for years or decades by the purchaser might later have become a key to reviving personal memories. In some cases, a card’s conventionalized image might have served as the only reminder that a person had actually visited a particular place at some point in the past. Finally, for a present-day observer, a collection of stylized postcards from the 1930s and ’40s might provoke nostalgia or even suggest an idealized alternate reality or retro-utopia, an enticingly close parallel world.

When considering linen postcards in the context of their own time, we must assume that people who purchased, sent, or received them regarded these views of the American scene as approximations of reality. Any doubt in the phrase “they do say it’s real” referred more to the astonishing saguaro cactuses themselves than to the degree of fabrication involved in their portrayal on the postcard. Over the years enough people have marked an X on the window of a hotel or motel room as an indication of where they stayed to suggest acceptance of postcard images as shorthand for reality. According to Caren Kaplan, an anthropologist of travel, tourists are offering “proof of the authentic” and engaging in “a technology of documenting the ‘real’” when they select and write postcards. Following her hint, this study traces the development of vibrantly colorful linen postcards as a technology of representation. Between 1931 and the early 1950s, Teich & Co. published about 45,000 unique individual views of the United States in the linen format. Imitators and competitors such as Tichnor Brothers and Colourpicture in Boston, Metrocraft in Everett, Massachusetts, and a score of smaller printers brought the total number of unique linen views to more than 100,000. A conservative estimate suggests Teich and other companies printed in total over a billion linen cards in twenty-five years.4 The presence of these cards in everyday life was significant even if people often discarded them, and their commercial success indicates popular acceptance of their collective portrait of America.

Because linen cards did not emerge in a vacuum, this book opens with a history of picture postcards beginning with the late nineteenth century. Various earlier types of view cards ranged from individual photographic prints and mechanically printed black-and-white halftone cards to lithographic cards printed in up to sixteen colors. Curt Teich, a German immigrant printer, pioneered the use of offset color lithography for postcards and in 1931 introduced the linen variety, which quickly triumphed over other types in the United States. The linen postcard’s unique aesthetic derived as much from new printing methods and economic constraints as from any intention of creating an innovative visual style. After reviewing the linen production process, one cannot help marveling that inexpensive, mass-produced artifacts designed, printed, and shipped out by the thousands from Chicago could project an aura of the local and the particular.

Tension between the generic and the specific becomes obvious when one examines the iconography of the American scene conveyed by Teich and other postcard printers. Natural and rural views, whether of eastern farms and pastures, the Appalachian and Great Smoky Mountains, the desert Southwest, the Rockies, or rugged western scenery, privileged viewers as masters of all they surveyed, sharing a democratic abundance indicated even by the very intensity of the colors in which landscapes were represented. Somewhat indebted to nineteenth-century painting styles of the Hudson River School and more obviously to western paintings by Albert Bierstadt and Thomas Moran, the makers of natural views in linen often drew directly from archives of earlier landscape photographers, as when Teich based cards on images originally distributed by William Henry Jackson or H. H. Bennett. Linen view cards recapitulated and further popularized long-standing notions of picturesque nature and wilderness.

Despite relying on earlier romantic vistas, natural scenes often included modern highways offering easy access by automobile. Emphasizing mastery over nature, the iconography of linen postcards glorified the technology of bridges, dams, and factories. Towns and cities appeared in bird’s-eye and skyline views, often at night, when electric light’s artificial brilliance emphasized outlines of buildings and window grids. Street scenes portrayed an array of commercial signs, with crowds reflecting an upbeat urban tempo (fig. 1.3). Views of landmarks heralded each locale as unique even though a common visual style conveyed a sense of the generic. Cityscape postcards often echoed the grand-style urban photography of the late nineteenth century, but on occasion they suggested parallels with Berenice Abbott and other contemporary documentary photographers. The extravagant formal qualities of linen cards were especially flattering to the stylized architecture of world’s fairs, whose popularity indicated wide faith in technological modernity during the Depression’s hard times.

Linen postcards were often used to promote individual roadside attractions, hotels, motels, and restaurants. Such commercial images emphasized the cosmopolitan styles of Art Deco and streamlining (fig. 1.4). The colorful linen process heightened their effects and suggested that machine-age technologies afforded a supremely malleable reality. The production of interior views of hotel lobbies, cocktail lounges, and other commercial establishments frequently relied on paint chips and upholstery swatches submitted by clients to authenticate patterns and colors. Cards with interior views often seem the most realistic of linens owing to their meticulous detail. Their overly fabricated realism, characterized by the painter John Baeder as having a “messed-with” quality,5 promised access for everyone to exclusive fantasy realms.

Although the American scene of linen postcards belonged mostly to middleclass whites of western European origin, members of ethnic and racial minorities, immigrants, and working-class men and women also purchased, sent, and saved them. While the typical perspective of oversight and mastery may have promised marginalized consumers a degree of inclusion, a significant number of linen cards objectified and romanticized the nation’s most visible minorities. African Americans in the South, Native Americans in the Southwest and Southeast, Mexican Americans in Texas and California, inhabitants of various urban Chinatowns, and even white Appalachian mountaineers were represented in stereotypical costumes and activities. They often appeared so passive and mute as to be naturalized into unchanging landscapes (fig. 1.5). Such representations of minorities counteracted the very modernity often celebrated by linen view cards and in doing so suggested the survival of static pockets of unchanging tradition.

My approach mostly takes postcards of the 1930s and ’40s at face value as representations of an alternate world somewhat congruent with realities perceived by their consumers. Behind the scenes, however, clients, sales agents, artists, and printers collaborated in manipulating the black-and-white photographs to which the linen colorizing process was applied. Those Americans who accepted the authenticity of postcard views would have been astonished by what was added, subtracted, shifted, or altered in moving from a glossy photograph through an airbrushed photo and hand-painted watercolor mockup to the five printing plates required for production. Detailed job files for thousands of linen cards printed by Teich reveal manipulations ranging from basic cleaning up or simplifying of images to major transformations with definite ideological intent. Although Teich’s photographers and artists were participating in a commercial venture, many took pride in their work as art. The aesthetic they collectively fostered accurately portrays aspects of its era for the very reason that the verisimilitude they took pains to capture often dissolves when closely examined.

Although these artificial images illuminate their era, they also appeal today to collectors and the general public in ways that complicate their authenticity as historical artifacts. Colorful images of Times Square and Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, for example, may evoke memories of Hollywood films. Cards illustrating swank nightclubs and streamlined diners may evoke the retro attractions of Art Deco. A card with “Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J.” emblazoned across it may recall Bruce Springsteen’s first record album even for fans who have never played it on vinyl.6 Linen postcards appeal to a secondhand nostalgia for a time lost to memory because the people who experience that nostalgia were not yet born when the cards were produced. The mediated quality of that nostalgia reminds us once again of the status of linen cards as artifacts of mass culture. And yet, surviving handwritten messages, however fragmentary or puzzling, also connect these artifacts more directly to social history. But when a particular card was written or received in the mail by a collector’s relative or ancestor, then genuine nostalgia may confuse the issue still further, yielding a complex blend of the personal and the cultural.

Nostalgic attraction partly motivates my involvement in this project. Growing up in the 1950s and ’60s, I was vaguely aware of these unusual cards as part of the vast universe of material objects. My younger brother was given every postcard that came into the house, of whatever vintage, not only brand new, shiny chromes but also older offerings from grandparents. I was fascinated by a dreary linen card bearing the title “The Legend of the Dogwood” and featuring a religious text surrounded by blossoms, which for years was tacked above a small desk in a summer cabin in northern Michigan belonging to my mother’s parents. Only a few years ago, when my mother gave me that card, did I discover that my paternal grandmother had mailed it to my maternal grandmother in February 1958, complaining about frost in Orlando and mentioning an impending trip to Texas to visit my family.7 My first professional awareness of linen postcards came in the mid-1970s while researching a dissertation on industrial design during the 1920s and ’30s. My brother loaned me several cards that had belonged to our grandparents, including one with a night view of a Goodyear blimp floating over the General Motors Building at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1933, which I wanted to use as an illustration (see p. 406). I recall spending hours at the typewriter perfecting an interpretive metaphor based on the card’s representation of an airship and a mini-skyscraper. When I finally emerged from my grad student office, I witnessed the unbelievable sight of a Goodyear blimp floating serenely over the University of Texas tower.

By the mid-1980s, I had become fascinated by the surreal look of many linen cards. I occasionally bought them in antique shops and junk stores—unused ones with blank backs, the idea being that I would mail them to friends and relatives if I ever visited the places they pictured. The unique visual qualities of linen cards had first struck me when I found an odd, nonphotographic, inkedline representation of a flying fish off the California coast (fig. 1.6). The card’s sunset hues ranged from purplish rose through greenish yellow to full yellow at the horizon line, and the ocean revealed a subtle array of blues. Perhaps there was also something compelling about the card’s message, inscribed by a father to his young children in small-town Texas. “This fish followed us all the way across to Catalina!” he exclaimed, “but this is all we could catch of him.” As with the saguaro cactuses, there is a gap, both puzzling and fascinating, between the contrived quality of the scene and the assumption that it represents reality. In any case, I soon became a collector, attracted by the images whether or not the cards had any messages. Over the next twenty-five years I collected some 6,000 linen postcards, acquiring them at flea markets, junk stores, collectors’ expos, on family vacations around the country, and at annual shows of the local postcard club.8 About 4,000 of them carry the Teich name, and about 1,800 of them are addressed and postmarked.

At first my collection contained only images that spoke to me directly, like the flying fish, demanding to be possessed. Up to a point, postcards sought me out, not the other way around. There seems to have been a resonance with childhood, perhaps a longing for a mythical time before my own existence, when imagined lives of parents and grandparents seemed, if not heroic, then at least reassuringly certain and fixed (despite realities of depression, war, and everyday life). By the end of the 1990s, after fifteen years, the collection had grown so much that I had to keep a checklist of serial numbers to avoid duplicate purchases. Some images were so compelling I kept buying them over and over, a fact suggesting things had gotten out of hand. I began to have doubts about rummaging through boxes of old cards with no purpose beyond accumulating more. Eventually the objective concerns of a cultural historian became engaged, however, and my collecting became omnivorous. Dealers and fellow collectors joked about my lack of discrimination, my refusal to settle on a specific topic or two, and my status as a self-described “bottom feeder” rummaging through boxes of bargain cards (initially a nickel or a dime apiece, later a quarter, and then finally fifty cents or a dollar). The collection eventually expanded into a relatively complete microcosm of the subject range of linen postcards.

Even so, it took a long time for me to realize that I could write as a cultural historian about linen postcards. For much of my professional life I had been writing about the period between the world wars—about topics related to that era’s visual and material culture. As it turned out, there was much to discern and interpret in the cards themselves, in their range of coverage and manner of representation. Unlike some historians who have written about postcards, I decided I would interrogate them as artifacts. I would interpret the images rather than using them as neutral illustrations of the subjects portrayed. But to consider visual images in the context of the time in which they were created and first consumed opens up issues of intention and reception. How can one determine what commercial artists and printers, many of them German immigrants, intended to convey through mass-produced images of the American scene? More problematic, how can one recover responses of original purchasers and recipients to ephemeral bits of cardboard intended to be discarded after use? And how does one know one’s own collecting parameters are not biased?

Fortunately there are wider resources for a cultural history of linen postcards than my personal collection. In 1982 Ralph D. Teich donated everything left from his father’s company to the Lake County Discovery Museum in Wauconda, Illinois, which established the Curt Teich Postcard Archives. Those materials include the job files already mentioned, family papers, a privately printed Teich autobiography and family history, sales literature for traveling agents, some in-house newsletters, a detailed company audit and inventory for 1939, a Geographical Index listing all the company’s postcards from the early twentieth century onward, multiple copies of nearly every card printed by the company, and sixty-seven large albums with a complete run of the company’s linen cards in chronological order. When I first visited the museum, these albums, which are handy for quick skimming, enabled me to track changing styles and themes of cards and to correct for my previously unrecognized prejudices as a collector. Over a week’s time I was exposed to nearly 50,000 images, flickering past as a generalized whole. That exhausting, exhilarating process convinced me that linen view postcards do embody a coherent vision of the historical American scene despite a wide range of subjects, mixed motives of thousands of clients, and wide disparities of intention and execution among individual images. That vision now functions both as a significant artifact of the cultural history of a particular era and as a powerful stimulus to nostalgic re-imaginings of the past.

Reviews: 

“In Postcard America, Jeffrey L. Meikle takes us on an incredible tour…[t]he book is breathtaking in its luxuriousness, a veritable treasure trove of American culture.”
Crave Online

Postcard America is a seminal contribution to our understanding not only about the linen postcard but also about a graphic style that once visually captured and captivated America.”
Journal of Cultural Geography

“Postcard America is an exemplary work in the broad field of visual cultural studies and one that I recommend with great enthusiasm. Jeffrey Meikle’s commentaries on these postcards are a tour de force, the work of a mature scholar with the necessary mastery of diverse disciplines—technology, social history, business history, aesthetic history, and geography. Really extraordinary and fascinating to read.”
Miles Orvell, Professor of English and American Studies, Temple University, and author of The Real Thing: Imitation and Authenticity in American Culture, 1880–1940

“A wonderfully presented, provocative, and attractive book. The author’s description of Curt Teich’s life and work, which includes a detailed account of both the artistic and the business end of his operation, is likely to be the last word on this key American image-maker for many years to come.”
Eric Sandweiss, Professor of History, Indiana University, and author of The Day in Its Color: Charles Cushman’s Journey through a Vanishing America