Book Reviews, Essays

Book Review – Postcard America: Curt Teich and the Imaging of a Nation 1931-1950

Postcard America: Curt Teich and the Imaging of a Nation 1931-1950
By Jay Meilke
Copyright 2016
University of Texas Press
520 Pages, $45.00

1900s postcard of the Curt Teich postcard factory in Chicago. Many of the postcards that will illustrate Faded Highways were designed and printed in this factory.

Curt Teich and Company began printing the linen postcard in Chicago in 1931 and sold hundreds of thousands of them over the course of the next 20 years. Postcard America: Curt Teich and the Imaging of a Nation 1931-1950  is their story. Jeffrey Meikle gives us not only an extensive history of Curt Teich & Co. and its cards, but a comprehensive observation of the cards’ cultural significance. For someone like me who loves these postcards for their beautiful images and the cultural history they hold, this book is a genuine treasure.

Postcards have been recording our cultural history en masse since their popularity exploded during the Columbian Exposition of Chicago in 1893. That’s when they were introduced to the crowds as souvenirs of their visit to that year’s World’s Fair. They’re popularity didn’t slow down for decades. They’ve undergone some changes since then, but none were as unique as the linen postcard. These cards, called linens because of their embossed surfaces that resemble linen fabric, were little pieces of artwork that included photography, painting and graphic manipulation to create the perfect image of a memory for its customer. Postcard America: Curt Teich and the Imaging of a Nation 1931-1950 is the first time anyone has taken a comprehensive look into the process, places and the people behind linen postcards. If, like me, mid-century history and nostalgia is your thing you will love this book.

Postcard America: Curt Teich and the Imaging of a Nation 1931-1950 is divided into four sections, the first being a readable, brief history of postcards in general and Curt Teich’s role in that history. This leads right into the beginning of the linen postcard industry and Curt Teich’s dominance of it during the early days of the linen phenomenon. The next section is a “portfolio” of cards called, “Landscapes.” This portfolio is broken down into the sections: Representative Vistas, The Southwest: A Regional Aesthetic, Travel and Tourism, Scenic People, Resources and Infrastructure and Transportation. The second portfolio is “Cityscapes” and includes sections devoted to postcards with scenes of: Overviews, Skyscrapers, Main Streets, Landmarks, Recreation, World’s Fairs and Accommodations.

Linen postcards weren’t at all like the black and white, documentary-type of photography that the Real Photo Postcards before them were. The linens were manipulated images meant to respond to the bleak years following the Great Depression they came of age in. They were a record for the way “people wanted things to look.” John Baeder, the realist painter and postcard collector said, “their popular imagery defies the dark cloud of the the 1930s.” And so it was. Curt Teich’s new trademarked color process, C.T. Art-Colortone, was introduced (it was more of a “happy accident” as the reader sees in the book) to produce these bright, surreal images of everything from architecture to highways to national parks in the light America wanted them to be in.

There is a somewhat detailed description of the C.T. Art-Colortone process that produced the linen postcards. I love knowing that the sales agents were very often the designers of these cards too. Meilke describes the process in detail from the initial source photograph to the Art Institute of Chicago artists who made collages out of several photographs for one postcard to the retouch department’s hand in creating the bright, vivid colors used in every linen and ultimately the printing process for them.

Postcard America: Curt Teich and the Imaging of a Nation 1931-1950 is a beautiful book that is not at all cluttered or overwhelming. It certainly could have been. There are just enough images of the cards for the book to have a visual presence but there’s plenty of room left for Meilke’s detailed history of the linen postcard. I especially found Meilke’s thoughts of each individual card ambitious without giving the reader information overload. Again, all of this easily could have gone the way of being cluttered and overwhelming given the volume of cards available to Meilke from the Curt Teich job files he had access to as he was writing this book, but it wasn’t at all. I found myself wanting more. I love knowing that there are more people out there who are as fascinated as I am about the history within these postcards. Reading Meilke’s history of them here almost felt like I was having a discussion with him about each individual card. It was a terrific read.

The final section of the book, “From a Rearview Mirror: Contemporary Reflections,” is a nice wrap up of all this book has covered. These cards are our every day American history. They are, as the author writes, “wanderers through time.” With linen postcards, however, the actual past they survived from was not the one portrayed on their vivid, surreal surfaces” but the one the people of the day wanted their history to be.

I’ve had this book for a while now, and I still have it out on the coffee table and pick it up often. The book is beautiful.

First reviewed by me on Goodreads October 12, 2016.