Something to Write Home About

This past fall, the Newberry acquired the Curt Teich Postcard Archives Collection from the Lake County Forest Preserves District. Generally considered the largest public collection of such material in the country, the collection’s 500,000 individual postcards span a century of American visual culture.

Situated at the intersection of art, commerce, memory, and communication, the postcards offer not just a window onto the past but a mirror reflecting the poses that people, businesses, and governments struck for all the world to see. The Teich Company’s own large-letter (“Greetings from…”) design illustrates this well. Spelling out the name of a state, city, or town, each letter features a different attraction—whether natural, historical, or commercial—that is, ostensibly, central to the identity of the place.

Collectively, the 500,000 postcards are a gallery showcasing America’s evolving conception of itself—and its place on the global stage—during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Thanks to the Teich Company’s thorough archiving ethic, the Teich materials also include nearly 100,000 job files that the firm compiled as it churned out orders for clients.

The files document the different stages of a postcard’s development, from sketch or photograph to store-ready memento. The amount of documentation varies from one job file to another; the most robust of them contain photographs, negatives, sketches, proofs, and notes instructing Teich artists on color, image beautification, and other considerations for realizing a client’s vision.

One especially good example is the set of materials showing the genesis of a 1937 postcard promoting the Brockton Shoe Company’s “Fall Tips for Young Men.”

The original sketch established the essential elements that would appear in the finished postcard. To the left are two shoe cut-outs (which the artist may have gotten from a company catalog), and to the right is a vignette of a spirited crowd cheering at a football game.

After reviewing this sketch, the Teich district rep responsible for the Brockton account suggested toning down the vignette lest it divert attention from the real focus of the postcard—the shoes. In an internal memo, the rep advised the Teich team to “make the colors in the football scene not quite so festive as I did in sketch. Detracts from rest of card. Make them darker, heavier colors as per your judgement.”

Given how the card turned out, this appears to be exactly what the company did.

By Alex Teller, Director of Communications and Editorial Services

This blog post has been adapted from a longer article that appears in the Spring 2017 issue of The Newberry Magazine.

To learn how to access the Curt Teich Postcard Archives Collection online or in person, visit the Teich research guide on our website.