During a large portion of the 20th century, postcards were the most popular way to communicate if you were travelling. Once you got to Niagara Falls or the Grand Canyon or the Florida alligator farms, you sat and wrote to all your friends and family back home how lovely the spot was and how much they would enjoy the sights.
By the late 1920s the postcard industry exploded with the coming of personal auto use. No longer did tourists do all their travelling on railroads, and as roads and highways expanded and improved, so too did the commercialism that sprouted up beside them.
The bucolic roadside scene of the 1920s evolved as highways were built and the autos on them could travel farther and farther. This also changed the roadside into one of gas stations, diners, and places of lodging, along with the roadside “attractions” to get you out of your car and enjoy some local color.
Images of national parks, shrines, and scenic wonders were still very popular post cards, but to stay one step ahead of the competition, savvy roadside business owners began to offer postcards with their business on the front of the card and a few words about their accommodations, wares and services on the other side. Write to the folks back home, stick a one cent stamp on it, and that was it. Free advertising for the business owner.
Rarely were autos the main focus of postcards. The establishments that catered to those that journeyed by autos offered a unique microcosm of the travelling society of the day.
“Modern up-to-date headed cabins with running water, toilets, wash basins, electric lights, inner spring mattresses, shower baths, refreshment booth and breakfast room,” was a common phrase on the writing side of a card. “Full service, flats repaired, and oil changes in 10 minutes,” was common on gas station cards, or “the finest cooking in the region” for the restaurant or diner for those on the go.
The early postcards were painted images mass-produced with a lack of clarity. As photography became popular and affordable, black and white postcards hit the market. But these took a back seat on the postcard racks when German native Curt Teich developed a process of cheaply printing mass quantities of color cards by merging a black and white image colored through lithography. This began in earnest in the 1930s.
A Teich postcard salesman would travel the country taking photos, and orders, and each order would have a basic color scheme approved by the business owner. Back at the company shop in Chicago, a staff would paint the photo in color as per the owner’s request and then the artwork would go on the presses. A great deal of airbrushing was performed on the images, and a lot of artistic license was employed. Items such as garbage cans, telephone wires, and people were removed from the original image, but the sky in the background was always a pleasing blue with puffy clouds.
These semi-glossy postcards were known as “linen” cards, because of their finish, and it is estimated that Teich produced cards of 400,000 different subjects in North America from the 1930s until the 1960s.
While Teich cards were the most prevalent at this time, there were other postcard printers, and several of them began producing cards which were actual color photos. By the mid 1970s Teich was out of business as the popularity of postcards dwindled. Today postcards are available at major tourist attractions, but the four-by-six inch reflections of a society on wheels can no longer be found. Postcards of the 21st century entail shooting a photo with your cell phone and emailing it to the folks back home or posting it on a social media platform.
Postcard collecting is a popular hobby, and not expensive. Collecting cards of roadside scenes may be a bit of a challenge, but a lot of the fun in collecting is in the hunt. It is a side to our history that has vanished along with the roadside filling stations and diners and trading posts.