Sharing the World: The Postcard Collection at the Newberry Library | Archives Deep Dive

While most people think of postcards as inexpensive media showing iconic places, they may not realize the opportunities that postcards can hold for understanding the past. The Chicago-based Newberry Library houses one of the largest collections of postcards in the United States.

"Greetings from Chicago" from the Curt Teich Postcard Archives Collection
Courtesy the Newberry Library

While most people think of postcards as inexpensive media showing iconic places, they may not realize the opportunities that postcards can hold for understanding the past. These ephemeral messages were an extremely popular form of communication in the beginning of the 20th century. Independent historian and writer Lydia Pyne reports that between 1907 and 1908, U.S. Americans alone sent 667 million postcards; some estimates suggest that people sent 2 billion postcards in the first two decades of the past century. The Chicago-based Newberry Library houses one of the largest collections of postcards in the United States.

The collection spans from the 1880s to 2010s, with the bulk of postcards dating from 1900–80, explained Will Hansen, director of reader services/curator of Americana. He estimated that the Newberry has between 2 and 2.5 million objects in its postcard collection, including administrative materials from postcard companies, and of course, the cards themselves.

“If we are interested in American culture, visual culture worldwide, how people communicated via…physical media throughout the century, I think postcards are going to be of interest to us,” Hansen said. “They’re important for specific postcards, for the messages that they can convey from person to person, but also as a visual archive of how the U.S. [and] other countries around the world were depicted.”

A significant part of the collection is composed of postcards and administrative materials from the Chicago-based Curt Teich & Company that the library acquired from the Lake County Discovery Museum in 2016. Curt Teich was considered one of the most prolific producers of postcards in the 20th century; estimates suggest that the company released a billion postcards. In addition to the Teich collection, at the time the Newberry also acquired smaller postcard collections from notable publishers, including the Detroit Publishing Company Collection and the Leonard A. Lauder Raphael Tuck Collection.

Ralph Teich, a descendent of Curt Teich, rescued the material from the factory when it was demolished and gave it to the Lake County Discovery Museum because Ralph Teich had lived in the county. However, since the large collection required many resources to maintain and had little to do with Lake County aside from its donor, the museum made the decision to find a better home for it, and eventually deemed Newberry the best place.

Hansen said that acquiring the collection made sense, since the library had the “perfect postcard-sized hole in our collections. We collect for the history of printing, American history, maps, travel, and exploration. Postcards are right in between all those things, as well as [having] the Chicago connection.”

sepia tone postcard showing African American barbershop, two barbers (man and woman) behind chairs and young man sitting against wall
African Americans, including three sitting patrons, as well as two barbers (a man and a woman), are gathered in a barbershop.
Johns Hopkins University African-American real photo postcard collection 1912 accessed 9/5/22,

While the library had postcards from other collections before the acquisition, the Teich Archives have since become a major part of the library’s core collection, said Hansen. The Newberry has subsequently acquired collections of postcards related to Route 66, from or about the World’s Fairs and Expositions all around the world and specific to Chicago, Chicago and Fort Sheridan, sports, and more. However, it has limited space and ability to accept new collections.

Researchers have found many different ways to use the archive. Jeffrey L. Meikle’s 2016 history Postcard America focused largely on the Curt Teich Company, while Lydia Pyne recently published Postcards: The Rise and Fall of the World’s First Social Network. In addition to writers and historians, college students have used the archive; a Colorado College student did a project on the stereotypical and offensive depiction of Native Americans along Route 66 in postcards, and others have studied the World’s Fairs. A scholar from Massachusetts examined the John I. Monroe Collection of Sports Postcards looking for messages related to baseball or from particular games.

Other scholars are interested in understanding printing history through the postcards. Hansen noted that City College of New York Associate Professor of Art History Ellen Handy “has been keenly interested in the Teich company’s processes and salesmanship from her perspective as an art historian.”

Some of the most notable cards in the collection include the Waverley Cycles postcard by Alphonse Mucha, a Czech painter and graphic artist known for his Art Nouveau designs. The Newberry has a postcard of the Titanic, which Hansen says is a “big ticket” item for postcard collectors. He also likes “real photo” postcards—in the early 20th century, companies sold special cameras that let people take their own photos on postcard stock to send to friends. He’s also fond of Curt Teich Greeting cards, where the town’s name is spelled out in big type with iconic images inside the letters.



Some postcards depict more overtly political themes, such as the suffrage and temperance movements. Others depict overtly racist subjects such as the Ku Klux Klan and lynching.

The collection also contains production archives, primarily of the Teich Company. These include administrative records, notably production files that show the process from a postcard design’s request to its final printing. In addition to providing useful information about past printing processes, they show how postcards were made. While people may take a picture postcard at face value, it’s important to know that images could be altered or elements omitted.

Hansen explained that while it’s hard to know how many Teich Company postcards were altered from the original photo, often postcards from the first half of the decade were “altered in one way or another, at least until their processes moved from coloring images that started as black-and-white photos to printing from color negatives in the ’50s and ’60s.”

In addition to colorizing photos, sometimes postcards were substantially altered for a variety of reasons, Hansen said, such as “to remove a sign that included a trademark or other company’s name or other undesirable element like that; but most often it was, indeed, to make the image more attractive or appealing in one way or another.”

Pyne noted, “I think that the degree of post processing that happens depends on the visual story that the [postcard’s] commissioner wants told.”

Often it was a matter of removing a tree or an obstruction, but sometimes it was bigotry. For example, one of the Newberry’s items is a postcard based on a photograph of a group of children fishing at the side of a river. The card had been commissioned by a drug store in Monroe, NY, that specifically requested everyone in the picture be white. The original photograph shows several children of color as well, but the final version only shows the white children.

As Pyne explained in her lecture on the postcards at the Newberry, while many may think of postcards as fun and personal, they sometimes reflected the dominant cultural mores of the day, including white supremacy.

Even in instances where images were not altered outright, the choice of what was chosen to be photographed was often mediated by social, economic, and political factors. “Taking them as some sort of objective reality is always kind of dangerous,” Hansen explained.

Curt Teich took commissions from a broad spectrum of businesses and people. The company published postcards from Black business owners, but the company also took “at least a handful of orders from the Klan and Klan-affiliated businesses in the 1910s and ’20s,” Hansen noted.

Pyne said that she never came across an instance when the company turned down a commission. However, it’s important to recognize that these collections represent only a fraction of the postcards printed and sent at the time. These were the postcards that were saved in company archives or by individuals, for a variety of reasons.

sepia tone postcard showing Black couple, man standing and woman seated
African American newlywed couple on the day after their wedding, posing for a studio portrait.
Johns Hopkins University African-American real photo postcard collection 1923, accessed 9/5/22,

Some Black-owned companies produced their own postcards, often from individual photographers with their own studios who made real photo postcards. For instance, while the Black-owned Toussaint Pictorial Company may be best known for its patriotic films and posters showcasing Black contributions in World War I, the company also created one million postcards of Black soldiers.

The Johns Hopkins University (JHU) Sheridan Libraries and University Museum in Baltimore holds the African American Real Photo Postcard Collection that contains over 1,000 real photo cards depicting Black people from the early 20th century. While collections like the Teich came from a single source, or several, many of these cards were made by individual photographers and studios. Only a small number had messages or were sent, explained Gabrielle Dean, curator of rare books & manuscripts at JHU. Many were exchanged between family and friends and kept in photo albums. This collection was assembled by collectors who found the postcards at fairs and stores, rather than from people’s albums.

As a result, there’s not a great deal known about the context of each card, Dean noted. Some have some identifying information such as a name, address, or photographer’s stamp, but many do not. But what is clear, Dean said, is that iconography suggests that in the vast majority of the cards the subjects have a certain amount of agency to determine their representation. Images show Black families in front of their homes as well as photos taken in studios, where they sometimes posied with props, including fake cars. “Getting your portrait done in a studio is often kind of aspirational about looking your best,” Dean explained.

The collection has been used by scholars like Debra Willis, professor and chair of the Department of Photography & Imaging at New York University, who used the collection in her work on Black photography, and in JHU exhibitions including Freedom Papers: Black Assertions from the Archives and the student-curated American Selfie.

Whether a mass-produced or real photo postcard, these cards show the world as its creators (or commissioners) wanted it to be seen, whether to advertise a place, business, or way of life.

We may not send as many postcards in the age of social media, but when we do drop a card in the mailbox to send to friends and family, it’s not only a snapshot of the place we visited, but our own times and lives.

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