History

Vintage Postcards Will Send You on a Whimsical Roadtrip Across the US

Chicago’s Newberry Library has acquired and digitized the nation’s largest trove of postcards and related materials.

Postcard of the World’s Only Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota (1928) (all images courtesy the Newberry Library)

In the 1950s, visitors to the IQ Zoo, an animal training facility and tourist attraction in Hot Springs, Arkansas, could buy a 10-cent postcard from a chicken, as a souvenir of their trip. Fittingly, the so-called “Clucking Clerk” was immortalized with its own postcard, which depicts the obedient bird in a cage-like booth, complete with a microphone.

“This performing animal demonstrates a brand new method of animal training,” the card’s description reads. “The animal has been trained by animal psychologist Keller Breland, at Hot Springs, Arkansas. Breland’s animals learn by the reward system. No punishment is used.”

 

Postcard of The Clucking Clerk, a chicken trained to give you postcards, in Hot Springs, Arkansas (1930/1939)

The Clucking Clerk postcard is a prime example of the strange stories and often forgotten histories that many old postcards carry. Last year, Chicago’s Newberry library acquired the Curt Teich Postcard Archives Collection, acknowledged as the nation’s largest public trove of postcards and related material. To highlight some of the curiosities these images record, its digital team recently launched “Postcard Road Trip,” an interactive online tour of America told through about 60 vintage postcards.

Click from city to city to stumble upon one-of-a-kind attractions, from the still-standing Corn Palace in South Dakota — a building covered with corn, grains, and grasses — to the drive-through Pioneer Cabin Tree in California — which fell at the start of this year. Each is a window into some truly American experience.

The project grew out of a personal effort by Will Hansen, the library’s curator of Americana, to tweet out a postcard a day, from Independence Day until Labor Day, sharing depictions of notable landmarks throughout the contiguous 48 states.

“This past summer I didn’t have a lot of travel planned, and no real road trips, which I love,” Hansen told Hyperallergic. “So on the 4th of July I decided I’d combine these two things and explore (and promote) our postcard collections to take a vicarious road trip across the country, focusing on some of quintessentially American road trip stops: roadside attractions, tourist traps, and amusement parks.”

The Newberry’s interactive Postcard Roadtrip (screenshot via newberry.org)

For the last year, thousands of postcards in the Curt Teich Postcard Archives Collection have been available online in the form of low-resolution scans of both their fronts and their backs; Hansen’s tweets provided an opportunity to create something that engages the public with a sample of this archival material in a fun way.

You can either explore the map by choosing your own cities, or follow Hansen’s route, which begins with the Corn Palace and ends in his base of Chicago, where the world’s tallest candle, made of solid wax, apparently once resided (it stood at 18 feet and three inches, and weighed 2,250 pounds). Along the way, Hansen makes stops by the world’s largest chair in Thomasville, North Carolina; a penny arcade in Denver; Ant Farm‘s Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, Texas; and the world’s largest hand-dug well in Greensburg, Kansas — that postcard is
“almost a Malevich or Lissitsky painting,” as Hansen described it.

 

Postcard of “The Southwest’s Most Beautiful Service Station, Pricard & Brosseau, 11th and Walker” in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma (1936)

Many of these postcards were made by the Curt Teich Company, which operated in Chicago between 1898 and 1978 as the world’s largest printer of color postcards from across the US. When it shuttered, the Teich family donated the company’s archives to the Lake County Discovery Museum in Illinois, which then transferred them to the Newberry. The 2.5 million items include over half a million unique postcard images as well as the photographs, prints, sketches, and other materials needed to produce the postcards. The examples Hansen highlights are just very small fraction of this massive trove, and they’re a delightful representation of American visual culture in the late-19th and 20th centuries. If you’re inclined to continue your travels, the library currently offers uninterrupted access to 18,000 more digitized postcards on its website.

 

Postcard of Devils Gorge in White City, Chicago, Illinois (1900-1910)
Postcard of “Alps, Longest Scenic Ride in America, Willow Grove Park,” in Willow Grow, Pennsylvania (1940)
Postcard of the largest hand-dug well in Greensburg, Kansas (1940/1949)
Postcard of a giant cranberry cocktail bottle in Onset, Massachusetts (1935)
Postcard of an a logging train for tourists in Harbor Springs, Michigan (1900/1909)
Postcard of grottos in the Gunewald Hotel’s famous nightclub, “The Cave,” in New Orleans, Louisiana (1910/1919)
Postcard of the American Meteorite Museum in Winslow, Arizona (1940/1949)
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