Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Postcards and the Sense of Place

My review of John A. Jakle and Keith A. Sculle, Picturing Illinois: Twentieth-Century Postcard Art from Chicago to Cairo (University of Illinois Press, 2012). This review was just published in Springhouse magazine, 30:5.

Postcards are wonderful to collect. Ebay, antique stores, and flea markets provide plenty of opportunities to purchase antique cards. I’ve been collecting postcards from my hometown, Vandalia, IL, for many years: the business district, the Vandalia Line railroad, local highways, the town’s two major hotels, local churches, and motels. One postcard, of a train passing over the Kaskaskia River railroad bridge, is postmarked 1907. Publishers include H. H. Bregstone (a St. Louis photographer), Curt Teich (discussed below), an early 20th century Vandalia photographer named McLeod, and some 1950s postcards by my photographer cousin Don Jones. When I saw this new book Picturing Illinois advertised, I immediately preordered a copy, not only because of the subject but also I appreciated yet another important contribution to cultural history by these two authors.

John Jakle and Keith Sculle have coauthored several books like their "Gas, Food, Lodging" trilogy----The Gas Station in America (John Hopkins University Press, 1994), The Motel in America (John Hopkins University Press, 1996), and Fast Food: Roadside Restaurants in the Automobile Age (John Hopkins University Press, 1998)--- as well as Signs in America's Auto Age: Signatures of Landscapes and Places (University of Iowa Press, 2004), and Motoring: The Highway Experience in America (University of Georgia Press, 2008). They also contributed articles to The National Road and A Guide to the National Road (both published by John Hopkins University Press, 1996). Sculle, whom I’ve been pleased to know for several years, is the recently retired head of research and education for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, and Jakle is prefessor emeritus of geography at the University of Ilinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“Postal cards” were cards sold by the U.S. Postal Service beginning in the 1860s and were used as advertisements. But “postcards” as we think of them---a photo or artwork produced and sold by companies other than the USPS, on which one could write short messages and then mail---began in the 1890s (p. 17). These cards quickly became very popular, not only to be sent but also to be saved. Many people kept postcards in albums and trunks, making possible their later abundance (in good condition) on the antique market (p. 20). The authors point out that early cards accentuated the positive: “images that spoke in superlatives of technical prowess, of economic prosperity, and, as well, of the cultural accoutrements of highened civility that seemingly derived therefrom” (p. 2). The images of business districts were depicted artistically, emphasing visual perspective; sometimes, to reduce visual clutter, the power lines and telephone lines were removed from the photo (p. 3). Several postcard publishers dominated the market (pp. 16-19). For instance, anyone familiar with mid-century postcards will recognize the name Curt Teich and Co., which popularized a linen texture to the cards (p. 18). Not only the postcards themselves, but the messages that people wrote provide a slice of life (e.g., pp. 185-186).

The authors provide an interesting history of Illinois via its depiction in postcards.  The book is a handy chronicle of the state from post-Civil War days to recent years. Part one is titled, “Chicago and Its Suburbs: The Metropolis” (pp. 23-113). “No other American city, save perhaps New York City, attracted more attention from postcard publishers than Chicago,” and also, Chicago was a major producer and distributor of postcards (p. x). The authors discuss several aspects of the Chicago area: the major stores, hotels, the stockyards, the lake and river, railroads and factories, ethnicity and race, religion, and other aspects of the city and metropolitan area. About a hundred different postcards are reproduced, reflecting these aspects of the history.

Part two is “Illinois beyond the Metropolis” (pp. 115-184). That is the term the authors prefer, rather than “downstate.” Nearly a hundred more postcards depict business districts, neighborhoods highways and bridges, court houses and churches, farms, lakes, institutions like hospitals and colleges, and other aspects of different places. “Egypt” is discussed on pages 178-179. Of course, Abraham Lincoln is a powerful presence in Illinois’ legacy, and postcards reflect this connection.

The authors provide a good representative sample of Illinois’ towns and postcards. Of course they have to omit many, many Illinois towns that had postcard views. Here are the places they discuss and depict. The downstate cities are: Springfield, Peoria, Rock Island and Moline, Rockford, Bloomington-Normal, Champaign-Urbana, Decatur, East St. Louis, Alton, Quincy, Danville, Jacksonville, and Galesburg. The authors also provide postcards from smaller towns: Bunker Hill, Monmouth, Lincoln, Savanna, San Jose, Vandalia, Niles Center, Pana, Hoopeston, Bridgeport, Union, Cullom, Chrisman, Genesco, Havana, Metamora, Lena, Merna, Harrisburg, Tuscola, Shawneetown, Galena, Pittsfield, and Cairo. (Figure 170  on p. 168 is a postcard of the First Trust & Savings bank in Harrisburg, from about 1930, while figure 172 is the old national bank in Shawneetown from about 1900.) Also included are farm postcards from McLean and Vermilion Counties and the Homer, IL area, novelty postcards from Boody and Magnolia, and cards from Starved Rock State Park. The authors include four Vandalia
postcards including one of my favorites, a view of the business district (figure 152B), published by Benke in Salem, IL.

In the epilogue, the authors contrast life in Illinois’ two great areas. Cards from Chicago emphasized the energy and bustle of the city, while cards from other Illinois places emphasized small-town charm, business districts more modest than the city’s, and farming regions. Thus, postcard companies “helped perpetuate the notion that Chicago and Illinois beyond the metropolis were two distinctive social spheres” and “tended to negate the ways in which Chicago and its downstate hinterland were, in fact, closely related” both culturally and economically (p. 188). And yet, the regions of Illinois were also “places where common lifestyles were possible” (p. 188). Ironically, people later in the 20th century tended to gravitate to “the idealized values of the small community, and a preferred iconography of places rooted more in a romanticized small-town pastoralism” (p. 189), the aspects of place that the early postcard publishers of Chicago had valued less.

The translation of history into geography is an important aspect of the cards. “What was emphasized in postcard views was history translated into material culture---especially history as implicated in things architectural or, perhaps better said, at the scale of landscape... Each postcard publisher’s array of images created an iconography in which depictions of the built environment (and sometimes the natural environment as well) combined to visually represent localities. Publishers also sought to picture important events or ongoing activities---history in the making, so to speak. But mainly it was history hardened into geography---places viewed as deriving over time through one or another process of change” (p. 21). Postcards also give people an excellent and positive sense of place, “remembered landscapes and places” that “fulfill actual geographies in interesting ways” (p. 189).

Finding postcards from your favorite communities and places will give you a wonderful and handy look at local history. Jakle’s and Sculle’s book not only give you the background of postcards but an excellent history of the past 140 years or so of Illinois history, with the benefit of showing how Illinoisans themselves viewed their state.

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