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Post Card Parade

by Oren Arnold

This article is reprinted from the July 29, 1944 issue of Saturday Evening Post

Which are the three magic cities in post-card sales? How do the boys in the service like leg art? What's the real reason you send cards back home when you travel? . . . You may be surprised.

It was at Houston, Texas, that an astute detective traced and caught a murderer through his preference for a certain type of post card. Known to have gaudy tastes and a fancy for railroad trains, which are not common as card subjects, he unconsciously tipped off the cop when he bought an old-style card showing a locomotive laden with huge embossed roses.

Once, when tastes were generally more gaudy, those embossed cards were big sellers. Now vanished from the post-card racks, they have been replaced by an enormous variety of penny items, some of which are even bigger sellers. For post cards have been increasingly popular in all civilized nations since the first was created in 1870 by a man named Schwartz in Oldenburg. Production in the United States became big business as early as 1905, when mailings exceeded 2,000,000 cards a day, and Coney Island alone sent out 250,000 on a single Sunday. Following that, the fad swelled to a craze, then waned, then slowly grew again, until now we mail an average of 5,000,000 a day, and post-office workers refer to them a bit resentfully as “slop.”

Nevertheless, the cards have always embodied much of the finest painting, photography, lithography, printing and generally creative ideas of the times; and they have also consistently reflected the trends in our national taste, good or bad, as well as our humor, politics, morals and current events. During the sentimental 1900’s, we bought elaborately flowered cards portraying friendship, affection, childhood, motherhood and sweetness in all its phases. In 1918, and again in this war, we turned to patriotic themes. Travel is the greatest stimulus to mailing, and war is the great wholesale promoter of travel; since Pearl Harbor, servicemen have upped post-card sales more than 100 per cent.

Surprisingly enough, the cards that sell best at a typical army camp are not girls in seductive poses or even girls at all. Nudes, lewds, and smutty outhouse cards, although they can be bought in some of the rowdy joints, are a negligible percentage of the total, and are unobtainable in the chain stores, drugstores and travel stations which are the outlets for 80 per cent of all sales. The serviceman does buy many girl cards, but these show an idealized Miss America who might be his sister or sweetheart. One California manufacturer lost $30,000 offering cards that were too girly-girly.

In any case, the best sellers are cartoon cards in which the soldier is the butt of the joke—especially when the cartoon has a regional or personal association. Out West, for instance, where most of the aviation camps are, a typical favorite is a caricature of paratroopers landing on cactus thorns. And one cartoon card owes its extraordinary success to the true love story of Corp. Joe McCallum.

Stationed in the West, Corporal Joe and Julie, a pretty clerk at a roadside trading post, fell in love. The cutest card on the trading-post rack, Joe thought, was a cartoon of an infantryman who had carelessly picked up an Indian papoose instead of his soldier’s pack. He and Julie mailed this card by the dozen.

On the very day that Joe was sent to an unknown destination, Julie thought she caught him two-timing. Too late, she learned that she was wrong. In desperation, she mailed 288 copies of their pet post card to canteens in as many cities, each bearing poignant apology and rededication of her love. Canteen hostesses were asked to pin the cards on bulletin boards, papoose side out, in the hope of catching Joe’s eye. Sure enough, in the USO at Washington, D. C., Joe saw one, and he lost no time in patching things up. The true story spread through Western camps and the card owner had to rush-order an extra million. One of a series in color done by Reg Manning, syndicated cartoonist, as an experimental side line, it became the most successful cartoon post card in history.

The over-all best seller of all time, however, is that picture of your hotel, your barracks, dormitory, camp, office building, apartment or whatever, on which you can put an “X marks my room.” Runner-up is the colored card which says in boxcar letters GREETINGS FROM the town in which you are stopping; you mail these by the million, anxious for friends and relatives to have proof that you really do go places and see thing. About half the time you add the bromide, “Wish you were here.”

America has three magic cities that consistently hold records in post cards; and one magic state. Los Angeles—which includes Hollywood—is the first city, New York a close second, and Washington crowds both of them. In New York, the Empire State Building is the best individual subject, with the Statue of Liberty, Rockefeller Center and Times Square next, in the order named. At Washington, the Capitol leads, of course; Lincoln Memorial and the White House are neck and neck for second place, with the Supreme Court steadily creeping up. In Los Angeles, it’s moviedom that builds the sales. The state which leads all the others combined in the GREETINGS FROM cards is Texas.

The old-style embossed cards are rare enough today to be collectors’ items, worth up to one dollar each. Our mothers often gathered them in albums. They ran to flowers, and their raised rose or pansy petals were apt to be topped expensively with felt, satin or silk, their edges brightened with gilt. Glass beads, tinsel, trimmings of every kind were popular in that period until the Post Office Department frowned on them because they slowed the cancellation machines. From their success in the 1900’s sprang the whole modern greeting-card industry, now vast and specialized.

Those spectacular embossed-flower cards were made almost exclusively in Germany, and their modern counterparts come from the Swiss. The modern flowers and fruit, no longer embossed, and the modern old-master art cards, likewise of European manufacture, are the nearest to perfection ever attained in lithography. However, since their original cost necessitates their retailing for five, ten and twenty-five cents, they cannot compete with our penny items, and are obtainable only in art and specialty shops.

Of the same period as the embossed flowers, and perhaps equally nostalgic to old-timers, were the series of children, the animal series—kittens, puppies, birds at play—and those quaint comics. That was America at her least sophisticated moment. No styling has ever been quite so pronounced since then, although general quality has steadily improved. Four-color letterpress is still used, but by far the greater number of post cards today are in five-color lithography, run off more than 100 at a time on a sheet of linen-finish stock. This special calendering gives the card “snap” and durability, but demands high technical skill in press makeready and register, worth the trouble, since color lithographs outsell black-and-white cards ten to one and letterpress colors about six to one.

Direct-color photography is not yet popular, perhaps because it is too realistic; better sellers are made from black-and-white photos with lithograph coloring dubbed in.

The first fortune in the post-card business was made by Curt Teich, Sr., beginning in 1898, and his Curt Teich and Company, of Chicago, now headed by his son, is still among the biggest manufacturers. Albertype Company, of Brooklyn, New York, is one of the oldest, and some of the other leaders in this field are Tichnor Bros, Inc., of Boston; Metropolitan Lithograph Company, of Everett, Massachusetts; and the E. C. Kropp Company, of Milwaukee. Hundreds of other firms, from big greeting-card companies on down to the village job printer, include post cards in their line. The small or inexperienced are apt to lose money because of the specialized problems in distribution. Curt Teich has its own jobbing and distributing organization, but also deals with many an independent; the latter must invest $10,000 to $50,000 to get into the business at all. The American News Company, a magazine agency, is also one of the larger distributing firms. Both this firm and the manufacturers send field representatives to take photographs, buy the rights in artists’ paintings or otherwise acquire post-card subject matter. Theirs is eternally a game of forecasting the public taste, and most cards are admittedly published on a trial-and-error basis. In a series of ten or twelve cards, four may become excellent sellers and the rest duds.

One definite key is the I-was-there reaction of the traveler; he will buy a “scenic”—mountain, bridge, statue, building, and so on—if he actually saw the spot pictured; if he didn’t, he won’t, no matter how important the spot is or how gorgeous the card. The rare exception is some place of great travel fame, such as the super-aristocratic Arizona Biltmore Hotel. The temptation to imply that you stayed there, even if you didn’t, has made this subject a top seller for years. Subjects near the highways and on the main streets normally sell best.

Coloring, too, is a powerful factor. One publisher turned a money-losing yellow cactus blossom into a profitable item by making it red. Fortunately, that species of cactus produces both hues. In the cartoon field, actual over-the-counter tests showed that Reg Manning cards outsold those by Private—now Lieutenant—Breger—largely because Breger’s were bordered in plain white, while Manning’s were in bright Chinese red. Any shade of red is a potent factor in selling, but the card owner must be wary; local pride steps in. A courthouse in Ohio was creamy tan. For better color balance, the post-card man made it red, and customers wouldn’t touch it. A Pennsylvania mining town was so smoke-grimed and ugly that no post-card man had dared offer street scenes, until one day a manufacturer produced a Main Street on which each building was colored exactly as it was under the smut. Retailers were happy—until the cards failed to move. People didn’t recognize their glorified city.

Street portrayal was also a headache to one publisher who made a card of a principal street in Atlanta, Georgia. Because signs were too prominent for the most artistic effect, he blotted out the names of the stores. One merchant, who lost the free publicity thereby, sued. The contrite publisher took another photograph—this time from a third-story window—and carefully left all signs bold. Unfortunately, an orthodontist’s name on his window showed up prominently and, because somebody called him an advertising dentist, he sued too.

Greensburg, Indiana, had a courthouse tower on which grew a twelve-foot aspen tree. A post-card man sent a photograph of this novelty to a German printer, and in due time got back 5000,000 cards. But the efficient German had carefully etched out the tree, thinking it a double exposure. The cards were a total loss.

Right after December 7, 1941, most of the publishers rushed out cards of soldiers marching, shooting, flying, escorting flags, and such. Civilian and recruit alike looked on them coldly, and the loss was great. Serious army cards, it turned out, sell to any extent only if they are identified with a specific camp.

Regional verse sells on post cards. Cards in jumbo size fail because of higher costs and inconvenience in handling and mailing. Puzzle cards, fill-ins, novelties by the thousand enjoy fair sales, but religious cards have little following, and among pictures of churches only the Catholic sells in any volume. College cards sell big each autumn. National political upheavals show mostly in cartoon cards and photos of presidential candidates; the greatest of these was undoubtedly the Theodore Roosevelt Teddy Bear created by C. K. Berryman, ace cartoonist still active on the Washington Star. Folders of eighteen card views are a profitable sideline at ten and fifteen cents, and are made up of subjects tested for local popularity.

The only genuinely new post-card idea in many years is in two copyrighted series called Postcard Storiettes and Story Book Post Cards, on which are printed dramatic true stories from regional lore, written in 250 words each by an established author. Illustrations are color art in magazine style. These cards were promising enough for retailers to order nearly 2,5000,000 from advance proofs alone. Curt Teich and Company manufactures them; H. Lollesgard, of Tucson, Arizona, one of the larger independent publishers, controls them. Collectors are already scrambling for complete sets.

Serious post-card collecting has followed the sales trends. It became a national fad from 1900 to 1915—there’s hardly an attic today without some fine old numbers—then declined until the depression made stay-at-homes of us in 1933. Today, there are about 5000 active collectors in America, with a national organization and at least two journals. Francis P. Conard of SierraMadre, California, is perhaps the foremost collector now; he has more than 1,000,000 cards, including many rare ones. Raymond J. Walker, of New London, Connecticut, and William H. Richardson, of New Orleans, each has a notable collection. The age of the card, manufacturer, scarcity and condition all help determine the value. The old United States Mint at New Orleans, the U.S.S. Maine, the Chicago Opera House, the Columbian Exposition, The San Francisco earthquake, are typical of the more-sought-after subjects.

 

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