History museum program looks at history of picture postcards
Before the advent of social media, people seeking a quick and easy way to communicate used postcards.
On Feb. 27, 1861, Congress passed an act that allowed privately printed cards, weighing one ounce or less, to be sent through the mail. A report by the postmaster general confirms the first government-produced postcard was issued May 1, 1873.
One side of the postcard was reserved for a message and the other side was for the recipient's address. However, the first postcard printed as a souvenir in the United States did not arrive until 1893. It advertised the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
That makes Illinois the birthplace of the American picture postcard, said Katherine Hamilton-Smith, former director of cultural resources for the Lake County Forest Preserves in Libertyville and founding curator of the Curt Teich postcard archive -- regarded as the largest public collection of postcards and related materials in the United States.
At the time of its acquisition by Chicago's Newberry Library in 2017 from Lake County, it was estimated to include 2.5 million total items and more than 500,000 unique postcard images.
Hamilton will discuss the impact from the billions of postcards produced in this country and abroad when she presents the rescheduled "Picture Postcards: The Happy Invention" at 4 p.m. Monday, May 11, in the McHenry County Historical Museum, 6422 Main St., Union.
"I have a background in art and art history," Hamilton-Smith said. "We do know that 20th century artists and architects often collected postcards because they are very visual. I certainly am interested in collecting something that is visually interesting to me."
Hamilton-Smith, now director of public affairs and development for the Lake County Forest Preserves, has maintained a professional interest in archives and museum work.
She studied art history and music history at St. Andrews University in Scotland. She also earned a master's degree in art history from the University of Nebraska and a master's degree in art and music history from the University of Chicago.
Fresh out of college in 1982, Hamilton-Smith oversaw the transfer and preservation of about 2.5 million postcards and related materials from the Curt Teich & Co. archives to the now former Lake County Discovery Museum in Wauconda.
"I think I was simply too young to know better," Hamilton-Smith said. "It seemed interesting and sounded like a challenge."
During the ensuing 15 years she became a postcard expert, even adding to the museum's core collection -- up until its relocation to Libertyville and rebranding as the Bess Bower Dunn Museum of Lake County.
"In graduate school, my specialty was late 11th century English and French manuscript illumination, and there is something akin (to postcards) there. They are both relatively small and they are full of iconography related to a certain time and place. ...
"Postcards are very likable. They are a tiny, physical manifestation of an image and a communication of somebody's experience there," Hamilton-Smith said.
"Let's say you went to New York City and you are bound up in this great experience. It's partly a human experience, partly a time peg, partly the impact of an image by text. It has a stamp that adds to its graphic power -- and it's sent through the mail. It's pretty powerful for what it is."
According to the U.S. Postal Service, more than a million postcards were mailed by 1951. Far from diminishing, the number of postcards mailed reached a high water mark of 2.7 million in 2000.
Hamilton-Smith urges lecture attendees to bring their own vintage postcards that night for discussion and valuation.
"I learned to have respect for what is common and not to discount something that is so ubiquitous," she said. "They (postcards) are so basic in a way, that they can be discounted. But there is art and there is history."
One needs to simply scratch the surface.
"You just might buy a postcard and stamp, write a message about a moment in time at a particular place and send it to someone who means that much to you," Hamilton-Smith said. "Powerful. It's not changed in the last 130 years."
This program is made possible by grant from Illinois Humanities. A $12 donation is requested. For information and the disposition of other scheduled programming at MCHS, call (815) 923-2267 or visit www.gothistory.org.
Due to concerns about public gatherings in the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak, the remainder of the 34th annual Sampler Lecture Series at the county history museum has been canceled.