What are believed to be the first postcards ever printed in America commemorated the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. A few years later, in 1898, a German immigrant named Curt Teich founded a postcard-printing company in the city. The Curt Teich Company was the largest printer of view and advertising postcards until 1978, when it closed its doors.

Over the years Curt Teich kept an exhaustive archive of every image and every card his company printed. In 1982 his son Ralph began looking for an institution to house the collection. He approached the Chicago Historical Society, but it was only interested in images of Chicago. “Ralph didn’t want to do that,” says Katherine Hamilton-Smith, curator of the Teich archive. “He didn’t want to break up the archives, because it was really pretty amazing that it had remained intact all these years. So he began to look for an institution that would take the collection and nurture it for its own sake, as a remarkable document of America–and the world, really, because the Teich company printed foreign cards too.”

Ralph Teich found that institution in the Lake County Museum in Wauconda. The archives, which were made available for research since 1985, have been augmented by donations from other sources and boast images representing all 50 states and some 87 foreign countries, totaling between one and two million cards dating from the late 19th century to the present day. Besides destinations and landmarks, the postcards depict news images and spectacular events, from train derailments to lynchings. (A gallery in New York City is currently exhibiting postcards of the latter, which were widely available in the 1930s.) “You name it in American culture, and it was printed on a postcard,” says Hamilton-Smith.

She’s been developing the archive since 1982. She was looking through the Tribune classifieds under “artist” for illustrator jobs when a listing under “archivists” caught her eye. “Person needed to catalog postcards” was all it said, she recalls, “and then it turned into this lifelong quest!” Hamilton-Smith, who has both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in art history (the latter from the University of Chicago), notes the similar functions between postcards and 17th-century Venetian view paintings, which were commissioned by world travelers as a keepsake of their visit. But, she adds, “they were also everything postcards are not,” being available only to the very wealthy, as was travel at the time.

Finishing touches are now being put on a permanent 3,000-square-foot exhibition culled from the Teich Postcard Archives, which will open June 18 at the museum. In addition to a re-creation of the Eiffel Tower that visitors can walk under (the very first postcards ever printed celebrated the opening of the tower in 1893, and you can still send a postcard from a post office at its top), the exhibit will include E-mail access so that attendees can send a free electronic version of what Hamilton-Smith and others call “the people’s art” because of its democratic appeal and availability. “Today we’re so inundated with images,” she says. “But at the turn of the century that was not the case, and it was still a remarkable thing to be able for a penny to buy this little color picture of something.”

On Wednesday, June 14, at 7 PM Hamilton-Smith will present a talk on postcards and their place in American tourism at Hit the Road, 3758 N. Southport (773-338-8338). Admission is free. Hit the Road will also have T-shirts on hand featuring vintage Teich images; a portion of the sales benefits the Lake County Museum, Route 176 and Fairfield in Wauconda (847-968-3400). Museum hours are 11 to 4:30 Monday through Saturday, 1 to 4:30 Sunday. Admission is $2.50, $1 for children; Tuesdays are free.

–Susannah J. Felts

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.