Curt Otto Teich (1877-1974)

Curt Teich is a quintessential American dream success story: he built a postcard empire from scratch in the United States based on the knowledge he gained growing up in Germany. During its roughly eighty-year reign, Curt Teich & Company produced and printed postcards illustrating views of over one hundred countries as well as small American towns and businesses.

Updated: July 24, 2015

Introduction

In 1905, a postcard craze took hold of the nation. That same year, Curt Teich (born March 23, 1877 in Greiz, Thuringia, Germany; died January 12, 1974 in Indian Rocks Beach, FL) boarded a train from Chicago to St. Petersburg, Florida and then, from there, traveled another 2,500 miles by rail to the West Coast. At each stop along the way, he disembarked, camera in hand, and photographed the businesses populating numerous small towns’ Main Streets. These images would serve as the basis for his first large print run of illustrated postcards. At the low price of one dollar per one thousand cards, Teich solicited an astounding $30,000 ($767,000 in 2010 dollars) worth of orders during this cross-country journey.[1] Needless to say, he returned to Chicago a successful businessman with a plan: to enter the postcard printing industry. The first American postcard companies printed their materials abroad, but Curt Teich’s ambitions were of a different order: he wanted to print his own postcards. Consequently, he became one of the most prolific postcard printers in America during the first half of the twentieth century, eventually printing up to 250 million cards annually.

Alongside of and intimately connected to this flourishing industry, America’s cultural, social, and physical landscape changed dramatically. With the introduction of the automobile, a national highway network, and a growing middle class, mass tourism emerged. As a result, small towns became destinations. The postcard industry encouraged this development and at the same time was a byproduct of it.

During its roughly eighty-year reign, Curt Teich & Company produced and printed postcards illustrating views of over one hundred countries. Yet it was the postcards of small, quaint American towns and their businesses—their boutiques, diners, hairdressers, theaters, launderettes, and hotels—that would comprise the bulk of the company’s production. Teich’s production process retouched the ordinary in order to simplify and idealize the images presented. As a German immigrant, Teich perceived the potential market in the everyday commercial landscape of the United States. Through his vision, American vernacular culture became viable postcard subject matter. In effect, he pioneered the concept of selling views of local businesses to individual communities, at once popularizing a new niche for postcard printers and a novel method of advertising for small businesses. In so doing, he not only embraced the entrepreneurial possibilities that America offered, but also empowered the independent American entrepreneur.

Stammbaum (“Family Tree”)

After the loss of his family’s records in Dresden, Germany during World War II, Teich considered compiling his own account of his family’s ancestry. This idea finally came to fruition in 1958, when at the age of 80, he penned The Teich’s [sic] Family Tree and History. His dedication message reads: “To all the family: I promised to write this history for you, here it is. You can use any part of it to complete your ‘Stammbaum.’”[2] Primarily a description of his extended family interwoven with tales of European and American history, Teich’s chronicle begins with his eighteenth-century ancestors in the North German lowlands, “the lands of the proverbial wind mills,” as he describes them. While Teich’s knowledge of his family’s roots likely starts in that region, it also conveniently situates his heritage close to the home of the movable-type printing press, an invention that shaped his family’s trajectory. Teich begins the story of his own life with basic facts—his birthdate and birthplace, education, and occupation—and then presents a proud, self-penned narrative about his industriousness, transnational printing knowledge, and, most significantly, his entrepreneurial passion. Overall, his own tale does not simply adopt an American dream “rags-to-riches” formula; indeed, his success, as he suggests in his elaborate Stammbaum, is deeply intertwined with his German heritage. This biographical essay will follow a similar path.

The fifth of seven children, Curt Teich was born to Christian Teich (1843–1920) and Elise Tamm (1848–1919) in late March 1877 in Greiz, a village located in the state of Thuringia in Western Germany. During his youth, his family moved to Lobenstein, a town seventy kilometers southwest of Greiz. Decades prior, Curt’s great-grandfather, Johann Karl Teich (1760–1845), had been granted a family seat in Lobenstein by his close friend, the Prince of Reuss, the present-day state of Thuringia.

The Teichs boasted a long line of printers, and a family coat of arms from 1725 illustrates this trade heritage with a display of early printing tools. Curt’s father was a printer, newspaper publisher, and book salesman, and his grandfather, Friederich Karl Wilhelm Teich (1819–1890), published a book of poetry and wrote articles for various periodicals. The printed word was a Teich specialty, and Curt followed in his family’s footsteps with great enthusiasm. After attending Gymnasium (the German equivalent of high school) in Dresden until the age of fifteen, he returned to Lobenstein to work as a printer’s apprentice.

While Curt learned the ropes of the trade in Germany, his father and eldest brother Max (1873–1964) traveled to Chicago to visit the 1893 World’s Fair: Columbian Exposition. Attended by over 700,000 people from across the globe, the fair engendered a frisson of excitement around the promise of American industry. After the fair, Max stayed in Chicago and entered the hotel business. Invigorated by the opportunities he saw available in the United States to resourceful individuals, Christian encouraged his son Curt to join his brother. It was thus at the recommendation of his father that Curt crossed the Atlantic. Over the ensuing years, five of Curt’s six siblings would immigrate to the United States.

Curt arrived on American soil in May of 1895. Within a few days of docking in New York, he made a humble start in business as a printer’s devil, industry jargon for a multi-tasking apprentice. Although he was overqualified for the position, he readily accepted it as he needed to earn a living. In a short article reminiscing about his father’s life, Curt’s youngest son, Ralph (1925–2000), who worked for the Teich company full time beginning in 1949, recounts the story of his father’s first days on the job:

[The foreman] took Dad down to the press room where they printed beer bottle labels on flat bed presses. The sheets were turned by grippers on two edges. The wind pressure on the sheets caused half the sheets to tear. Forgetting his position, Dad issued loud orders to stop the presses… The foreman fired Dad on the spot. When one of the workers told the president what had happened, Dad was asked if he could fix the press so that fewer sheets would be torn. If he could do it in forty-eight hours, he could keep his new job. Dad developed the system of fingers that is still used on flat bed presses today. The foreman resigned in anger and Dad was promoted to replace him.[3]

This short anecdote conveys a sense of Curt Teich’s ingenuity and passion for his trade, traits that would surface repeatedly over the course of his career. His sincere belief in quality also emerges, a characteristic that would help him succeed with his future business. Indeed, as this tale demonstrates, Teich could not bear to witness a job done poorly. As a result, he constantly improved machinery, developed new printing methods, and held his employees to the highest standards. For these reasons his company endured for nearly eight decades.

The Postcard Business of Business Postcards

After his stint working at a press in New York, Curt moved to Chicago and opened his own printing firm on January 4, 1898 on Clybourn Avenue in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, near the Germania Club and the German Hospital. Max Teich, who had by this time purchased the Wyoming Hotel and re-branded it as the Kaiserhof Hotel, a nod to his German roots, was his silent business partner and provided the necessary funds for start-up costs. Within a few years the company was incorporated. Max owned 130 shares; Curt owned 80 shares; and their younger brother Alfred Teich (1880–1931), who had recently immigrated to the United States, owned 40 shares. As the corporation paperwork reveals, the aims of Teich’s corporation were broad: “printing and lithographing, publishing, importing of art printing, manufacturing and importing of souvenir articles.”[4] Before he identified his niche in postcard printing, those first years were challenging. Teich describes his experience at the turn of the century: “Business conditions were poor at the time, many visitors to the Chicago World’s Fair had remained, and every profession and trade was over-crowded. [We] specialized in job, newspaper and magazine printing, competition was fierce and price cutting prevalent. A fair living, that’s all, was the result.”[5] Teich, however, had loftier ambitions than earning merely “a fair living.” He wanted his company to be better than the status quo and also hoped to turn a profit.

One event at the Columbian Exposition would be key to achieving Teich’s goals. The World’s Fair marked the release of the United States Post Office’s first picture postcards, which illustrated scenes from the exposition. While they were certainly not the first souvenir cards in the United States, they were the first government-produced postcards. Their official release prompted a slew of privately published cards, creating a veritable postcard industry. A similar industry had already been flourishing in mainland Europe for some time. Indeed, postcards, albeit without pictures, originated in the German-speaking territories, specifically in Austria in October of 1869. At first they were called Correspondenz-Karte, but soon adopted the moniker Postkarte. Less than a year later, the North German States issued their first postcard. It was not until 1873 that the private sector in the United States adopted the postcard format.[6] Regardless, in their first six months on the American market, sixty million postcards sold.[7]

Teich’s driving ambition to succeed coupled with the new excitement around the postcard led him back to his country of birth in 1904, where a postcard obsession had been bubblingfor over a decade. While Teich returned to Germany in order to research new lithography and printing methods, perhaps the burgeoning tourist postcard industry and specifically the “Grüße aus…” (“Greetings from”) postcard phenomenon, which originated in Germany in the early 1890s, inspired him.[8] This postcard genre was a godsend for municipal tourism as each card promoted a specific city and illustrated a few of its distinctive tourist attractions. Since his family had a long history in the German printing industry, Teich had access to this world. He grew up in it, and this positioned him as an insider in the field. During his trip, Teich searched for ways to produce printed materials in a more efficient manner. He wanted to learn how his firm could stand out against his competitors. Interestingly, for American printing companies, German printers were in fact the competition. As the birthplace of the movable-type printing press, Germany reigned supreme in the field for centuries afterward and was the epicenter of the new colored picture-postcard industry. The majority of American postcard businesses at the time ordered their cards from German printers. Although production time was slow, averaging between six and twelve months, the print quality was excellent, and, more importantly for the small business owner, it was notably cheaper than printing locally. To indicate the strong hold that German printing presses had on the market, one postcard historian estimates that 32,795 tons of postcards were printed in Germany and imported to the United States in 1907.[9]

Upon his return to America, Teich embarked on his cross-country rail trip to solicit postcard orders. His journey functioned like an extended focus group, testing American desire for a domestic postcard-printing company. Given that his trip coincided with the beginnings of the postcard frenzy in the United States, it is likely that Teich’s timing could not have been more fortuitous. To position his company as a viable competitor, Teich not only offered his customers excellent, personalized customer service and finely-crafted, quality merchandise, he also offered his customers a sixty- to ninety-day turnaround time at an affordable price. Together, these factors made his product highly competitive.

Changes in the postal service at the turn of the century further enabled Teich’s company to push ahead of his foreign competitors. Until 1898, the cost of mailing a government-issued postcard was only a penny, half the price of a privately produced postcard, which was charged at the more expensive letter rate of two cents. But in 1898 this changed – the mailing rate for all postcards became standardized at a penny each, which constituted a genuine boon for the free market postcard industry. (In this period, the value of a penny was roughly equivalent to the value of a quarter in 2010 dollars.[10]) In addition, by 1906 the majority of postal delivery routes in rural areas of the United States were finally established, connecting the nation at an unprecedented level. Postcards became a cheap, fast, and easy mode of communication.

On a related note the introduction of the automobile onto American soil at the turn of the century altered the nature of national travel as well as the fledgling postcard industry.[11] Indeed, the mass production of the car supplied the rising middle class with greater mobility than in the stagecoach or rail era. The eventual construction of a national highway network created an infrastructure that opened the door to an untapped trove of destinations for the driving vacationer. Tourists could now wander off the beaten path with ease.

The largest windfall for the postcard industry as a whole occurred with the Payne-Aldrich Tariff Act of 1909. As the postcard industry grew exponentially in the United States, American printers became painfully aware of a market that foreign printers monopolized. They, along with other American manufacturers, lobbied Congress for price protection, and as a result the bill included a tariff on foreign postcards. Consequently, imported cards were subjected to a $1.28 per one thousand tax. This made it suddenly more expensive to have materials printed abroad and provided the financial wiggle room for American printers to swoop ahead of their European competition. Curt Teich & Company flourished. In the three years following the tariff, the firm printed 150 million postcards per year, a number that only increased as time went on. This upturn in domestic printing occurred simultaneously with what would be termed by scholars as the “Golden Age” of postcards in America, a period which ran from roughly 1905 to 1915.[12]

In order to assure the success of his company, Teich decided to switch to an offset printing press and wanted one that could print thirty-two color postcards at a time, a feat previously unheard of. He shopped around at different press manufacturers, and the first firm he approached did not believe that a press of the size he desired—38 inches by 52 inches—was physically possible to construct. Fortunately the second firm, the Scott Printing Press Company of New York, believed in Teich’s vision. The first results of the Scott press were not impressive, but after some adjustments, the Teich Company became the first to successfully produce color postcards on a large offset press. He used black halftone plates and added color by a lithographic process. Teich hired a fellow Lobenstein native, Otto Buettner, to run the company’s lithographic art department. At the company’s heyday, it possessed thirty presses, each measuring thirty feet long, ten feet wide, and ten feet tall. These machines could print 2.5 million postcards per hour, which was more than his competitors could produce. His company did extremely well and expanded. After operating in a few other locations around Chicago, Teich purchased a building on 1733–1755 Irving Park Boulevard.[13] As his business grew, he would move again into a factory designed by his brother Frederick (1874–1946) in 1922.

Yet these moves were not an indication that all aspects of Teich’s business were running smoothly. In the early 1920s the lithographic unions went on strike, demanding higher salaries for fewer hours. Teich was unaware that his other employees felt similarly disgruntled, and as he recalls in his memoir, he “believed that none of [his] employees would join in, they received higher wages than others in the trade, and were shareholders.”[14] Teich was wrong: all of his employees except for five supervisors joined the strike. It lasted for nine months, and in order to keep production going, the company trained and hired new employees. Despite this internal shakeup, Teich’s firm remained a strong force in the printing industry.

During the firm’s heyday from roughly the 1920s until the mid-1940s, Teich employed over a thousand individuals across several departments including sales, advertising, art, photolithography, photography, and business, including many German immigrants. He hired those who were extremely skilled in the printing trade. According to Teich, when “German artists came to the U.S.A, they found employment with Curt Teich and Company, Inc.”[15]

Typically the sole point of contact between the customer and the corporation, Teich’s door-to-door salesmen were vital to the success of his business. While based in Chicago, they traveled the nation for weeks at a time, knocking on doors and ringing doorbells. They solicited old and new customers and always came prepared with a large format camera to create the initial image from which a postcard might materialize. Teich produced reading materials, including sales manuals and regular articles in the company newsletter, Curteich News, to help guide them through their important role. These suggestions were especially significant when the country was in the middle of the Great Depression, a time when frugality and thrift were the standard. In the September 1933 edition of Curteich News, for example, the question of how to find and secure patrons assumed great importance. “Customers are the most enduring gold mine,” the author begins, “If our industries had plenty of customers there would be no depression.” He then proceeds to lead his readers through nine “simple rules” that “cannot fail to bring success.” His proffered axioms ranged from “Make friends and they make customers” to “Be calm... It does not pay to lose your temper.”[16] According to Teich, the quality of the relationship between the sales point person and the patron was key to success.

Teich also provided his traveling salesmen with industry-specific advice in a short manual. In it, he offered suggestions on how to land contracts with various kinds of small businesses, specifying how different industries used postcards. In essence, he wanted to supply the company salesmen with the necessary tools to make the postcard service useful, while at the same time showing businesses how to advertise with postcards. Here is an example of his suggestions in the “Restaurant” section of his sales pointers manual:

Restaurants and cafes distribute post cards to their guests in the lobby also with the menu in the dining rooms… Another way whereby restaurants can use cards is to show a map on the reverse side with the mileage from different locations. These can be distributed by oil service stations along the highway in return for the restaurant distributing cards for the oil service station at their restaurant… Cards can also be used as a means of featuring special items from day to day… A colorful menu is an excellent item to suggest to hotels, restaurants, road houses, and similar organizations... Usually pen and ink sketches are used in connection with photographs to make the menus more attractive.[17]

Preparation was key to Teich, and he wanted his salesmen to be ready in case they encountered a business that had either never advertised with postcards before or perhaps was advertising with a competitor and wanted to give them new ways to use postcards. Keeping a customer and retaining that relationship was especially important to Teich because the first run of postcards factored in a loss that was only recovered in reprints. Thus a tremendous amount of time and energy was poured into the initial product.

In most cases, the salesman was also the photographer. The firm would not hire its first professional photographer until 1956. Unless the business owner already possessed a photograph of the building’s exterior or interior that he hoped to then convert into a postcard, the traveling salesman would photograph the building from several angles in black and white film. After the negative had been processed and printed, he would meet with the client to discuss them and aspects that he or she liked or disliked about the images.

At this point, the business owner could elect to change aspects of the image when a Teich artist converted it into a postcard. In this retouching process, idealization of the vernacular was the goal. The Teich postcard was not meant to provide the viewer with veracity, but the best possible image of the advertised business or view. In order to complete this task, the salesman and the client would comb through the photographs he had taken, searching for minutiae to subtract—such as obtrusive, ill-placed signs or unkempt adjacent properties that took away from the business’s attractive appearance, as well as details to add,such as the appearance of a typical customer, a colorful bouquet of flowers, or a sleek, silver automobile. During this meeting, colors would also be a large topic of conversation as the photographs were black and white. This subject of tones and hues would similarly be a place for glamorizing the business. If a dry cleaning establishment was in need of a paint job or the wallpaper design looked outdated, the Teich artists could fix these superficial issues easily. The salesman, who was in close contact with the company and the artist, would indicate the changes on photographs as well as articulating them in words, providing a detailed commentary for the company artist to use in making the final image. As an example, the following is a section of a letter from a salesman to Teich, written in 1936, with instructions on how to revise an artist’s rendering of Jack Dempsey’s Restaurant in New York City.

Use Photo No. 1, eliminate all people, cars and the like… all buildings to right and left of my pencil marks on face of this print are to be eliminated. As a background to Jack Dempsey’s proper it is recommended that we use a faint, phantom sky-line effect as showing in the print marked, No. 3 – this, however, being very subdued so as to accentuate all possible Dempsey’s itself. To supplant the present cars and figures we should add possible two or three stream-lined cars, one approximately at the right where the cab now stands; another approximately in front of the main entrance on the 50th Street side. These, of course, should be extremely smart looking, but their colortones [sic] such as will not conflict with the structure itself.[18]

Along with correspondence such as this and several photographs of the business, a salesman would occasionally send physical samples to reference a space’s color including carpet, linoleum, or wallpaper samples; this would ensure that the postcard’s colors were true to form. For example, in a Teich file from 1949 on the Southern Theatre in Columbus, Ohio the salesman forwarded red carpet samples to the Art Department since the client felt that the carpet design and color were an extremely important part of the theater’s personality as a business. In an interview, Ralph Teich was asked if there were any restrictions in the retouching process. He responded with an anecdote: “Very often, a hotel located four or five or six blocks from the beach, wanted to pretend like they were on the beach. So it was very common, down around Miami in particular, to take a picture, and stip-in [sic] the beach right at the front door, even though the hotel was blocks from the beach.”[19] Ralph’s example highlights that no restrictions existed. The company was not a guardian of truth to any extent. It produced what the client desired, which was often a romanticized version of his or her business.

While the company thrived in the second half of the 1920s, like most other businesses in the United States, the Great Depression of the 1930s hit the firm hard. With the stock market crash of October 1929, unemployment rose and consumer spending decreased dramatically. These dire circumstances plagued the nation for years, and the domestic printing industry was not impervious to them. Instead of closing the doors to his firm while printing orders steadily declined, Teich looked at this period as an opportunity for growth. He saw it as a time to travel abroad, solicit orders from foreign clients, and learn about new printing methods to further improve his products. For Teich, the Great Depression provided impetus to discover creative new entrepreneurial possibilities available to him.

A multicolor checkerboard of smeared ink stamps and scribbled dates, Teich’s passport from this decade overflows with entry and exit stamps from Germany as well as several Central and South American countries such as Cuba, Argentina, Peru, and Brazil. In the early 1930s, his travels by air led him to Hawaii, Panama, Mexico, and several islands throughout the Caribbean, where he solicited printing orders. Remarkably, Teich described this period of business abroad as “successful,” and he believed that he secured “good contracts” at this time.[20]

In 1935, he headed to Germany once more to research new printing methods. The trip was incredibly productive for him, and it was trips such as this that enabled him to learn about the most up-to-date processes in the field. While abroad, he purchased various trade publications on the subject. One such text, published in 1935, now housed in the Teicharchives in Illinois, is entitled Handbuch der Modernen Reproduktions-Technik Band III: Photolithographie und Offsetreproduktion von Adolf Koepf (Handbook of Modern Reproduction Techniques, Volume III: Photolithography and Offset-reproduction by Adolf Koepf). It discusses the latest techniques available to printers such as the chrome-rubber process and photomechanical poster production in addition to other relevant topics for the printer such as a short treatise on “Transfer Versus Direct Copy?” and “Film Editing and the Direct Copy in the Copying Frame.”[21] In essence, Teich looked to the German printing industry for news on the latest processes. His fluency in German was a true advantage. It allowed him access to the most up-to-date information and the ability to penetrate the German printing world with ease.

Thanks to Teich’s intimate knowledge of lithography and the printing press that he acquired in Germany during his youth and on his trips as an adult, he designed and pushed his employees to develop several new printing techniques that pushed his company to the forefront of the industry. Ralph Teich attests to this fact, remarking that “during the time that dad was active, we were constantly spending money on research and development.”[22] Some of these processes were patented, while others were not. The first method that he devised after his research trip to Europe in 1904 attempted to solve the problem of unwieldy, expensive lithographic stones. He developed another printing process to produce color postcards, named C.T. American Art, which was quite complicated. In essence it added shading and depth to pictures and added colors using a lithographic process. Curt Teich explains it at length:

Litho stones were replaced by metal plates, grained by rounded small stones, gathered at Chicago’s Lake Michigan front. The artists traced the outlines of the colors on the plates, then designed the four separate color plates, yellow, red, blue, and pink. The zinc plates were etched, inked and hand impressions pulled on china and Columbia transfer paper. Post cards [sic] designs were assembled, 32 subjects to a sheet, halftones made from the black photographs and printed on card board in black ink on Miehle presses. Colored impressions were assembled, stuck up and pulled over on larger stones for color lithographing. The new process was named ‘C. T. American Art’ process. It was such a difficult process that in the writer’s opinion nobody would want to imitate it. He did not protect this process by patent, so competitors copied it.[23]

Teich did not make that mistake again. In the 1930s the company developed a new lithographic method called C. T. Art Colortone, shown here in this 1935 example of a quiet town square in Newport, Rhode Island. In the following decade he produced another offset printing process designated Curteichcolor, a four-color printing process produced from a color transparency and then coated in plastic. A 1952 example of the Curteichcolor process portrays the outside of a Christmas tree store in Massachusetts. The company patented postcard display stands as we well; it thus focused not only on the printing process but also on how the cards were presented.

After their trip to Germany in the thirties, he and his wife Anna traversed South America in 1937. Unlike his previous business excursions, this journey was not as fruitful as his Central American and Caribbean tour. Teich recounts the reason why this trip was unprofitable: “South American countries were unable to use large editions, which were needed to produce at the factory. Import and money difficulties made it impossible to close up contracts.”[24] Due to his lack of success on that side of the hemisphere, Teich and his wife changed course and traveled from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to Hamburg, Germany on theS. S. Cap Ancona. However, quickly after arriving, they booked passage to leave. Under Hitler’s reign, the Germany where Teichhad grown up seems to have become unrecognizable to him. Teich’s return to the United States coincided with the outbreak of World War II in 1939. Little is known about Teich’s perception of the Third Reich, but he wholeheartedly supported the American entrance into the war two years later in the best way that he could: through the printing process.

Soon after his return to America, Teich, with his typical entrepreneurial creativity, secured a top-secret contract with the U.S. Army’s Corps of Engineers’ Map Service Division. When negotiating this agreement, he chose to charge only modest fees. According to him, he did not feel that it was right “to make a profit on the deaths of our boys in service.”[25] Curt, Jr. (1910–1980) headed this project. The company printed military manuals and over three million maps for the U.S. Army, most of which were invasion maps. The Corps of Engineers was extremely satisfied with the quality of the company’s printed work and the speed with which it printed them. In a letter to Teich dated August 1943, an officer writes “The Army Map Service is greatly pleased with your excellent work in the recent reproduction of the Maps of Italy. Your splendid co-operation made it possible to ship these maps two days in advance of the anticipated date. It is gratifying to know that you can be depended upon when confronted with an urgent and imperative requirement. It will be appreciated if you will extend this commendation to all those of your personnel who had any connection with this work.”[26] Another letter from a different officer at the end of his tour of duty in December 1945 declared his appreciation for the company’s hard work: “Folks like you made our job mighty easy, and I know there were many times when you said yes to a map job when you’d have been a lot better without it. Just THANK YOU sounds inadequate as the devil…”[27] From 1942 to 1945, Curt Teich & Company’s contract with the Army Map Service, as Ralph Teich recounts, comprised 90% of the corporation’s output.[28] Interestingly, because of the sensitive nature of producing invasion maps, the government appointed secret agents to work in the factory. Only a few select employees were allowed to see the finished product or even be close to them while they were being packed for shipment.

For the Teich family, warfare was not an abstract concept. It affected not only their business dealings but also their personal lives. Two of Teich’s sons served in the war, one of whom would tragically die while on active duty. Lawrence (1918–1942), who had earned degrees from Northwestern Military Academy and MIT, was part of the American forces in the Philippines. While there, he was captured and killed. Another son, Walter (1912–1972), served in the Marines and worked in the Aerial Photographic Division. Lawrence’s death distressed the family, and particularly patriarch Curt Teich. After receiving the terrible news of his son’s death, he stepped down as head of the company and handed over the reins to others. As Teich writes in his family history, “The loss of son Lawrence, a very talented and most promising young man, affected the health of Mr. and Mrs. Curt Teich, Sr. greatly. The active management of Curt Teich & Company, Inc. was now put in charge of Frank Hochegger and Curt Teich, Jr.”[29] Around the same time, Curt Teich had a heart attack, which also influenced his decision to step down.

The Postcards

While Curt Teich & Company printed a range of items such as advertising pamphlets, brochures, maps, and blotters, postcards were its primary source of income. For the most part, they portrayed American scenery, ranging from the extraordinary to the quotidian. As noted above, Teich was one of the first postcard printers to market views of local businesses to small communities. In so doing, he identified and popularized an untapped market by providing local small businesses, such as bakeries and gas stations, with affordable promotional materials. One representative example is a business postcard from 1951 depicting an interior view of Kirk’s Café in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Middle-class customers fill the row of yellow booths and line the counter. Golden-brown pancakes bubble on the griddle, nondescript coats hang neatly on hooks, and customers enjoy their food and beverages before them. A brilliant red wallpaper with a floral motif stretches across one wall while the other wall boasts a green and yellow geometric design, in stark contrast to the service area below it. The scene appears so ordinary, so mundane that one could likely witness this tableau in any diner or café across the fifty states. In this way, the postcard represents the idea of home, comfort, and the familiar. Coffee shops, restaurants, dry cleaners—they, too, wanted postcards that would appeal to the ordinary customer. This imagery offered middle-class audiences the beauty of small-town America. The postcards represent the vernacular, the visual language of mainstream U.S.A.

Several German immigrant business owners in the United States contracted with Teich’s firm to print advertising materials. Indeed, Teich’s identity as a German immigrant gave him access to a major immigrant population in the United States. One of the largest immigration waves in America was the influx of roughly six million Germans that occurred between the 1840s and 1880s. Teich’s business dealt with many first- and second-generation Germans. For example, a German restaurant in Chicago called Zum Deutschen Eck Restaurant printed their card with the company in 1967. The postcard is utterly prosaic, but with a German twist. Featuring “the finest in German & American Cuisine,” the restaurant pictured its façade, which adopts the Fachwerkhaus style of the North German States, and empty sidewalks lined with parked cars stand before it. The picture is unexceptional, but that is precisely what makes it special.

In addition, Teich printed informational postcards that identified details within them such as prominent skyscrapers in a cityscape or various governmental officials. For instance, in 1914, he printed a postcard entitled “Kaiser Wilhelm II. Und Seine 6 Söhne.” Made for a German-American audience, this card identified each of the ruler’s sons by name. Mass-produced in Germany by German printers, several versions of the postcard exist using the same photographic image. Teich’s re-printing of the image perhaps suggests his ongoing cultural connection to Germany. It shows he still felt a sense of belonging to the German community.  The Teichs were in Europe when World War I broke out so presumably they became aware of this sought-after postcard while on their travels.

Curt Teich & Company was also particularly well known for its large-letter postcards, in which views of a city or state’s stereotypical scenes and historical and/or natural landmarks are illustrated inside big letters that spell out the name of the location. Often the letters are set before another iconic vista of the place. While some scholars have designated Teich as the originator of the large-letter card, this style had been around since the turn of the century. It would become especially popular in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s.[30] For example, in an Arizona postcard from 1939, the illustrator has taken a range of iconic sites to give viewers a sense of the state’s wide range of tourist offerings. The deep crevices of the Grand Canyon emerge from the letter “O” and the late eighteenth-century San Xavier del Bac Mission located south of Tucson stands in the second “A”. A bright sun and a tall green saguaro cactus set off the state’s name. Teich’s company produced hundreds of different large-letter cards, and thus certainly played a large role in popularizing the format in the United States.

Humorous postcards represent another niche the Teich Company printed. According to Ralph Teich, one particular card that had roots in Germany was the most prolific in their firm’s history. He noted in an interview that the firm’s most popular card printed was of a cartoon with two dachshunds.[31] While he was travelling in Germany, a cartoon with two dogs in front of a fire hydrant caught his eye. Ralph traced the image and upon his return to Chicago brought it to the company’s Art Department. Using this image as a point of departure, they produced their own version of the postcard in 1935. The joke has been somewhat “Americanized” with a typical town square streetscape appearing in the background. The joke itself stems from the dialogue between the canines.

Teich’s corporation also printed a line of “humorous” postcards that invoked period racial stereotypes. During this time period, such portrayals of blacks were not unusual in popular culture or even in everyday products. Everything from cinema, such as D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) and The Jazz Singer (1927), to consumer goods like pancake mix and laundry detergent employed racial stereotyping. Teich’s cards illustrated scenes of African-Americans pursued by dangerously hungry alligators or voraciously eating slices of watermelon, as shown in a postcard printed in 1936. Six young black boys smile and look up at the camera, each holding a partially devoured crescent-shaped slab of watermelon. Relaxing in the sun, they appear to be simply enjoying a treat, but the message the image sends is much more layered and problematic than that. In her discussion of race and photography, art historian Tanya Sheehan has argued that “the watermelon came to embody the limited range of black feeling in the white mind; it was the ‘darkey’s’ most beloved happy object and a primary instrument through which African Americans were themselves made to function as the objects of white pleasure.”[32] Indeed, this racial trope became popular after the Civil War as a way to perpetuate stereotypes of black vices—laziness and immaturity—by members of the white population who were frightened by the newly emancipated status of African Americans.

A related trope that was frequently pictured on these postcards was the content and docile black subject. The undertones of this particular type of image drew not on humor, but on white viewers’ nostalgia for the Old South, before the outbreak of war. For instance, a postcard of an older African-American man depicts a man with a graying beard and a jacket with torn sleeves calmly reading a book as he sits in his rocking chair. Below him are the words “A good old Darkey.” This text and image pairing from circa 1912, which shares close affinities with the figure of “Uncle Tom” from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, alludes to antebellum days when black bodies were owned and overseen. Viewers were expected to read the subject as “good” because he docilely accepted the poverty indicated by his tattered clothes. 

In the “Golden Age” of postcards, those portraying racial stereotypes of blacks were some of the most popular, reflected the persistent level of racism prevalent in the United States in the first half of the twentieth century.[33] However, these cards were not only representations of imagined types; they also actively perpetuated and promoted discriminatory practices. As scholar Brooke Baldwin has argued, “The cards thrived in the mainstream of society because racism, rather than being stigmatized, was socially legitimized.”[34] This genre of postcards was not created or even monopolized by Curt Teich; many postcard printers produced them. While some scholars have attributed Teich’s wide-ranging production to his capitalistic ethos—“to turn a profit, print postcards of anything for anybody,” this argument discounts any responsibility that he might have had in trumpeting and perpetuating these beliefs.[35] Whether or not he agreed with their messages, the fact is that he printed the cards and is thus complicit with their cultural work, which is thus also part of the Teich Company’s history and legacy.

Social Status

While Curt Teich was in charge, his company did extremely well, and he was well able to provide for his growing family. He married Anna Louise Niether (1889–1959), a Chicago native, on July 15, 1909. By 1914, they were already parents to three healthy children. They had five children in total, Curt, Lawrence, Walter, Ralph and Louise (1913–2005), and their income afforded them certain indulgences such as domestic help and large, handsome homes. But the family did not live decadently. Teich was actually quite economical. Julia Gerweck, a German immigrant maid who worked in his home, recalled that her employer was a frugal man. In an interview she noted that “He would occasionally do ‘spot checks’ of the kitchen vegetable peelings to make sure that they were thin, with minimal loss of the ‘good’ part of the vegetable. If the peelings were too thick, Teich would strongly reprimand the kitchen help.”[36] After living in a stately Victorian house on a tree-lined street in Chicago, the Teichs moved into a beautiful home that overlooked Lake Michigan in Glencoe in 1925 (Glencoe was also the home of immigrant entrepreneur Albert Lasker, though there is no evidence the two men knew each other). In the mid-1950s he and his wife moved to Florida. The family sold the company in 1974, and the company’s name was officially changed to Curt Teich Industries. Two years later, a Chicago-based printing firm by the name of Regensteiner Publishing Enterprises bought the company. Interestingly, this firm was also started by a German immigrant who immigrated to Chicago in the late nineteenth century. Curt Teich, Sr. passed away at the age of ninety-six in 1974 and by 1978, the Teich name was no longer being used in conjunction with producing postcards. The Curteichcolor process was subsequently purchased in 1980 and is still used by the John Hinde Company, an Irish firm based in Dublin with a branch in California, to print postcards, calendars, and tourist souvenirs.

Conclusion

Curt Teich is a quintessential American dream success story: he built a postcard empire from scratch in the United States based on the knowledge he gained growing up in Germany. An entrepreneur par excellence, Teich’s close German ties kept him abreast of important technological advances and innovative printing methods, and he had the know-how, language, and business acumen to turn this expertise into a profit. As someone who crossed cultural borders with ease, Teich used his identity as a German immigrant to build his own successful business and to expand the reach of the postcard industry in the United States.

Effectively adapting the German tourist motif of the “Greetings from...” postcards and making them part of the American vernacular, he was also a trailblazer in the printing industry for his focus on small American businesses. His company illustrated scenes of over ten thousand cities and towns across the United States. While they show an idealized version of America, taken as a whole these postcards illuminate a new culture of national tourism that promoted the quotidian landscape of the United States. Stimulated by the greater mobility of the middle class, small town tourism—and with it the American postcard industry—was able to flourish. Teich’s legacy stems from this immense graphic archive that celebrates the everyday visual language of America.

Notes

[1] Conversion values are based on the Purchasing Power Calculator from “Seven Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar Amount – 1774 to Present,” MeasuringWorth.com.

[2] Curt Teich, The Teich’s [sic] Family Tree and History (Chicago: Curt Teich and Company, 1958).

[3] Ralph Teich, “A Son Remembers Curt Otto Teich Sr.,” Postcard Journal: A Newsletter from the Curt Teich Postcard Collection of the Lake County Museum, 1:1 (Summer 1984): n.p.

[4] Official incorporation paperwork filed with Cook County, Illinois with James A. Rose, Secretary of State, March 15, 1904.

[5] Curt Teich, The Teich’s Family Tree and History, 29.

[6] For more on the history of the picture postcard, see George and Dorothy Miller, Picture Postcards in the United States, 1893–1918 (New York: Crown Publishers, 1976); Hal Morgan, Prairie Fires and Paper Moons: The American Photographic Postcard, 1900–1920 (Boston: D. R. Godine, 1981); Frank Staff, The Picture Postcard and Its Origins (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1966).

[7] Linda C. Samuels, “Urban Artifacts and the Collective Memory: The Postcard as a Memory Palace,” La Cittá Nuova, Proceedings of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture, 1999: 368–373, 370.

[8] For more on the introduction of the “Grüße aus…” phenomenon in Europe, see Staff, The Picture Postcard and Its Origins, 55–58, and Miller and Miller, Picture Postcards in the United States, 1–14.

[9] Miller and Miller, Picture Postcards in the United States, 26.

[10] “Seven Ways to Compute the Relative Value of a U.S. Dollar,” MeasuringWorth.com.

[11] For more on the changing nature of national travel and tourism in the first decades of the twentieth century, see Andrew S. Gross, “Cars, Postcards, and Patriotism: Tourism and National Politics in the United States, 1893–1929,” Pacific Coast Philology 40.1 (2005): 77–97; Jeffrey L. Meikle, “A Paper Atlantis: Postcards, Mass Art, and the American Scene: The Eleventh Reyner Banham Memorial Lecture,” Journal of Design History 13.4 (2000): 267–286; Marguerite Shaffer, See America First: Tourism and National Identity, 1880–1940, (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001; Thomas Weiss, “Tourism in America Before World War II,” Journal of Economic History 64.2 (June 2004): 289-327.

[12] Heather Johnson, “The Postcard Factory: Curt Teich and the Golden Age of Postcards,” Image File 13. 3/4 (2012): 4–9.

[13] The factory has now been converted into residential housing and the building renamed Post Card Place Lofts.

[14] Curt Teich, The Teich’s Family Tree and History, 35.

[15] Ibid., 30.

[16] “How and Where to Find Customers for C. T. Colorful Direct Mail Advertising,” Curteich News 2, no. 6 (Sep. 1933). It is unclear if the company provided its scouts with the cameras or if they were expected to provide or buy their own.

[17] Curt Teich, Sales Pointers (Chicago: Curt Teich and Company, 1935), 12–13.

[18] Mr. Blancher to Curt Teich, March 7, 1936, Job # 6A.H399, Curt Teich Postcard Archives, Lake County Discovery Museum, Wauconda, Illinois.

[19] Ralph Teich, Interview by Dan Cochrane, c. 1986, transcript.

[20] Teich, The Teich’s Family Tree and History, 36.

[21] Adolf Koepf, Handbuch der Modernen Reproduktions-Technik Band III: Photolithographie und Offsetreproduktion. (Frankfurt: Verlag Klimsch & Co., 1935).

[22] Ralph Teich, Cochrane interview transcript.

[23] Curt Teich, The Teich’s Family Tree and History, 30.

[24] Curt Teich, The Teich’s Family Tree and History, 37.

[25] Ralph Teich remembering his father’s words to his son Curt Teich Jr., undated reminiscences about his father, c. 1988, in Teich Postcard Archives.

[26] Colonel W. A. Johnson, Corps of Engineers to Curt Teich and Company, August 24, 1943, Teich Postcard Archives.

[27] Dave Godfrey, Corps of Engineers to Curt Teich Jr., Dec. 17, 1945, Teich Postcard Archives.

[28] Ralph Teich, Iinterview by Jane Ulrich, May 5, 1983, transcript, Teich Postcard Archives.

[29] Curt Teich, The Teich’s Family Tree and History, 38.

[30] For more about the history and connoisseurship of large-letter postcards in the United States, see Fred Tenney and Kevin Hilbert, Large Letter Postcards: The Definitive Guide, 1930s–1950s (Atglen, Pa..: Schiffer Publishing, 2009).

[31] Ralph Teich, interview by unidentified staff member, April 25, 1995, Teich Postcard Archives.

[32] Tanya Sheehan, “Looking Pleasant, Feeling White: The Social Politics of the Photographic Smile,” in Feeling Photography, ed. Elspeth H. Brown and Thy Phu (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2014), 142.

[33] For a more in-depth discussion of the history of racism and racial imagery in the United States in this time period, see Gail Bederman, Manliness and Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States, 1880–1917 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995) and David W. Southern, The Progressive Era and Race: Reaction and Reform, 1900–1917 (Wheeling, Ill.: Harlan Davidson, 2005).

[34] Brooke Baldwin, “On the Verso: Postcard Images as a Key to Popular Prejudices,” Journal of Popular Culture 22, no. 3 (Winter 1988): 17.

[35] Kim Keister, “Wish You Were Here,” Historic Preservation 44, no. 2 (1992): 54.

[36] Julia Gerweck, Interview by Katherine Hamilton-Smith, April 7, 1994, transcript, Teich Postcard Archives.

 

Cite this Entry

APA Style

"Curt Otto Teich." (2018) In Immigrant Entrepreneurship, Retrieved November 14, 2018, from Immigrant Entrepreneurship: http://www.immigrantentrepreneurship.org/entry.php?rec=245

Chicago Style

Lopes, Shana. "Curt Otto Teich." In Immigrant Entrepreneurship: German-American Business Biographies, 1720 to the Present, vol. 4, edited by Jeffrey Fear. German Historical Institute. Last modified July 24, 2015. http://www.immigrantentrepreneurship.org/entry.php?rec=245

MLA Style

"Curt Otto Teich," Immigrant Entrepreneurship, 2018, Immigrant Entrepreneurship. 14 Nov 2018 <http://www.immigrantentrepreneurship.org/entry.php?rec=245>

Curt Teich, ca. 1895

  • Teich family coat of arms
  • Curt Teich & Co., Printers, Hotel Kaiserhof, Chicago, ca. 1908
  • Curt Teich & Company’s factory floor showing the offset presses, 1929
  • Curt Teich & Company, Inc., 1733-1755 Irving Park Boulevard, Chicago, USA, 1934

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