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An offset pioneer

Oct 1, 2006 12:00 AM

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Print History

In 1990, Chicagoans crossing the intersection of Ravenswood Ave. and Irving Park Rd. might have noticed signs promoting a new condo development on that corner. Most were probably indifferent. After all, many old factories all across the city were being converted into upscale housing. And the name of this particular development, “Post Card Place,” hardly hinted at its historical significance.

But from the 1920s to the 1940s, Curt Teich & Co., the company that originally occupied this North Side address, churned out more postcards than any other printer in the world. Over its 80-year history, the company produced cards featuring more than 10,000 towns and cities in North America and 87 foreign countries. Aside from its impressive output, the printer also was an offset pioneer. And, even at that time, the company was contending with the same business conditions that continue to plague contemporary printers: Too many printers competing for too little work.

Curt Teich (rhymes with “bike”) was born in Greiz, Germany, in 1877. He attended high school in Dresden, Germany, and at age 15, returned to his hometown of Lobenstein to learn the printing trade. Teich arrived in Chicago in 1895 and established his own company in 1898.

“Business conditions were poor,” Teich wrote in a family history published upon the 60th anniversary of the company. “Many visitors to the Chicago World's Fair had remained, and every profession and trade was overcrowded.”

Fair to middling
In the early days, Teich's company specialized in job, newspaper and magazine publishing. “Competition was fierce and price cutting prevalent,” recalled Teich. “A fair living, that's all, was the result.”

In 1904, Teich returned to Germany to investigate the latest printing technology. Upon coming back to Chicago in 1907, he found that market conditions were even worse than before. Having recruited Otto Buettner, an accomplished lithographic artist, Teich decided to enter the postcard business.

Initially, Teich fared poorly against competitors' cheaper imported cards. In 1908, however, imported cards, which had been duty-free, were subjected to a duty of $1.28 per thousand. Curt Teich also had a delivery advantage, 60 to 90 days vs. the six to 12 months required for imported cards to reach the United States.

Like many business owners, Teich played a key sales role. In 1905, he took a 90-day train trip from Chicago to the West Coast. At every stop, he photographed the top sights: Main Street, the town square, scenic views, anything and everything that might be of interest. Teich then persuaded local business people to stock and sell the cards. The minimum order was 1,000 cards of a subject at $1 per thousand. That first trip was a great success — Teich reportedly returned to Chicago with $30,000 in orders.

At a time when letterpress was the prevalent technique, Teich was an early offset advocate. Teich's first cards were printed using a process called “C.T. American Art.” Litho stones eventually gave way to metal plates grained with small, rounded stones collected from nearby Lake Michigan.

“The artists traced the outlines of the colors on the plates, then designed four separate color plates (yellow, red, blue and pink),” according to Teich. “The zinc plates were etched, inked and hand impressions pulled on china and columbia transfer paper. Postcard designs were assembled, 32 subjects to a sheet, halftones made from the black photographs and printed on cardboard in black ink on Miehle presses. Color impressions were assembled, stuck up and pulled over on larger stones for color lithographing.”

The great Scott press
In 1907, Teich asked the Harris Co. (Cleveland) to build him a 38 × 52-inch offset press. The company refused, but did agree to build a 36 × 48-inch machine. Teich, however, was still interested in a large-format press and found a company that could deliver one: Scott Printing Press Co. (Elizabeth, NJ). The press manufacturer had previously built a 38 × 52-inch offset press for a Buffalo, NY, printer and promised to do the same for Curt Teich & Co.

The Scott Offset Press took longer than anticipated to build, but by 1909, the manufacturer was conducting test runs. “Results were very poor,” recalled Teich. “The offset press was running at such a high speed that no hand feeder could service the machine. Dexter Folder Co. had developed a new high-speed mechanical feeder and one was ordered for this new offset press.”

Teich hired a qualified press operator (an Austrian who had run a Harris offset press in Minneapolis) and, after several months of tinkering, was able to produce cards that were “almost as good” as the imported ones.

The business prospered. In 1910, the company bought the property it would occupy until 1978. The expansion also included three more Scott presses, two 36 × 48-inch Harris presses, new Miehle printing presses as well as camera and bindery equipment.

During World War II, the company found another use for its large-format presses. In addition to printing 32 cards to a sheet, the presses were ideal for printing maps. Curt Teich & Co. printed more than three million maps, including about half of the invasion maps used by U.S. troops in the Pacific and Europe.

In the mid-1940s, Curt Teich's oldest son, Curt Teich, Jr., headed the company. The elder Teich, however, was still active in the business until his death in 1974 at the age of 97.

Gone but not forgotten
In 1974, the Teich Co. was sold, and by 1978, the world's largest postcard factory was shuttered for good. But while the company is gone, its legacy endures. In 1982, the Lake County Discovery Museum (Wauconda, IL) established the Curt Teich Postcard Archives.

The archive houses 360,000 images dating from 1898 to 1978, as well as 105,000 job jackets of related material. Curt Teich was a stickler for quality, especially on reprint jobs. He kept 15 copies of every printed image and a wealth of supporting material, such as photographic prints and negatives, client instructions, and anything sent as a color sample, such as wallpaper swatches.

Curt Teich was a printer — he never intended to be a historian. As journalist Kim Keister observed in a 1992 article for Historic Preservation: “The content of the Teich Archives, like the nation it portrays, is vast, complex, populist and frequently tacky.”

But Katherine Hamilton-Smith, the original curator of the Teich Archives and current director of cultural resources, says the collection offers a unique perspective on national history. “What exists here is really America as it saw itself, as it brought itself to this [printing] company,” Hamilton-Smith told Keister. “The way the collection was put together is different from any other collection and, I think, much more revealing of American culture.”

Great moments in postcard history
Postcards, in the form of government postal cards and privately printed souvenir cards, became very popular as a result of 1893's Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago, after which postcards featuring buildings were distributed. In 1908, more than 677 million postcards were mailed.

1901 brought cards with the word “Post Card” printed on the reverse (the side without the picture). Written messages were still restricted to the front side, with the entire back dedicated to the address. This “undivided back” is what gives this postcard era its name.

The “divided back” card, with space for a message on the address side, came into use in the United States in 1907. Thus began [a postcard boom], which lasted until about 1915, when World War I blocked the import of fine German-printed cards.

The “white border” era, named for obvious reasons, lasted from about 1916 to 1930. The “linen card” era lasted from about 1930 to 1945, when cards were printed primarily on papers with a high rag content. The last and current postcard era, which began about 1939, is the “photochrome” or “chrome” era. The images on these cards generally are based on colored photographs and printed on coated paper.

Greetings from a large-letter fan
Although Curt Teich and Co. produced more than 300,000 cards during its 80-year history, it probably is best known for its large-letter cards, such as the one featured on the cover of this issue. These cards, printed on linen-like stock, were launched in the 1930s and produced until the late 1950s, when they gave way to glossy photochrome cards.

Chicago-based journalist and mystery author Robert Goldsborough has amassed one of the biggest collections of large-letter cards, with more than 1,000. “I got interested in large-letter linen cards back in the 1950s, when they were still being published,” says Goldsborough. “Probably because Curt Teich was based in Chicago, they tended to concentrate more on the Chicago area than any other single part of the country.”

Indeed, by Goldsborough's count, Curt Teich's cards featured more than 75 Illinois communities, including 48 cards depicting the Chicago area.

“My first large-letter card was for Elmhurst, my home town, and then I started getting cards from neighboring towns, such as Oak Park, Glen Ellyn and Wheaton,” recalls Goldsborough. “And then as we went on family driving vacations, I added to the collection. I've been adding ever since, via eBay and card shows.”

Other companies such as E.C. Kropp, Tichnor Brothers and Dexter Press produced large-letter cards, but Goldsborough prefers Curt Teich's “stronger designs and bolder color schemes.”

“This is not to say [the competitors didn't] have some especially strong large-letter cards, but on balance Curt Teich has it all over them,” explains Goldsborough. “Also, Curt Teich produced far more city and specialty cards (universities, military bases, national parks, etc.) than any of the others. Most of the serious large-letter card collectors I know or correspond with agree that Curt Teich is the gold standard.”

Photo credit
All photos appear courtesy of The Curt Teich Postcard Archives, part of the Lake County Discovery Museum (Wauconda, IL). Images from the archives have appeared everywhere from the pages of National Geographic to episodes of “Antiques Roadshow.”

The collection features thousands of postcards chronicling cities and towns, destinations, travel, transportation, National Parks, social attitudes, the marketplace, family life, fashion, holidays, the months and seasons, architecture, the changing landscape, and design movements. The archive fields questions from postcard collectors, scholars, movie producers, preservationists, historical societies and, of course, printers. See or e-mail

Remember my name
Teich was unique in naming all of the company's printing processes, which gave it distinct branding in a crowded marketplace. Among the processes were Curt Teich Photochrome, a four-color process using black-and-white photos as the base art; Curteichcolor, introduced in 1949 and made from color transparencies, and others like Curt Teich Photo Varicolor (blackish green with orange tint); Curt Teich Blue Sky (black and white with only the sky tinted blue); Curt Teich Varicolor (green tint); and many others.

Most of the big-letter cards, however, were done in Curt Teich Art Colortone, a five-color process begun in 1930 and made on linen-finish paper from a black-and-white photo used as the original inspiration. Customers or photographers would submit photos, which were then retouched extensively. The retouched photos were then returned to customers with a tissue overlay and a chart of up to 75 custom colors that Teich employees felt were suited to the scene. Each of these colors was numbered and the customer would write the appropriate number on the tissue to best match the real color of the scene. This is why these scenes are so vivid and somewhat unrealistic. In most cases the retoucher never saw the actual scene, and many customers exaggerated the intensity of their location.

Excerpted by permission from “Heavy metal madness: Greetings from Big Letters, USA,” April 2004, by Gene Gable,


Katherine O'Brien is the editor of AMERICAN PRINTER. Contact her at