Heavy Metal Madness: Greetings from Big Letters USA

One of the things that I like most about the printing industry is also one of the reasons it’s an industry in trouble these days. For some reason printing has always been a family affair, with shops being passed down from one generation to the next. Talk to many shop owners and you’ll hear stories of little boys coming to work with dad on Saturday to help finish up a job and learn the trade. Often the whole family got in on the act, running folding machines, stacking boxes, setting type, and hustling deliveries to customers.

Of course kids these days don’t want to run print shops, so for the last few decades many establishments have been sold by retiring owners, disappointed that the business they built did not pass down to grateful sons and daughters.

My favorite family of printers, and one that left an indelible mark on both printing technique and graphic design, was the Teich (say “Tike”) family off Chicago. The Windy City has always been America’s printing town, thanks in part to presence of big catalog producers like Sears Roebuck and Spiegel. But where RR Donnelley built the world’s largest printing business on long runs of Sears catalogs and massive phone directories, the Curt Teich & Company made its mark with short runs of penny post cards. And though they produced thousands of designs highlighting hotels, motels, restaurants, and tourist attractions all over America, Teich is best known for its “big letter” designs. These charming and colorful postcards are much coveted these days, partly because the unique combination off talent and technique used to produce them is almost impossible to duplicate now, even with the most sophisticated tools.

I knew I would like Bruce Springsteen when I saw his first album, which used a large-letter image .

An American Success Story
Curt Otto Teich was born in Lobenstein Germany in 1877 and immigrated to America at the age of 19. Two years later at the age of 21, he founded the Curt Teich Company in Chicago, and began printing a variety of commercial jobs. In 1910, the company purchased its first offset press, and nearly all subsequent work was done in offset-Teich was a pioneer in this regard as most printers were using letterpress well in to the 20th century.

This 1922 post card shows the Teich building in Chicago on Irving Park Blvd. The building is now a loft conversion called Postcard Place, where you can buy a space for between $100,000 and $200,000.

Teich takes delivery of its first offset press in 1910.

Teich was very secretive about his methods, and patented several printing processes. In its 80-year history, the company never gave tours to the public, fearful that other printers would learn their techniques. And while Curt Teich & Company kept extensive records and exhaustive archives of artwork, invoices, purchase orders, etc., very little was written about their processes, so we still know little even today.

Finding a Niche
Teich was certainly not the first company to produce post cards — they had been around since authorized by an act of Congress on May 19, 1898. And by 1901 there were designs that had large letters spelling out something with photos or drawings inset inside. But these early cards lacked color, and post cards were not popular because postal regulations prohibited writing on the back. Most early designs had only a small space on the front for a brief message. The back was reserved exclusively for the address and stamp.

But in 1907 the US Postal Service changed the law to allow for the “split-back” post card format we know today, and the popularity of post cards increased dramatically. For a great history of postcards and specifically the large-letter designs, visit Jeff Vorzimmer’s Website called The Large Letter Page.

By 1933 Teich had mastered the art of colorful printing, and began producing its own line of large-letter designs. Between then and 1956, they produced approximately 1,000 different designs, immortalizing even the most obscure of America cities, in addition to all 50 states.

No town was too small for the Teich treatment. Highlighted here is the thriving metropolis of Tucumeri, New Mexico.

This 1939 image of Davenport Iowa is truly corny.

By 1942, Lompoc was on the map, and is still one of my favorite California cities.

Method in Their Madness
Teich’s methods were typical of the day, but somehow they managed to create a unique look. Other companies, most notably the Tichnor Company, also made large-letter designs, but it’s still pretty easy to distinguish between the two.

Teich was also unique in naming all of their printing processes, which gave them distinct branding in a crowded marketplace. Among the processes were Curt Teich Photochrom, 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.

Long before the Coen brothers immortalized Fargo in celluloid, the Curt Teich Company paid tribute in this 1942 homage.

I’ve never been to Canton Illinois, but this 1943 card is one of my favorites as the type has a strange resemblance to Gill Kayo, a typeface I’ve always admired.

Much of the Teich type took on a curved baseline, as shown here in the Portland Maine version.

Upon receipt of the photograph a Teich employee would make a full color sketch, which was then approved by the customer, who was given an actual press proof.

Everything was done by hand, of course, and Teich imported skilled workers from his native Germany for the task. If you use Photoshop today, you’ll appreciate these instructions from a customer in Hawaii, taken from a purchase order in 1940: “Block out the upper background, and bring the trees in the foreground a little clearer, as well as the hotel itself: also the lava formation in the immediate foreground on the waters edge.” I couldn’t find how Teich separated the artwork into five colors — this is apparently part of the secret.

According to an early Teich employee newsletter, the term “pretty as a picture postcard” originated because the final scenes done by these hand methods looked better and more colorful than if you were there yourself.

All the Teich type was drawn by hand, of course, and often was tailored to fit the space.

I included this 1937 post card from Pasadena, only because I went to high school there.

This 1943 card of Oakland is one of my favorites because of the overlapping type.

By the mid ’40s, color transparencies were being used more extensively as the image source, and pictures started to become more realistic.

All in the Family
Though Curt Teich Sr. lived to be 97, he cut back his involvement and passed the business on to his son, Curt Teich Jr., who ran the business until it was sold in 1974. By 1978 the new owners had moved all the presses and closed the Teich business, thus ending one of the great American printing stories.

Perspective was no stranger to the Teich art team, as demonstrated in this Denver image.

And you thought Holland was in Europe. Not so, according to this early Teich souvenir.

Panama City is famous not only for its beaches, but for the fact that it can sustain two directions of shadow at the same time.

Many cities had multiple Teich tributes, including New York which had many versions in addition to this 1934 issue.

The Teich heirs wanted to preserve the extensive collection of artwork, however, (the company saved a sample of every card ever produced, apparently) so they began shopping the collection around, looking for a good home. Both the Chicago Historical Society and the Smithsonian passed on the collection, which ended up finding an unusual home at the Lake County Forest Preserve in Libertyville, Illinois, where son Ralph Teich had a summer home. This collection is now considered the largest public postcard collection in the world, numbering over 350,000. It includes much of the original artwork and other ephemera. You can visit the museum’s site at http://www.lcfpd.org/teich_archives/index.cfm?fuseaction=home.view.

Read more by Gene Gable.

Posted on: April 8, 2004

Gene Gable

Gene Gable has spent a lifetime in publishing, editing and the graphic arts and is currently a technology consultant and writer. He has spoken at events around the world and has written extensively on graphic design, intellectual-property rights, and publishing production in books and for magazines such as Print, U&lc, ID, Macworld, Graphic Exchange, AGI, and The Seybold Report. Gene's interest in graphic design history and letterpress printing resulted in his popular columns "Heavy Metal Madness" and "Scanning Around with Gene" here on CreativePro.com.

5 Comments on Heavy Metal Madness: Greetings from Big Letters USA

  1. Every one of Gene’s articles is a treasure to read. Don’t ever stop them!!!!!

  2. Another fascinating article about an area of printing and graphics I was only peripherally aware of.

    Good show!

  3. From a retired proofreader — the town is Tucumcari, New Mexico. From your article about postcards, the postcard was right but the cutline was wrong! Great article though.

  4. This is very informative. I have seen some of the postcards they have printed and the pictures are terrific! Post Card Printing Services

  5. Looks like the archives have moved to the Newberry.

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