Enterprising Washingtonians recognized the potential of the tourist market, staying on top of the latest trends in postcard production through the decades. The D.C.-made cards were usually half-tone prints—a type of screen printing that was both easily done in color and inexpensive, ideal for the souvenir market. Washington News Company—one of the earliest Washington, D.C., postcard publishers, with a shop at 616 6th Street NW—put out an early postcard of William McKinley’s memorial service in the House Chamber in 1902.
Postcards didn’t officially exist under that name until 1901, when postal laws were altered to recognize the format. They weren’t quite the same postcards that we know today, though. Up until 1906, the cards had “undivided backs,” meaning that only the address could be written there. Any message had to be squeezed in on the same side as the image, as seen in the McKinley Memorial postcard. A preference for some writing space and larger, colored, and more striking images quickly evolved. The huge increase in the popularity of postcards coincided with the 1907 change in laws that allowed both the address and message to be written on one side, giving over an entire side for an image. In the fiscal year of 1908, Post Office statistics report that 677 million postcards were mailed within the United States—at a time when the population of the country was around 89 million. Foster & Reynolds, of 1202 D Street NW, began putting out postcards in 1901, publishing the color view of the empty House Chamber between then and 1907. Although more modern, with its larger color image, this card also had an undivided back.
B.S. Reynolds (formerly Foster & Reynolds) became known for their views of art in the Capitol, publishing cards with reproductions of paintings, like Emanuel Leutze’s Westward the Course of Empire Takes its Way, or sculptures, like the Car of History from the Old House Chamber. These two are examples of how postcards generally appeared around 1914. Before World War I, most postcards were printed in Germany, but with the advent of war and the increase in material costs, a new technique was needed. Enter the “white border” style, named, obviously, for the white border around the image. The images were not as high in quality, but they were inexpensive and in color. And although the height of the postcard craze had passed, the cheap, eye-catching souvenir images produced in the United States continued a brisk trade, and Washington, D.C., publishers flourished.
The Washington News Company continued business into the mid-20th century, turning out images of the Capitol in all seasons and times of day. A winter sunset view dates from the white-border period, but around 1930, paper with a linen-like texture came into common use, and the publisher took advantage of new technology to add more drama to this theme. High rag content created the textured surface of these cards, which worked well with the “Colorchrome” process. Similar to Technicolor films, Colorchrome postcards are remarkable for their saturated, bright palettes. The Washington News Company fully embraced these intense hues, producing striking images of the Capitol at night. To maximize the impact of color, they made cards employing water reflections, in particular. B.S. Reynolds also made creative use of reflections and dramatic contrasts in their ca. 1940 postcard of the Capitol at night.
Night scenes did not have a monopoly on intense color—Washington News Company also employed the technique on perhaps the most classic view of Washington, the Capitol dome emerging through a screen of blossoming cherry boughs. Lime-green foliage and yellow highlights on the water and in the sky epitomize the palette of the time—reality turned up a notch, or three. It’s exactly how a vacation is best remembered (or at least bragged about) in any era.
Sources: Smithsonian Institution Archives, History of Postcards, http://siarchives.si.edu/history/exhibits/postcard/postcard-history.Follow @USHouseHistory