Whereas: Stories from the People’s House

Wish You Were Here

McKinley Memorial Postcard/tiles/non-collection/P/Postcard_McKinley1.xml
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
Current events were popular subjects for postcards in the early 20th century. Prior to the introduction of the divided back, the sender's personal message and the image shared space.
House Chamber Postcard/tiles/non-collection/P/Postcard_Chamber2.xml
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
The larger images made possible by dividing the back of postcards had wide appeal.  More cost-efficient color printing methods also added to the visual allure and economic potentials of the postcard.
Westward, Ho! Postcard/tiles/non-collection/P/Postcard_Westward3.xml
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
The many elaborate details of the Capitol were made subjects for postcards. The B.S. Reynolds company made a specialty of cards reproducing art from around the District.
As long as people have traveled, they have wanted to share experiences with the folks at home, and nearly 200 years of tourism show that visitors to the Capitol are no exception. By the 1820s, prints of the exterior and grand interior spaces of the Capitol were readily available. Commercial photography took off in the 1860s, and local studios churned out stereoviews of the capital’s landmarks, providing more realistic views for image-hungry tourists. The invention of picture postcards in the late 19th century added a level of efficiency to the impulse to share, and quickly escalated into a mailing frenzy. Images of all imaginable destinations—natural wonders, architectural marvels, homes of famous people—crisscrossed the country. And as a prime destination, the Capitol was a mainstay of the genre with every photogenic part finding its way through the mail.

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.

Statuary Hall Postcard/tiles/non-collection/P/Postcard_Clio4.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
The Muse of History and the Statuary Hall collection were memorable stops for the early-20th century Capitol visitor.
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.

Capitol and Reflecting Pool Postcard/tiles/non-collection/P/Postcard_Night5.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
Saturated, nearly neon colors characterize postcard images from the mid-20th century.
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.

U.S. Capitol Postcard/tiles/non-collection/P/Postcard_Cherry6.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
Cherry blossom season offers many photogenic views of the Capitol, as demonstrated in this ca. 1936 postcard.
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. 

Categories: Capitol Campus, Artifacts