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“Wish You Were Here” in Colorful Colorado: Postcards and the Visual History of Colorado
(15 minute read)
If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a postcard is even better. Sending postcards in one form or another has been a novel way to both show a picture and convey a message since the mid-nineteenth century. Postcards’ one-cent postage and collectible nature caused their popularity to boom throughout Colorado and the United States in the early 1900s, cementing their place in history as a fun, visual form of communication. Colorado’s mountain vistas, vacation spots, and growing communities across the state provided endless subject matter for small, three-by-five-inch snapshots with a quick note or greeting. Today, postcards from the past reveal Colorado’s visual history through photography as well as the ways Coloradans and visitors portrayed the state to the rest of the world.
Colorado’s largest postcard publisher in the early twentieth century was H. H. Tammen Curio Company. Harry Heye Tammen became well known in Colorado as a co-owner of The Denver Post in 1895 and as a sponsor of William “Buffalo Bill” Cody’s Wild West shows; on occasion, he was also known as an infamously relentless businessman. Tammen started his curio company with business partner Charles A. Stuart in the 1880s selling mail-order pottery, rugs, and other items. By the 1910s, his business was selling postcards and photo prints using images from several leading photographers including William Henry Jackson. Most Tammen cards featured Colorado cities, landmarks, and various western themes. The company used halftone printing, in which tiny dots produce an image, often with hand-illustrated embellishments accentuating more detail. Tammen died in 1924, but the business continued printing cards into the 1950s.
Sanborn Souvenir Company emerged as a major postcard publisher shortly after Tammen’s death. The company printed halftone, linen, and eventually photochrome postcards for sale at stores across Colorado into the 1970s. However, it was real photo postcards—actual photographs used as postcards—that established Sanborn as a prominent name. Founder Harold Sanborn traveled frequently throughout Colorado, Wyoming, and even parts of Nebraska to take impressive black-and-white shots of the western landscape. The postcards’ views of panoramic cityscapes, bustling street scenes, beautiful natural vistas, and iconic landmarks all formed a series of images comparable to William Henry Jackson’s work from the nineteenth century. Harold’s son William P. Sanborn later assisted in the endeavor, retaking photos with his father so that postcard images would remain current and relevant to customers. In all, the Sanborns created more than thirty years’ worth of photo documentation of the state from 1925 to 1957.
Other, smaller publishers made their start in the postcard business because of their combined love of photography and the great outdoors of Colorado. Harry Standley was an avid rock climber and member of mountaineering groups including the Colorado Mountain Club and AdAmAn Club. He became particularly well known for photographing all of Colorado’s “fourteener” mountain peaks. In 1905 Standley moved to Colorado Springs, where he went into business with another photographer, William Sode, to found Sode & Standley Publishers. They sold real photo postcards alongside traditional photo prints of Colorado’s mountain wilderness.
Glenn L. Gebhardt founded Rocky Mountain View Company around the same time that Sanborn Souvenir got its start. Gebhardt had a career as a public school teacher, but still fostered his business as a photographer traveling the state every summer. Also a member of the Colorado Mountain Club, Gebhardt displayed outdoor scenery on his postcards along with city and street scenes from all the places he visited. Postcard publishing by photographers like Standley and Gebhardt was significantly smaller than the likes of H. H. Tammen and Sanborn Souvenir, but their passion for photography and Colorado’s natural wonders created postcards that contribute greatly toward the visual history of the state.
Many postcards presented special characteristics and landmarks in the places people lived that helped define their local communities. Ski towns such as Aspen, Steamboat Springs, and Breckenridge advertised premier slopes and resorts on their cards; Colorado Springs highlighted nearby attractions like the Air Force Academy, Pikes Peak, and Garden of the Gods; Boulder touted the University of Colorado, Chautauqua, and the ever-present Flatirons; smaller cities such as Fairplay and Central City celebrated their history with “burro racing” and the Central City Opera House; and cities like Denver proudly displayed new buildings, parks, and growth as modern American urban centers. The modern viewer can observe the history of cities and towns all across Colorado through postcards, telling the story of what these places were and how their residents wanted visitors to see them.
Of course, senders ultimately used postcards to relay a message. Senders often squeezed every last centimeter of space out of the fronts or backs of cards with messages, using the front image as reference. A visitor all the way from Johannesburg, South Africa, in the 1910s used a postcard of Colorado Fuel & Iron Company furnaces with billowing smoke to tell of his trip through Pueblo. Cards from Pikes Peak’s summit included boastful notes of accomplishment after a long and arduous ascent. Even natural disasters, such as tornadoes in Yuma or flooding in Englewood, were visually documented on postcards to better relay news of what was happening in a community. While the postcards prove interesting in their own right, messages and the use of the cards’ subject matter could give a whole new meaning to sentiments sent to a friend or loved one.
The following postcards from History Colorado’s collections were originally meant to be sent and seen, scribbled on and read, and mailed from one distant place to another. They represent the history of postcard photography and publishing in Colorado around the first half of the twentieth century, and the types of themes and messages that senders wished to convey. Postcards like these offer a visual understanding of and valuable insight into the rich history of “Colorful Colorado,” as the state’s nostalgic roadside welcome signs still proclaim to visitors.
A colorful linen postcard published by Curt Teich & Company and Sanborn Souvenir Company. Pictorial letters show various mountains, the Colorado State Capitol, and the Manitou Cliff Dwellings.
This iconic, full-letter postcard shows several Denver landmarks, from left to right: Daniels & Fisher Tower, Civic Center Park, the Colorado State Capitol, the Denver City and County Building, the University of Denver campus, and Denver’s Carnegie Library. Postcard publisher Curt Teich & Company popularized “linen” cards with large, pictorial letters as seen in this example. Curt Teich printed several cards featuring major cities across the United States from the 1930s to the 1950s. They were called linens because of the embossed surface of the paper resembling woven linen rag, which helped ink dry faster in the printing process for sharp, vibrant color. Local publishers would often work with Curt Teich to publish such cards, as Denver’s own Sanborn Souvenir Company did with this one.
H. H. Tammen Curio Company produced several postcards featuring Colorado locales and western themes. “Old Steamboat,” shown on this color halftone card, was a bucking bronco first made famous at Denver’s Festival of Mountain and Plain rodeo in 1901. The spectators in the background, devoid of color and slightly blurry, clearly show that the image was originally based on a black-and-white photograph. Steamboat and his unfortunate rider are embellished with color and starker outlines, a mix of hand-drawn artwork and a realistic photolike picture. The practice of publishers adding artistic touches to postcards was common before the gradual application of natural color photography and printing starting in the 1930s.
Harold and William Sanborn traveled across Colorado and other parts of the West to photograph beautiful vistas for their postcards. Using four-by-six-inch negatives, they captured great detail on their black-and-white silver gelatin cards. The subtle bands of sunlight and rain passing through distant clouds; rolling hills of brush cascading into the mountain background; and a sharp, jagged rock formation framing the beaten, curving highway—the image on this real photo card is breathtaking, even without color. Such high-quality photographs help document Colorado’s changing landscape in the mid-twentieth century.
Many Sanborn postcards present panoramic views of cities and towns. These cards give viewers a bird’s-eye view of communities as they existed in the past. This shot of Ouray, Colorado, around 1950 shows a comprehensive layout of the city, complete with roads, buildings, and its natural surroundings. All of this visual information serves as documentation of the city as the Sanborns were photographing the state. Researchers can use cards like this to observe change over time in Colorado.
Most real photo postcards in the twentieth century are silver gelatin prints, presenting detailed black-and-white images. However, this cyanotype postcard by Sode & Standley Publishers stands out as more unusual. Cyanotype photographs develop directly into paper, using the same printing method as blueprint designs. The result of this method creates blue-toned images like this one of Big Thompson Canyon. Rather than printing on paper, though, the publisher apparently developed it into cloth material that was then adhered to the card. Postcards such as this one show that printing methods near the turn of the last century could vary greatly with different formats and techniques, as photographers and publishers experimented with the best ways to produce and distribute their cards.
This scenic real photo postcard of Snowmass Lake by Glenn L. Gebhardt reflects both his love of the outdoors and his passion for photography. As a member of the Colorado Mountain Club, Gebhardt led trips for hiking groups, and even gave pointers on photography in the club’s official publication, Trail & Timberline. The card shows the Rocky Mountain View Co. name and company information in the bottom right corner; Gebhardt ran his business out of his home while working as a public school teacher.
The kinds of events that communities might document on a postcard could sometimes venture into dangerous waters—literally. This real photo postcard depicts the 1913 Little Dry Creek flood in Englewood, Colorado. Just as curious onlookers might brave inclement weather with smartphone cameras ready, the photographer and two men in this image appear to be taking the floodwaters in stride. Recipients of this postcard would have gotten a view of what Englewood residents saw, perhaps with an update on flood damage, a report on loved ones’ well-being, or a harrowing tale of ferrying a bicycle across floodwaters.
Several Colorado communities remember famous individuals who give depth to their histories, but few can boast of having a burro with such a distinction. Fairplay, Colorado, is home to a memorial remembering a faithful and reliable pack burro named Prunes. Living over sixty years (presumably), Prunes worked at several mines around Fairplay by transporting goods back and forth from town. After dying in a blizzard in 1930, he was given his own monument shown in this postcard, complete with glass cases to display his life of service to the community. Postcards often show small, side-of-the-road-style oddities in America, but a closer look at this attraction reveals a deep and heartfelt connection with Fairplay’s mining history.
Postcards’ ability to show distant and unique places have always made them ideal as souvenirs. This whimsical, nonrepresentational card was marketed proudly as a “Pike’s Peak Official Post Card.” Tourists could either hike the mountain or take the cog rail train up to the summit. People who successfully made it to the top of the fourteener could receive a special ink stamp commemorating the achievement, a tradition that continued for several decades. Souvenir postcards told people more about Colorado attractions than just the simple description of a letter—they conveyed the participation in, and enjoyment of, the places visited.
The Central City Opera House was built in 1878, but financial trouble soon followed after the competing Tabor Opera House opened in Leadville. Central City’s theater eventually went through a revival in the 1930s after the founding of the Central City Opera House Association. The drama Ruy Blas was performed there in 1938 with Helen Chandler (best known for her part in the 1931 movie Dracula) in a starring role. Organizations like the Opera House Association have long used postcards to advertise their services and activities; this real photo card advertised Central City’s many performances, helping to keep the opera house open after its tumultuous early years of activity.
The Daniels & Fisher Tower has served as a major landmark in Denver since it was built in 1910. Originally part of the Daniels & Fisher Department Store at Sixteenth and Arapahoe Streets, it remained the tallest building marking Denver’s skyline at 330 feet until the 1950s. H. H. Tammen decided to remember the architectural “feet” by printing this postcard—or rather, three postcards in one. The Daniels & Fisher Tower’s tremendous height was celebrated with a sixteen-and-a-half-inch card, which one visitor folded up and mailed home to Nebraska.
The US Postal Service did not allow for divided backs on postcards—providing space for both a message and a sending address—until March 1, 1907. Before that date, American cards required a message to be written somewhere on the front side of the card, with only the address allowed on the back. This postcard of the Brown Palace Hotel in Denver was originally printed before the introduction of divided backs. Ample space was given next to the image on cards like these so that the sender could get a brief message to a friend or family member.
One visitor to Colorado from Johannesburg, South Africa, sent multiple cards back home around 1910 to chronicle his trip. He used this postcard of the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company to highlight his passing through Pueblo, filling up every last piece of the back (without an address, perhaps he sent it in the mail in an envelope, or never got a chance to send it). “These buildings aren’t on fire,” he wrote, alluding to the front image. “[They] are simply iron furnaces and such like [sic] . . . for melting, moulding and forging iron & steel.” Postcards with passing messages like this make great use of the front image, showing recipients what their acquaintances’ travels looked like while providing deeper context to the places visited. As the writer summarized, “Pueblo depends on such businesses for its wealth.”
History Colorado’s Postcard Processing Project is possible thanks to a generous grant from Giorgian “Zeke” Zekay on behalf of the Denver Postcard Club.