Heritage Fair - 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, July 10

Picture Postcards: The Happy Invention

You are here


UNION – Before the advent of social media, people seeking a quick and easy way to communicate used postcards.

On Feb. 27, 1861, Congress passed an act that allowed privately printed cards, weighing one ounce or less, to be sent in the mail. A report by the postmaster general confirms the first government-produced postcard was issued on May 1, 1873. One side of the postcard was reserved for a message and the other side was for the recipient’s address. However, the first postcard printed as a souvenir in the United States did not arrive until 1893. It advertised the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

That makes Illinois the birthplace of the American picture postcard, said Katherine Hamilton-Smith, former director of cultural resources for the Lake County Forest Preserves in Liberyville and founding curator of the Curt Teich postcard archive – regarded as the largest public collection of postcards and related materials in the United States. At the time of its acquisition by Chicago’s Newberry Library in 2017 from Lake County, it was estimated to include 2.5 million total items and more than 500,000 unique postcard images.

Hamilton will discuss the impact from the billions of postcards produced in this country and abroad when she presents “Picture Postcards: The Happy Invention” at 7 p.m., Monday, March 22. Registration closes at 4:30 p.m. March 22. Attendees must register in advance on the MCHS website at www.gothistory.org to receive the access code.

Register for this free virtual program by clicking HERE.

“I have a background in art and art history,” Hamilton-Smith said. “We do know that 20th century artists and architects often collected postcards because they are very visual. I certainly am interested in collecting something that is visually interesting to me.”

Hamilton-Smith, now director of public affairs and development for the Lake County Forest Preserves, has maintained a professional interest in archives and museum work. She studied art history and music history at St. Andrews University in Scotland. She also earned a master’s degree in art history from the University of Nebraska and a master's degree in art and music history from the University of Chicago.

Fresh out of college in 1982, Hamilton-Smith oversaw the transfer and preservation of about 2.5 million postcards and related materials from the Curt Teich & Co. archives to the now former Lake County Discovery Museum in Wauconda.

“I think I was simply too young to know better,” Hamilton-Smith said. “It seemed interesting and sounded like a challenge.”

During the ensuing 15 years she became a postcard expert, even adding to the museum’s core collection – up until its relocation to Libertyville and rebranding as the Bess Bower Dunn Museum of Lake County.

 “In graduate school my specialty was late 11th century English and French manuscript illumination, and there is something akin [to postcards] there. They are both relatively small and they are full of iconography related to a certain time and place. …

“Postcards are very likeable. They are a tiny, physical manifestation of an image and a communication of somebody experience there,” Hamilton-Smith said. “Let’s say you went to New York City and you are bound up in this great experience. It’s partly a human experience, partly a time peg, partly the impact of an image by text. It has a stamp that adds to its graphic power – and it’s sent through the mail. It’s pretty powerful for what it is.”

According to the U.S. Postal Service, more than a million postcards were mailed by 1951. Far from diminishing, the number of postcards mailed reached a high water mark of 2.7 million in 2000. Hamilton-Smith urged lecture attendees to bring their own vintage postcards that night for discussion and valuation.

“I learned to have respect for what is common and not to discount something that is so ubiquitous,” she said. “They (postcards) are so basic in a way, that they can be discounted. But there is art and there is history.”
One needs to simply scratch the surface.

“You just might buy a postcard and stamp, write a message about a moment in time at a particular place and send it to someone who means that much to you,” Hamilton-Smith said. “Powerful. It’s not changed in the last 130 years.”

This program is made possible by grant from Illinois Humanities, which is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the Illinois General Assembly [through the Illinois Arts Council Agency (IACA)], as well as by contributions from individuals, foundations and corporations.

Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed by speakers, program participants, or audiences do not necessarily reflect those of the NEH, Illinois Humanities, IACA, our partnering organizations, or our funders.

This is second of  four programs in the series offered by McHenry County Historical Society. Upcoming programs are:

• 7 p.m. Monday, April 5 – Historic Instruments of Illinois. Chris Vallillo, a singer/songwriter and folklorist from Moline, has restored and collected Illinois stringed instruments for more than 30 years. He will discuss the development of Illinois instrument building as he performs period music on more than a dozen historic instruments – from handmade masterpieces to $3 mail-order gems.

From homemade dulcimers and fiddles to mass produced guitars, banjo’s, mandolins and pianos, Illinois –specifically Chicago – has been deeply involved in the creation and production of stringed musical instruments. After the Great Fire of 1871, as Chicago began to re-build, it quickly became a national center in musical instrument manufacturing, sales and distribution, particularly with the introduction of the mail order catalogs like Sears and Roebuck and Montgomery Wards. Made possible by a grant from Illinois Humanities.

• 7 p.m. Monday, April 19 – The Life Cycle of Clothing in the 19th Century. Presented by Erika Holst, curator of history at the Illinois State Museum. Americans invested a tremendous amount of labor into making and maintaining their wardrobes during the 19th century. Explore the life cycle of clothing during the 1800s: how it was created, mended, remade, washed, and ultimately recycled.

Holst, who has curated more than a dozen exhibitions during her more than 15 years in the field, will highlight examples of garments and artifacts from the Illinois State Museum’s collection. After the presentation, the audience will have an opportunity to share their own clothing experiences and reflect on more modern attitudes about apparel – such as “fast fashion” and discarding vs. mending.

For additional information, call 815-923-2267.


Monday, March 22, 2021 - 7:00pm