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National Park Postcards

In the first article in this series we discussed a brief history of postcards. In this second article we will talk about the history of national park postcards in particular.

Many of the national park quilt blocks we offer for sale are reproductions of vintage postcards. Postcard images, and messages, are a reflection of social history and have played an important role in shaping and influencing the perception of national parks in this country, and throughout the world. Postcards are the quintessential national park souvenirs of the 20th century and they continue to be one of the most popular gift items sold to tourists today.

National Parks were established at different times. Yellowstone National Park was established in 1872 and transcends a wider range of photography, and printing, than parks that were established later. I will list a few parks and show the different eras of postcard publication relative to those parks. I need to mention that the dates of some of the postcard eras are subject to debate and should be considered circa. I have not included real photo postcards and will discuss these in a later article. My focus is on printed postcards because these compose the vast majority of postcards that were published for the national parks, especially before the end of the Golden Age.

Pioneer Era 1870-1898

The Golden Age of Postcards:
Private Mailing Card Era 1898 – 1901
Undivided Back Era 1901-1907
Divided Back Era 1907- 1915

White Border Era 1915-1930
Linen Era 1930-1945
Modern Photochrome Era I - pre zip code - 1939-1964
Modern Photochrome Era II - post zip code – 1964-present

I did not mention the difference in undivided back and divided back postcards in the first article in this series. My focus in the first article was the Golden Age of Postcards, which included both of these types of postcards. The difference was that prior to 1907 the message and the image had to be on the front of the card and the back was reserved for the address only. In 1907 Congress authorized that the back of a postcard could be divided for both the message and the address. The advantage of the undivided back postcard was that the entire front side of the card could be used for the image.

The earliest national park postals were two pioneer cards published in 1897 by Albert Kayser of Oakland, CA. Kayser printed a series of twenty-five pioneer cards, including one card of Yellowstone Park and one card of Yosemite Park. These have multi-view images on the front and are very rare.

The Detroit Publishing Company (DPC) printed a series of ten experimental Private Mailing Cards in 1898 of Yellowstone National Park. The following year there were more PMCs published of Yellowstone Park, including cards by Haynes, DPC, and some European publishing companies. There were PMCs published of Yosemite Park as well. By the turn of the century the number of postcards published of Yellowstone and Yosemite began to increase dramatically. The point I want to make here is that these are the only two national parks that have postcards published from these early dates in these formats.

The DPC was publishing a large number of postcards of Yellowstone and Yosemite by 1903-05 and added the Grand Canyon to its list of locations circa 1907-08. Grand Canyon National Monument was established in 1908 by President Theodore Roosevelt and was not designated a national park until 1919. A number of different publishers were producing postcards of national parks and monuments, especially Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Grand Canyon from circa 1907 through 1915. Postcards were published of other national parks and monuments during this period, but the numbers were small in comparison to the three major parks mentioned above. Also, there were postcards published of several locations prior to those locations being designated as either national parks or monuments.

The DPC published a very large number of postcards of American national parks and monuments from the turn of the century through the 1920s. I will discuss the Detroit Publishing Company in detail in the third article in this series. The DPC was the premier publishing company in America and was the one American printing companies that would compete with the German and European printers in overall quality.

Yellowstone National Park is illustrated on postcard images more than any other national park in America, and perhaps any other single location. One reason is that Yellowstone Park was established early and transcended the different postcard eras. Yellowstone also had gift shops established throughout the park when postcards were first introduced. With the exception of Yosemite and Grand Canyon, most of the other major national parks in America were established near the end or after the Golden Age of Postcards. The other national parks and monuments that were established before 1915 did not have a large number of postcards published before 1915, for one reason or another. Two reasons that these locations had limited numbers of postcards published was that they had fewer tourists and their concessionaire businesses either had not been established or was in the process of being established. The Golden Age of Postcards began to decline in 1909 as the cost of postcard production increased, especially for cards imported from Europe. This decline in production and increased costs had a direct impact on the production and sales of national park postcards.

Railroads were literally the driving force behind the establishment and promotion of many of America’s national parks and monuments, especially those in the western states. The Fred Harvey Company was an important promoter of the Grand Canyon, even before it was declared a national monument. Fred Harvey established the first restaurant chain, operating a system-wide food service at all railroad stops for the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. This included the Hotel El Tovar, built on the south rim of the Grand Canyon in 1905. The Fred Harvey Company published a large number of postcards of locations serviced by the Santa Fe Railway, including the Grand Canyon and the Petrified Forest. Fred Harvey also contracted with the Detroit Publishing Company to publish postcards of these areas.

Mount Rainier National Park was established in 1899. There are several nice and collectible postcards of this park published circa 1907-1915. Mount Rainier was established early but did not have the visitation the other three major parks enjoyed. Crater Lake National Park was established in 1902 and realized even less visitation than Mount Rainier. Travel to the national parks in the early 20th century was limited mostly to railroad service. Motorized transportation within the parks was not authoriozed until 1916, the same year the National Park Service was established. Visitation to national parks began to increase after 1916 because people could drive their automobiles to, and through, the parks. Park to park highway systems were developed and promoted. The year 1916 was the beginning of the end for railroad transportation to, and from, the national parks.

Glacier National Park was established in 1910, yet postcard production for this park did not begin in earnest until 1915. Glacier postcards were published in 1915-16 by the Great Northern Railroad and advertised the See America First campaign. The GNRR promoted travel to Glacier under See America First as an act of patriotism. The outbreak of World War I made travel to Europe impossible and the GNRR provided more than the means of transporting tourists to their destination, they built and operated many of the hotels in Glacier Park. Postcards were a cost effective way of promoting travel to Glacier and the GNRR published series of beautiful hand-tinted postcards. It is interesting to note that this is one of the only national parks that the Detroit Publishing Company did not publish postcards. Perhaps the reason was because the park not easily accesible when it was established and that William Henry Jackson never visited this part of Montana in his travels.

Rocky Mountain National Park was established in 1915. Early postcards of this park are mostly White Border Era cards. These postcards, other than the views published by the DPC, are generally not of a high quality. Their value to collectors is that they are the earliest images of the park. The railroads that promoted this park included the Union Pacific, the Burlington Route, and the Rock Island Line. Many of the promotional materials for Rocky Mountain National Park, including postcards, include images of Estes Park. Estes Park is a gateway community, but is not part of the park per se. Several hotels in and around Estes Park are depicted on postcards referring to Rocky Mountain National Park, including the Stanley Hotel, Longs Peak Inn, and the Elk Horn Lodge. The Detroit Publishing Company produced several postcards of the Estes Park area when the park was established.

The end of the Golden Age of Postcards saw a decline in the overall number of postcards published of national parks and monuments. Postcard production of national parks and monuments did not increase again until the mid-1920s. Unfortunately, this was near the beginning of the Great Depression and many people could not afford trips to national parks. However there was a large number of national park linen postcards published in the 1930s. There were a number of national parks and monuments established in the 1930s and the Curt Teich Company published postcards of most of these locations.

Frank Jay Haynes and his son, Jack Ellis Haynes, were early photographers and concessionaires in Yellowstone National Park. I will dedicate a separate article to the Haynes family under Yellowstone Parks. Frank Jay Haynes first came to Yellowstone National Park in 1881 as a photographer for the Northern Pacific Railroad and established one of the first concessionaire business in the park in 1883. Jack Ellis Hayes assumed ownership of the family business in 1916. It is estimated that Haynes, Inc. published between 44 and 51 million postcards of Yellowstone Park between 1900 and 1967. Many of these postcards were issued in the Linen Era and were printed by the Curt Teich Company of Chicago.

The Curt Teich Company developed the large letter designs on linen postcards. These large letter art deco designs became very popular and remain some of the most collectible postcards today. Large letter postcards were created for many of the national parks, including Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Glacier, Petrified Forest, Painted Desert, Death Valley, Badlands, Mammoth Cave, Acadia, Great Smoky Mountains, Carlsbad Caverns, and Redwoods. We offer these large letter images as quilt blocks on our Olde America Antiques web site.

I will be adding to, and editing, this article as time permits. In the third article in this series I will discuss the history of the Detroit Publishing Company and William Henry Jackson. Some of the information in this article is new and involves a very interesting discovery Susan and I made in 1993.

Susan and I are members of the International Federation of Postcard Dealers and have collected national park postcards for more than 30 years. If you have any questions feel free to contact us and we will help you however we can. Thank you!

Article 1 - Brief History of Postcards

Article 3 - The Detroit Publishing Company

Article 4 - National Park Ephemera

Article 5 - American Quilt Blocks 50 States Series

Article 6 - National Park Service Centennial Series