Red rock, pink granite, and white salt paint the strata of the American western landscape. Their brilliance is astounding, especially to travelers who have never seen these colors embedded in the earth. Beginning in the late 19th century, many of these sites were incorporated into state and national parks. Visitors flocked from all over the United States to relish in the unique beauty of America’s “national treasures,” and they sent postcards to share and commemorate these experiences.
Why is it then that postcards like the one pictured above look so different from their already surreal subjects? This particular style of linen postcard, now quite popular amongst collectors, was popularized in the 1930s by German expatriate Curt Teich. They were characterized by their linen-like textured cardstock and vibrantly colorized depictions of American cities, historic sites, world fairs, roadside attractions, and natural spaces.
According to University of Texas Professor of American Studies Jeffrey Meikle, the fantastic colorization of these postcards presented a stark contrast to the depressing reality of the Great Depression and Dust Bowl desertification of much of the contiguous United States. Painted violet skies and glowing ochre plains were “shimmering with promise during the uncertain times of the Great Depression and World War II.” Colors were not the only alterations made by postcard artists of the era. The photographic bases of these landscapes were often collaged from other photographs, many of which were taken decades before such areas were made accessible by automobile roads. Because of this, roads or other means of altering the perspective of the image were added to depict how accessible such natural beauty was to average Americans.
For Americans suffering from the financial and political instability of the 1930s and ‘40s, these magical portrayals of America’s natural landscapes reinforced the tenets of American Exceptionalism. They promised that despite the hardships and failures of the era—the threats of communism, fascism, and war abroad; unemployment, racism, and shifting social roles at home—there was new home and promise on the horizon, apparent through the majesty of the land itself.
Photograph of Blue Mesa in the Painted Desert, Arizona
Purchase Jeffrey Meikle’s Postcard America: Curt Teich and the Imaging of a Nation, 1931-1950
Read more by author Zoya Brumberg