Book review: “Portrait of Route 66”

“Portrait of Route 66” provides many colorful or obscure images from the massive Curt Teich Postcard Archive, and it offers a look at the Mother Road from the mid-1920s to the early 1950s.

But one of the most enjoyable parts of “Portrait of Route 66” (280 pages, cloth, illustrated, University of Oklahoma Press) turns out to be how the original black-and-white photographs — never seen before now — compare to the final postcard.

Through the before-and-after images, one begins to appreciate the craftsmanship of the company’s graphic artists and occasionally gives a peek into the minds of their clients.

Teich, a German immigrant, founded Curt Teich & Co. in Chicago in 1898. It became the largest postcard manufacturer in the United States. The company closed in 1978, and the Lake County Historical Society in nearby Wauconda, Illinois, acquired its massive archive of more than 360,000 postcards and production files.

Tarleton State University professor T. Lindsay Baker gained access to the Teich archive and made about 1,500 copies of postcards of businesses on or near Route 66 from the mid-1920s to the early 1950s during his initial research. Baker also traveled Route 66 to see which businesses survived in the decades since.

el-charro-photo, Portrait of Route 66
Original photo images of El Charro restaurant, Oklahoma City.

During the color postcard era, the original black-and-white photographs came with sheets of translucent paper in which the business or artist would draw in the 30 colors available for the postcards.

el-charro-postcard, Portrait of Route 66
Postcard image of El Charro restaurant, Oklahoma City.

The final product often featured hues that were more saturated and vibrant than real life — a primary reason Route 66 postcards are so prized today.

Differences between the original photographs and the postcard often proved to be minor –contrasts heightened and power lines erased. But the book also reveals key differences between the images in a few cases, as well:

— Teich artists rendered a 1929 photograph of a cloudy and wet Commercial Street in Lebanon, Missouri, into fair skies and dry pavement.

— A 1937 postcard of a beaming Will Rogers standing in front of his birthplace near Chelsea, Oklahoma, reveals in the original photo a cardboard cutout of the humorist. Rogers died in an Alaska plane crash two years before.

— A 1937 postcard of Cunningham Floral Company in Amarillo shows the shop’s windows filled with ferns and flowers. The original photograph showed a dearth of vegetation in the windows, so the business asked Teich’s graphic artists to add them.

— A 1951 photo of the Sunset Motel in Amarillo showed a muddy, rutted road in front of it. The postcard shows a smooth asphalt surface instead.

A 1936 photo from the Bungalow Courts in Amarillo contained the message:

“Get away from the suggestion … of the Bungalow Courts being out … with nothing but flat prairie in back of it. … You might show some Lombardy poplars … over the red roof … and get away from the thought that the surroundings of the property are rather barren.”

Teich’s graphic artists obliged with a postcard of about a dozen tall trees behind the motel.

Most of the Teich postcards worked magic for clients, making a property seem more vivid. Photographic insets of neon signs or interiors added to a postcard’s allure.

Sometimes, however, the postcard proved less compelling than the photograph from which it was based. Garland’s Drive-in in Oklahoma City and Katson’s Drive-In in Albuquerque came with photos of their architectural neon glowing at dusk. The colorized postcards made them appear diminished.

A 1933 black-and-white photograph of La Fonda Hotel in Santa Fe, framed by big, fluffy clouds, should have been used as-is. But the heavily retouched color image blurred the clouds and dulled the hotel’s adobe walls.

One curiosity of “Portrait of Route 66” is an attractive 1937 photograph of a Santa Fe Super Chief train near Flagstaff, Arizona. The company readied the postcard for production. But for whatever reason, they never were printed.

Many of the postcards simply can be enjoyed for their glimpses of a long-gone era or of a curiosity:

— A 1940 postcard of the Greyhound Post House in Pontiac, Illinois, reveals a Streamline Moderne masterpiece.

— Junge Baking Co. in Joplin, Missouri, advertised its products in 1940 using an animated and lighted billboard in a “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” theme.

— A 1929 image shows a tourist camp in Galena, Kansas. These were little more than campgrounds with toilets, picnic tables and a light pole or two. The accommodations may seem Spartan to modern travelers but were common during the first few years of Route 66.

— Herman’s Restaurant in Oklahoma City featured a giant leaping fish on its roof in 1951.

— The State Line Station on the Texas-Oklahoma border occupied the median of a short stretch of four-lane Route 66 in 1952. This allowed the gas station to give easy access to westbound and eastbound drivers.

— A 1928 image of the Peach Springs Trading Post in Peach Springs, Arizona, showed Native American swastikas on its “Ladies Restrooms” sign — a few years before Nazi Germany brought the symbol into disrepute.

— Three images from the mid-1920s display the once-burgeoning downtown of Ludlow, California. The Mojave Desert community featured hotels, restaurants, a grocery store, bars and even a pool hall. Ludlow virtually is a ghost town now.

— Clifton’s Cafeteria recently reopened in downtown Los Angeles after a multimillion-dollar renovation. But a 1946 postcard reveals Clifton’s Pacific Seas Cafeteria — a tropics-themed site a few blocks away. It closed in 1960.

History buffs, graphic artists and old-school design aficionados will find a lot to like with “Portrait of Route 66.” It’s fun, and you’ll learn a few things in the meantime.

Highly recommended.

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