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Photochrom . . . Gives Us Those Nice Bright Colors

When true color photography was first being developed in the 1890s, it was commercially impractical. Yet there seemed to be a mass market for color images, especially those of cities and landscapes. To answer the demand, companies like Photochrom Zürich (later Photoglob Zürich), Detroit Photographic Company and the Photochrom Company of London offered ink-based images produced through the direct transfer of black and white negatives onto lithographic printing plates.

Hollenbeck Park, Los Angeles. 1901 Wire postcard display rack. Between 1900 and 1910

Photochrom prints, also called Aäc, were invented in 1880 by Hans Jakob Schmid (1856-1924). Although they looked deceptively like color photographs, small dots that comprised the ink-based photomechanical image were visible upon magnification.

Photochrom prints were sold at tourist sites and through mail-order catalogs to globetrotters, armchair travelers, educators, and others to preserve in albums or put on display. The Detroit Photographic Company reportedly produced seven million photochrom prints in some years.

The Library’s Photochrom Print Collection includes some 6,500 images of Europe, the Middle East and North America from the Photoglob Company in Zürich and the Detroit Publishing Company.

The Detroit Publishing Company Collection also includes more than 25,000 glass negatives and transparencies of city and town views, including streets and architecture; parks and gardens; recreation; and industrial and work scenes.

The postcard lent itself naturally to use by these publishing companies to display these scenes. However, privately produced postcards were not widely used since they had several drawbacks: they offered no privacy, writing was forbidden on the back (address) side and they were subject to the 2-cent first-class letter rate, while postage for U.S. government postal cards was 1 cent. Congress passed an act on May 19, 1898, which allowed private printers to publish and sell cards to be posted at the 1-cent rate and stipulated the rules for printing postcards, including the wording to be used on the back of the cards.

A. Hollenbeck Park, Los Angeles. 1901. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Information: Reproduction No.: LC-DIG-ppmsca-17959 (digital file from original item); Call No.: : LOT 13923, no. 151 [item] [P&P]

B. Wire postcard display rack. Between 1900 and 1910. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Information: Reproduction No.: LC-D4-43315 (b&w glass neg.); Call No.: LC-D4-43315 <P&P>[P&P]