Postcard Album Update: The man who put glamour into Thanksgiving

When it comes to postcards, Thanksgiving is not the most exciting holiday. Turkeys, alive or on a platter, can hardly compete with a Halloween witch or a jolly old Santa. As for the pilgrims who are associated with the original Thanksgiving, most of them could have benefited by the services of America’s favorite makeover show, "What Not to Wear."

thanksgiving-cropped-2.jpgThe most noteworthy exception is the work of Samuel L. Schmucker. No doubt collectors have always been attracted to the lovely women published by the Detroit Publishing Company and John Winsch, but it wasn’t until the publication of an important book that the artist became widely recognized within the hobby.

"Picture Postcards in the United States 1893-1918" by George and Dorothy Miller came out in 1976 bringing factual information about Schmucker and his publishers to the attention of postcard enthusiasts. The authors researched a great many sources, the most important of which were the Library of Congress and the United States Copyright Office. (The book was reprinted in 1982 under the name Dorothy B. Ryan.)

Unlike much noteworthy postcard art, Schmucker’s was unsigned, the only exception being the occasional use of his initials, S.L.S. After his work was illustrated and discussed in the Miller book, collectors could put a name to cards that were already prized for their quality. Excitement escalated with the discovery of some original art, making Schmucker one of the most popular American postcard artists. Samuel L. Schmucker was born in Reading, Pa., in 1879 and began his training at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Like artists throughout the ages, he had to face the problem of how to make a living,thanksgiving_cropped-3.jpg so he studied commercial art at the Howard Pyle Institute.

Postcards are his best-remembered art, although he put his hand to other types of illustrating from fashion prints to candy boxes. Unfortunately he died in 1921 at the age of 42. The hallmark of a really good artist is a unique style. Once a collector becomes familiar with a few examples of Schmucker’s work, it’s not hard to spot others. Color is the first clue.

Even after nearly a hundred years, they’re still warm and vibrant with wonderful shadowing and brushwork. He made pink cheeks glow and never stinted on the use of a broad palette of colors. Unlike lesser artists, his background designs are highly detailed and add to the overall effect. He used his wife Katherine as a model but varied hair colors and costumes to avoid sameness. The fineness of his work helps to explain why people at the time would pay more for a Winsch postcard, sometimes as much as five cents when poorer quality cards were available for a penny.

Needless to say, a collection of Schmucker postcards involves a serious investment. Thanksgiving ladies are modestly priced compared to Halloween subjects, but expect to pay $50 or more for a card in excellent condition. Above all, study before you buy. There’s much information online and in books to guide the collector who’s attracted to this fine American artist.