The Story Behind the Cards

2014_12_19_22_54_09by Dede Horan

Anyone who collects vintage postcards has probably come across ones of illustrated highway maps. If these maps were from the Midwest with detailed small illustrations, they may well have been designed by Gene McConnell, an artist and photographer from North Platte, Nebraska.

He received his art training at the Denver Art Institute which he attended on the GI Bill. His first job was as commercial technical illustrator at Fort Warren. Later when he returned to North Platte he worked for the local newspaper creating logos and illustrations for advertisements.

In the early 1950s McConnell began producing humor postcards for the Dunlap Company. These cards were mainly distributed at truck stops. But it wasn’t until he started designing map cards that he found his niche. These map cards were produced in the 1950s and ‘60s. Each postcard had its origins in a road trip. McConnell and ‘Doc’ Dunlap (publisher of the postcards) drove across the plains states of Nebraska, Kansas, and Iowa and along Highway 30 into Illinois, Indiana and Ohio, and even ventured west into Wyoming. On these trips, they would stop at cafes and other commercial ventures where they talked with the owners about producing postcards to promote their businesses. They also captured images of the scenic attractions which gave each location a distinctive personality. Several photographs later, they’d be on the road again heading for the next destination. McConnell took the photos with a Graflex 4×5 Speed Graphic camera, similar to the one pictured here.
Once back at the shop, the real work began. Referring to the photographs, McConnell would draw the art to illustrate the map cards and decide which images would best depict each business. Of all the map cards McConnell did, his favorite is the map of Hwy 20 across Nebraska. All together, he produced at least 45 such map postcards. Examples of these two types of cards – maps and business promotions – are shown here. These cards are in color, but the earliest ones were printed in black and white, and generally had less detail.

Some of McConnell’s photographs were used to produce chrome postcards such as this Nebraska Indians image. On the back of these cards, McConnell is always (as far as we know) identified as the photographer. Most of McConnell’s postcards were published and distributed by Dunlap-Henline, a partnership between Irwin ‘Doc’ Dunlap and Royce Henline.

Meeting Gene McConnell

A number of years ago, a collector of Gene McConnell cards, decided he wanted to meet the man who had designed these cards. The collector drove to North Platte, visited the Chamber of Commerce, and finally, talked with a few locals who told him that McConnell was alive and well and living in Pueblo, Colorado. In the 1960s Gene had moved to Pueblo, where he worked for the Pueblo Chieftain until his retirement.

Fast forward to January of 2014 when Diane Ipsen, a member of the Denver Postcard Club, gave a presentation about McConnell’s map cards to the Club. Diane had called Mr. McConnell to clarify some details for her presentation. She was glad that she called him because he was pleased and surprised to hear that people were still interested in his work. He seemed like a person we needed to meet.

So, in March of 2014 three members of the Denver Postcard Club drove to Pueblo to meet Gene McConnell. It would have been hard to tell who was more excited about this meeting – the three of us, or Mr. McConnell. What a delightful man! We spent close to three hours in a corner booth at the local Village Inn, learning more about him, his family and the story of how he got into the business of illustrating cards. Diane had brought along her collection to share with McConnell. As he looked through her album, it was clear that he enjoyed recalling the years when he was designing the map cards. We had brought several Gene McConnell cards from our own collections, which he happily autographed.

After listening to McConnell talk about the time and amount of work involved in creating each card we came away with a much greater appreciation for his work as well as for the work of other artist-designed postcards. He was so appreciative of our visit, and we enjoyed ourselves so much that we’re determined to make another trip to Pueblo to visit with him.

McConnell was also a painter and one of his paintings is on display at the Fort Cody Trading Post in North Platte, Nebraska. This painting is actually six panels, the largest one measuring 10-feet by 6-feet and the smaller ones approximately 4-feet by 5-feet. The paintings depict the life of Buffalo Bill. Sadly, McConnell does not know the whereabouts of any of his other paintings nor does he have any of his own original art work. Rumor has it that original postcard art is often not saved. (If any readers have, or know the location of, any of his original art, please share the information with us.) And now, you too, know the story behind the cards.

January Postcard Show

If you have an interest in vintage postcards, be sure to visit the Winter 2015 Denver Postcard and Paper Show. And, if you want to see examples of Gene McConnell’s postcards, ask the dealers to show you map cards and view cards from the states mentioned above. Chances are good that they will have some in their inventory.

The show will be held on Friday, January 16 and Saturday, January 17 at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds Exhibit Hall, 15200 W 6th Ave, Golden (exit at Indiana St.). Hours are Friday 11:30 a.m. – 7:00 p.m. and Saturday 9:30 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. Admission is $5.00 (children under 12 free) and good for both days. Bring this article or mention that you saw this in Mountain States Collector and you will receive $1.00 off admission. There is plenty of free parking, food available on site and door prizes daily!

If you have a collection you’d like appraised or to sell, please set up a time in advance by calling Dede at 303-667-6212 or email DenverPostcardShow@comcast.net

See you at the show!

Contributors: Diane Ipsen, Deb Armer, Judy Capra, Gene McConnell and Chuck Henline (Fort Cody Trading Post)

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