History of the Detroit Publishing Company

The Detroit Photographic Company was established in 1896 and changed its name to the Detroit Publishing Company in 1905. I will discuss the history of this company and how it helped to shape the perception of America, and American national parks, in this country and throughout the world. The business records do not survive. Scholars and deltiologists have had to piece information about the DPC together over the years. Susan and I made a discovery in 1993 that uncovered information about the history of the company that helped to answer some of the questions about the DPC.

A new chromolithographic printing process known as Photochrom was developed in Switzerland in 1895 by the Photoglob Company. The Photochrom formula was a carefully guarded secret.  The precise method of printing was known only to those working for the company, and they were sworn to secrecy. The process has never been completely duplicated and remains a mystery today. What is known is that the Photochrom chromolithographs were produced from hand-carved stones imported from Bavaria. The exact number of stones used most likely varied, but are believed to be nine or ten and fourteen. The process was very labor intensive because each stone had to be hand carved, and the registration perfect for each color. 

Peter Hales writes in William Henry Jackson and the Transformation of the American Landscape that each photographic negative had to be converted to lithographic stones before printing. The technical staff included not only printers but retouchers, color separation specialists, and plate preparers. In addition, the plates themselves had a very limited lifespan, as the pressure of the printing press and the abrasion of the paper itself quickly damaged the sensitive surface. This accounted for the premium price of Detroit Publishing Company postcards, ten for twenty-five cents, or two for five cents, later increased to five cents each. This was at a time when postcards, often referred to as penny postcards, sold for one cent each or three for two cents. 

William A. Livingston, Jr. was the son of the president of the Detroit Dime Savings Bank, one of the largest shipping, banking, and publishing magnates in the Midwest. Livingston and other financiers were interested in investing in the new company, and he negotiated a contract for the rights to the Photochrom printing process for North America. The investors approached William Henry Jackson, the well-known and prolific American landscape photographer, and were able to acquire some 20,000 of Jackson’s glass photographic negatives. Jackson also agreed to join the firm as a partner in 1898. The experimental Yellowstone PMCs that the company issued in 1898 were of Jackson’s earlier photographs of the park. 

Postcards quickly became the most popular collectible in the world in the Golden Age of Postcards, circa 1898-1915. Publishing companies throughout the world competed to produce the finest and most collectible postcard possible. The country with the best-trained printers and most advanced chromolithographic printing technology was Germany. Dorothy Ryan writes in her best selling book Picture Postcards in the United States: 1893-1918 that some 32,795 tons of postcards reached this country from Germany in 1907. Postcard clubs were established throughout the country and members would exchange cards with members of other clubs. Postcard collecting became a worldwide fad; the period between the turn of the century and World War I was often referred to as the Postcard Craze. Postcards of American national parks were very popular gift items with tourists. Picture postcards were photographic-based images that were inexpensive and could sent through the mail with a personalized message for one cent. They were the perfect souvenirs and tourists bought them by the millions.

Dorothy Ryan writes that the Detroit Publishing Company covered the length and breath of America shortly after the turn of the century and chronicled as no other publisher attempted the diversity of people, activity, and industry in the United States. This included a large number of photographic-based images of American national parks. The DPC issued a wide selection of views of Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon. Yellowstone and Yosemite were established as national parks prior to the Golden Age of Postcards. These parks had concessionaire businesses established and in operation by the turn of the century. The El Tovar Hotel was built in 1905 on the south rim of the Grand Canyon, before the Grand Canyon was designated a national monument in 1908. The DPC was producing  postcards of the Grand Canyon by 1907. The DPC produced postcards of several other locations that would later become national parks or monuments, including Petrified Forest and Painted Desert, Mesa Verde, Rocky Mountains and Estes Park, Grand Tetons, Canyonlands, Acadia, Boston National Historical Park, Cape Cod, Death Valley, Ellis Island, Gettysburg, Independence National Historical Park, Valley Forge, plus a number of other historical parks and battlefields. I will publish a more definitive list when I have time to consult the Detroit Publishing Company catalog of images first compiled by Jeff Burdick, and later revised and expanded by Nancy Stechschulte.

The association of William Henry Jackson and the Detroit Publishing Company is important in many respects with regards to the national parks and monuments. Jackson was a member of the Hayden Geological Survey Expedition in 1871 that explored the the headwaters of the Yellowstone River. His photographs, along with Thomas Moran’s sketches and watercolor paintings, helped to influence Congress to establish Yellowstone National Park on March 1, 1872. Jackson visited and photographed Yellowstone again in 1878 and 1892. He also photographed many other areas of the western United States in his lifetime, including several that would later become national parks or monuments. Many of Jackson’s early photographs were published by the Detroit Publishing Company as postcards.

A significant change took place within the Detroit Publishing Company in 1903 when William Henry Jackson was transferred from field work, where he had been occupied since 1898, to the company headquarters in Detroit, Michigan. Jackson was given the title of plant manager, and he assumed responsibility for production. His new position within the company gave him increased authority. The DPC had by this time contracted with a number of different photographers throughout the country to reproduce their photographs as postcards. Jackson was now in charge of determining which photographers the company would work with, what they would be assigned to photograph, and how the photographs would be reproduced. His work included the editing of negatives, cropping, enlarging or reducing the images, and retouching. It is assumed he also was in charge of determining captions, a seemingly mundane task but in reality critical to the interpretation and perception of the image. The company began using an artist’s pallet logo in 1904 that appeared on many of their postcards. This trademark was a symbol of quality unequaled by any other publisher of postcards in the United States. The DPC was American’s finest and most prolific publishing company and competed with the European and German printers in quality.

The Golden Age of Postcards began to decline in 1909 with the passage of the Payne-Aldrich Tariff. The cost of postcard production increased due to the new tariff on imported paper products. Postcard collecting continued to be very popular and postcards were still the main form of communication in 1909, but the era was nearing the end with the approach of World War I. The Detroit Publishing continued publishing large numbers of postcards and enjoyed a national audience of postcard collectors. The DPC published series of postcards for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco and the Panama-California Exposition in San Diego, both held in 1915. However, World War I began in 1914 and the world’s economy began to feel the repercussions immediately. Postcard collecting fell out of favor with the popularity and increased use of the telephone and radio. Carnegie libraries were built in communities throughout the country with money donated by Andrew Carnegie, a Scottish-American businessman and philanthropist. The general public had access to free books and periodicals. Postcards sales and collecting went into decline for the next few decades. Postcards saw a revival after World War II and again the 1970s with the publication of Dorothy Ryan’s book Picture Postcards in the United States: 1893-1918. Postcard collecting is once again very popular and are currently rated the third most popular collectible in the world behind coins and stamps. 

The Detroit Publishing Company struggled financially in the 1920s. Overall sales of postcards had declined after World War I and the company would not compromise its quality, achieved through its labor-intensive printing process. The overall quality of the DPC postcards was second to none, but the company could not compete in price with less expensive postcards produced from four-color offset printing. The DPC was forced into bankruptcy in 1932 and had to liquidate its assets. Near the end of the business postcards were burned in the furnaces to heat the factory. There are no surviving business records, and it is thought these were burned as well.

Susan and I made an important discovery in 1993 when we attended the Haynes family estate auctions in our hometown of Bozeman, Montana. It was assumed among Detroit Publishing collectors and scholars that the company went into bankruptcy and liquidated its assets. However, the documentation for this was never found, and what happened to the inventory of the company was not known. There were three different Haynes family estate auctions that took place in Bozeman, Montana in 1993. The first was a sale of items found in the family house and garage. The second sale included items that the Haynes family had collected over the years. This was the largest single estate sale ever held in Bozeman and took place over three days in various buildings at the county fairground. Included in this sale were several boxes of chromos and postcards by the Detroit Publishing Company. The third sale took place at the old Haynes warehouse and included items relating to their business; i.e., office furniture, printing blocks, and miscellaneous office equipment.  A box of records was sitting by the back door that was labeled trash. Susan and I looked in this box and found hand written records relating to the Detroit Publishing Company. These records indicated that Jack Haynes bought the Detroit Publishing Company bankruptcy inventory in 1932 and shipped everything to the Haynes warehouse in Bozeman.

There is still much about the Detroit Publishing Company that remains a mystery, but this puzzle has become somewhat clearer now that we know what happened to the inventory that was sold in the bankruptcy sale. These records now reside in the Heritage and Research Center in Yellowstone National Park.