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John Margolies collection of travel photographs and postcards

Creation: 1880-2007 Creation: Majority of material found within 1910-1960s
Accession: 2017-254


John Margolies (1940-2016) was an American photographer and architecture critic with a fondness for novelty architecture. This is his personal collection of postcards and photographs from across North America. These materials primarily cover the United States’ most popular tourist spots along with various businesses. There is heavy coverage of the Northeast region of the United States, where Margolies lived most of his life. Postcards are primarily from the first half of the twentieth century, and photographs primarily span circa 1890-1920s. Postcards cover a wide range of subjects from famous attractions to local businesses, and photographs are almost entirely local businesses, many being interior views of family owned businesses with their owners. Few objects are contained within the collection, including signs from local businesses and a scrapbook from the honeymoon of an unidentified couple. A small amount of transparencies and negatives conclude the collection, which were used for the planning of some of Margolies books. It is important to note that this collection does not contain John Margolies original photography, except for the few postcards that advertise his exhibits.


  • Creation: 1880-2007
  • Creation: Majority of material found within 1910-1960s



21 Linear Feet

General Physical Description

approximately 10,500 postcards ; approximately 1,250 photographs. approximately 120 transparencies.

Historical Note

Postcards in the United States began as government-issued souvenir items from the Columbian Exposition of 1893. These were less expensive to mail than letters, and could serve doubly as communication and souvenirs. With the passing of the Private Mailing Card Act in 1898, postcards were no longer limited to being produced by the government as there was no longer disparity in postage costs between privately printed postcards and the ones issued by the government. This resulted in a boom in postcards and the true emergence of how we see them today. The “Golden Age” of picture postcards began with the further lessening of postal restrictions in the U.S. between 1902 and 1907. Though there was a downturn between the 1920s and 1960s, postcards were still popular for collectors, and in the 1970s and 1980s, another golden age appeared with a new 4 x 6 inch format, only half an inch larger than the original standard size on both sides.

Tourism in the early 1900s popularized as transportation became less for the elites and spread to the middle and lower classes. By 1915, transportation via railroads had improved greatly, and automobiles eventually became more and more available throughout the 1920s, giving rise to the demand for tourist spots. In the 1930s, “leisure complexes” within hotels and motels had become popularized, and by the 1940s, with it’s amusement parks and beaches, Florida had become the most popular tourist spot in the U.S.

During and after World War II, companies began increasing their advertising budget and making more attempts to spread the word about their businesses, services, and tourist destinations. In 1945, the United States advertising budget increased to $2.8 billion from it’s $2.1 billion budget in 1941. Postcards began to reflect this in the linen-style postcards of the 1940s, where they utilized a futuristic aesthetic, popularized by the 1943 “Kitchen of the Tomorrow” exhibit in Toledo, Ohio, which contained a host of new technologies thought to be the next steps in home improvement. Photographs from this exhibit were popularized when featured in Life magazine. The 1940s and 1950s postcards are artist depictions of pristine and stylish businesses, with futuristic gimmicks or equipment.

Biographical Note

John Margolies (1940-2016) was an active photographer and architecture critic with a fondness for novelty architecture. Margolies was born in 1940 in New Canaan, Connecticut. When he was young, his interest in tourism and roadside architecture began with taking family trips through Connecticut, and he began exploring on his own when he was sixteen. He earned a Bachelor's degree in journalism and art history from the University of Pennsylvania in 1962. Margolies was particularly fond of photographing novelty archichitecture, and was staunchly opposed to the so-called homogenization of the landscape across the United States. Throughout his career he put on several exhibits of his photographic work, and wrote several books including Hitting the Road (1996) and See the USA: the Art of the American Travel Brochure (1999). This collection contains source material for both of these books in the “Negatives & transparencies” subseries included at the end of the “United States” series. In 2007, the Library of Congress began collecting his photographs in the “John Margolies Roadside America Photograph Archive,” and digitized them into public domain in 2016.

Scope and Content

This collection is separated into fifty-seven series relating to location. Each of the fifty states, plus Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., are represented. Each series contains subseries that cover different topics of the postcards and photographs. Examples include: “Attractions,” “Hotels & lodging,” “Restaurants & bars,” and “Transportation.” Most include a “General” subseries which contains souvenirs and images from the state as a whole, with no other specific topic included. Not every series includes items from every category.

In the “United States” series there are items representing the entirety of the country, items that cross state lines, or items that have unidentified locations. Other location based series include Canada, Mexico, Aruba, and Cuba. The “Negatives & transparencies” subseries found in the United States series contain negatives, slides, and transparencies removed from binders and kept in their original order with John Margolies' original labels. These were used by Margolies while planning for his books Hitting the Road (1996) and See the USA: the Art of the American Travel Brochure (1999). Notes are included with the materials and Margolies original organization for these has been preserved.

The rest of the collection has been kept in line with the original organizational attempt by John Margolies, however, the materials were disorganized and scattered upon accession and separation between the Audiovisual Department and Published Collections. It is important to note that this collection does not contain Margolies’ original photography, except for a few postcards in the “Margolies exhibits” subseries in the “United States” series. These postcards are his original photographs and served as advertisements for his exhibits at various institutions.

Though John Margolies personal photographs were primarily focused on unique or vernacular architecture, this collection contains an expansive range of buildings, businesses, and landscapes, as well as souvenir cards from several locations. Most postcards are photorealistic artist depictions or simply photographs. A variety of styles and trends in postcards spanning from 1890 to 2007 are reflected in this collection. The primary style is the 1940s and 1950s linen-style postcards, which were used primarily as business or attraction advertisements after World War II. Another large piece of this collection are early 1900s tourism souvenir postcards. The primary locations for this entire collection are Florida and New York, however, the Northeast United States is also prominent. The collection also reflects Margolies fondness for local businesses and unique places.

The most popular aspects of travel are the ones most heavily represented in this collection. Each series “Hotels & lodging” and “Restaurants & bars” subseries contain the most postcards, and the photographs in this collection are almost exclusively local businesses. Also prominently displayed are souvenir style postcards, which can be found for specific states and cities in the “General” and “Cities” subseries within each series. Souvenir cards span the most time, including cars from as early as 1888 and as late as 1980.

It is also important to note that the largest portion of the postcards are either blank or previously used. A small portion are addressed to John Margolies from family, friends, or attendees of his lectures or exhibits. These cases are noted in the scope and content note for the individual postcards.

Access Restrictions

This collection is open for research.

Negatives and transparencies are stored offsite in cold storage and must reacclimate prior to viewing (Boxes 36-37). Please contact the Audiovisual Collections and Digital Initiatives Department at least 48 hours in advance of research visit.

Related Material

John Margolies Roadside America Photograph Archive (Accession LC-MA05), Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

John Margolies Roadside America ephemera collection (Accession 2008:033), Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

John Margolies Roadside America transparencies (Accession 2013.150), Benson Ford Research Center.

Additional Description

Separated Material

John Margolies : Collection of Travel Ephemera (Accession 20171116.JT), Published Collections Department, Hagley Museum and Library.

Finding Aid & Administrative Information

John Margolies collection of travel photographs and postcards
Melanie Grear
Description rules:
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description:
Script of description:

Repository Details

Repository Details

Part of the Audiovisual Collections Repository

PO Box 3630
Wilmington Delaware 19807 USA