Chicago restaurants: they don't make them like they used to.
That, at least, is all I can think when browsing an archive of vintage linen postcards of eateries in Chicago. The images reveal the interiors (and some exteriors) of shuttered, long-forgotten businesses, which remind me not only of bygone design trends but also of the dining industry's notoriously high turnover. Once upon a time, West Madison Street was home to Club Flamingo, a flamboyant joint with Miami resort vibes. Decades ago, on Clybourn Avenue, the Devil's Rendezvous drew revelers to a cocktail room inspired by … a cemetery (tables were shaped like coffins; chairs, like tombstones). Lest you believe otherwise, novelty restaurants have always been hot.
These postcards are part of Chicago History in Postcards, the passion project of Kenton Yoder, an artist who resides in Indiana. While he's never lived in Chicago, he says he began collecting ephemera from this city because it simply draws him in. “There is something about Chicago," he says. "That’s all I need to say … and people just fight over Chicago postcards."
Yoder has spent the last decade and a half scouring postcard fairs and eBay for these small souvenirs. He believes he now has about 5,000. A few years ago, he digitized and uploaded a large chunk of these onto a dedicated website. This online archive has categories for factories, hotels, parks, transportation, and more, but its section of restaurant postcards is one of the largest.
Yoder mostly seeks out postcards from before the '50s (about 40 percent of his finds are used, and he dates them by their postmarks). Worth little decades ago, many might represent the only surviving, physical traces of long-gone restaurants. One featured institution that still stands is The Berghoff, which turns 120 this year. Yoder also owns postcards from Won Kow, which was Chinatown's oldest restaurant until it shuttered in February.
Lately, the hobbyist has upped his efforts to buy restaurant postcards from later decades, after receiving requests for them from people who've come across the archive. Many of these newer objects are color photographs, while pictures from the first half of the 20th century tend to either be hand-colored or left in black and white.
It's getting harder for Yoder to find Chicago postcards he doesn't already own, but he's determined to keep searching for new additions.
"You hear people talk about what superpowers they’d like to have—to be invisible, to be able to fly," he says. "I always thought it would be very interesting if I could walk into a pile of things, like at a postcard show, and all the postcards—those that were the only ones left in the world—would glow, and I would see 'em."