Thanks to my years of training as a Girl Scout, I always keep an extra umbrella in the car so I will “be prepared” in the event of a torrential downpour. So that’s exactly where my umbrella was last month when I found myself huddled in the doorway of an antique shop, anxiously waiting for a break in the rain so I could dash to my car.
Now, there are certainly worse places to be trapped during a thunderstorm than an antique shop, like an interstate underpass with a serial killer or an ancient elevator in the Statehouse with 10 other lobbyists. But I’d already walked down every aisle of this particular store and seen everything there was to see.
Or so I thought.
After about a half hour of wandering aimlessly through the store looking at objects I’d already lost interest in, I decided to go back to a cluttered booth that was having a 50%-off sale. I picked up a bound set of Collier’s Magazine from 1899 and the front cover fell off, revealing a handful of 100-year-old clippings from Indianapolis newspapers and a bold signature on the flyleaf. I recognized the name from the postcards I collect – Cobb X. Shinn.
I bought the book for $5.
A century before Twitter, text messaging, and Snapchat, people who wanted to send a short and concise message simply picked up a postcard at the newsstand or drugstore and dropped it in the mail. Postcards were available in a vast array of designs and subjects and were suitable to send for any occasion or for no reason at all. There were postcards designed for Christmas, New Year, birthdays, and Flag Day; for lovers, friends, cousins, and grandmas. Postcards were saved and collected, stored in shoeboxes or carefully placed in specially-designed postcard albums.
In 1912, the U.S. Postal Service processed on average 8 million postcards each day. During the height of the postcard craze, at least 25 million of the annual torrent of postcards were designed by a 24-year-old artist named Cobb Shinn, who worked in a small studio on the southwest corner of Ohio and Alabama streets.
Conrad “Cobb” Shinn was born in Fillmore, Indiana in 1887, but moved to the west side of Indianapolis with his family when he was a teenager. He took art classes at the YMCA and then enrolled in the newly opened John Herron Art Institute, where he studied for two years under Hoosier Group artist William Forsyth and commercial artist William M. Allison.
Shinn began to design postcards while he was a student at Herron. By 1912, he was creating more than 400 different designs a year, many with clever cartoons and sayings that captured the spirit of the times.
Almost all of Shinn’s designs appeared in series of four to 16 cards, which encouraged people to buy the entire set. Of the approximately 165 sets designed by Shinn, one of the most popular was his “Tin Lizzy” series, which featured Model T Fords. These cards are still popular with collectors, as are Shinn’s 1910 racecar series, which capitalized on the publicity surrounding the 1909 opening of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and bore captions such as “Back grim death to the rear begone; Records must go; the race is on.”
In 1917, Shinn put down his pen and joined the Army. He was 30 years old. Originally assigned to an infantry division, Shinn honed his sewing skills in a successful effort to qualify for a slot in the camouflage corps.
During WWI, most of the faux landscape and camouflaged canvas that helped shield American soldiers from German snipers was created in a small factory in France. More than 200 U.S. soldiers – many of whom were artists and architects in their former lives — constructed trees and rocks from paper maché and painted weapons to blend seamlessly with the landscape. The factory also employed several hundred French women, who painted the massive sheets of burlap that concealed convoys from German planes while troops were on the move.
The work was not without its risks. Soldiers like Shinn who served in the camouflage corps often accompanied their creations to the front lines, in order to ensure that they were properly installed and nearly invisible to German eyes.
Shinn arrived in France in May 1918. While there, he penned a series of cartoons on Army life that was printed in The Indianapolis News and other newspapers and magazines.
In November 1919, Shinn wrote his mother about his life in France:
I have been lucky the past six weeks. I missed the hard fighting that the Americans have been in. Do not think that there is nothing doing here — we get our share of the shells. We are all living in hopes that it will soon be over.
In January 1919, Emma Shinn received some good news via the U.S. postal service. Sergeant Cobb Shinn sent a one-sentence postcard to a friend that simply said “Think I am leaving for home.”
Shinn was discharged in February 1919 and returned to Indianapolis. But the postcard craze had ended, so he turned to other work. He opened a studio at 107 South Capitol Avenue and drew a daily comic strip.
Shinn later moved to a studio at 40 Jackson Place, where he worked until 1936. During that time, he wrote and illustrated a number of children’s books for Chicago publisher Albert Whitman under the pen name “Uncle Cobb Shinn.” He also illustrated other authors’ works, including Helen Bannerman’s “Little Black Sambo.”
In his later years, the artist developed a small but thriving business at 721 Union Street, designing and supplying electrotypes and stock cuts to printers.
In 1925, Shinn married Ramona Bowlin, and the couple lived with Shinn’s widowed mother in the family home at 1725 Howard Street. In 1942, Cobb and Ramona Shinn bought a farm in Whitewater Township east of Greenwood. He was living at the farm and working as a commercial artist in Indianapolis when he died on January 28, 1951 at the age of 63.
Shinn’s obituary made no mention of his early career as a postcard artist, although that has proved to be his most enduring legacy. On any given day, hundreds of postcards created by Cobb Shinn may be found on ebay, with clever captions and designs that still entertain a century after their creation.
Although his postcards are readily available, the home where Conrad “Cobb” Shinn lived during his most creative years is long since demolished. It’s now a playground for an IPS elementary school.
For more information about Cobb Shinn, his work, and his life, see “A Sharp Mind and a Clever Pen,” by Sylvia C. Henricks, Traces, Winter 1997.