Long before digital media took hold, people built their reputations through business cards. Offering the perfect balance of professionalism and panache, these cards communicated the holder’s identity to friends, associates, and enemies with bold, blackletter typefaces.
On Chicago’s North and West Sides during the 1960s and 70s, business cards were one of the ultimate status symbols for gangs like the Royal Capris, the Almighty Playboys, and the Imperial Gangsters, who used these discreet slips of paper to rep their set.
“The practice carried over from membership cards of social athletic clubs in Chicago that many gangs evolved from,” says Brandon Johnson, author of Thee Almighty & Insane: Chicago Gang Business Cards From the 1960s & 1970s – his second in-depth volume documenting the long-underground culture. “In my opinion, these cards offered the gangs a sense of validation as official organisations.”
The book features over 70 reproductions of original cards drawn from Johnson’s spectacular, decade-in-the-making collection. At the time, they were used to establish a gang’s name, territory, and members – but they also speak of a time where political leanings were displayed without fear or remorse so that you knew what you were up against if you ended up on foreign turf.
“Cards from the 1970s often reflected the strife and cultural nationalism, with slogans of racial pride and racial slurs,” Johnson says. “For example, the widespread Almighty Gaylords, who opposed newcomers and utilised hateful words and symbols on their cards to do so.”
The Gaylords emblazoned their cards with swastikas and the warning: “The man who hands you this is a L/A GAYLORD. Don’t panic. Keep cool. Lie on your back and give the nice GAYLORD your sweater!” – a reference to the cardigan-style sweaters with embroidered patches of the names and symbols of their clubs that gangsters proudly wore.
“I’ve definitely been in contact with some interesting characters from this world,” Johnson says of the various retired gang members, card designers, record shop owners he has met over the years. “I think the first book made people see more historical value in them, and be less likely to let anything go.”
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