Postcards are such a good idea that it seems they should have been around forever. But they haven't. Postcards are a relatively recent invention, and an invention that took some time to mature, at that.
Postal service, on the other hand, has been around a long time. Many ancient civilizations developed mail delivery service to meet the needs of government -- often military -- communication. The Roman system of roads was built in part to move the mails from town to town. Cards have probably been sent through the mail for as long as there has been a postal service. It wouldn't take a great deal of imagination to write a message that didn't require privacy on one side of a stiff card, address and stamp the other side, and put in the mail. (In the United States the stamp would have been for the letter rate, of course, because there wouldn't have been a separate rate for postcards.) The earliest such card that is known to postcard collectors is dated December 1848.(1)
The American genius for invention was first applied to postcards when J. P. Carlton of Philadelphia applied for a patent on Dec. 17, 1861. He sold the idea to H. L. Lipman, who printed cards marked "Lipman's Postal Cards."(2)
("Postal Card" quickly became a term reserved to cards printed by the Post Office. Privately printed cards which required stamps for posting were called "private mailing cards" and later "postcards." "Postal card," or "postal," is still a term most appropriately applied to a particular type of official postal stationery.)
Various sources quote various dates for postcard "firsts." It's generally agreed the first postals were issued in Austria in 1869. Britain and France followed in 1870, according to Jack Smith.(3) The United States was late to the game -- most writers agree that while the Postmaster General began talking about postals in 1870, it took Congress a couple of years to authorize them. President Grant signed enabling legislation on June 8, 1872, and the first postal was issued on May 13, 1873.(4) Scott's, the bible of stamp collectors, shows the 1-cent postage printed on this card, Lady Liberty enclosed in an oval of fancy scrollwork.(5)
Smith says the first picture postcards -- cards with an illustration on one side and the address on the other -- were issued during the Franco-Prussian War, 1870-'71. Images were printed by private firms on government-issued postals. The first U.S. view cards, he says, were scenes of the 1873 Industrial Exposition in Chicago, also printed on postals, and the connection between U.S. celebrations and expositions and views printed on postals can be traced through the next two decades.
The first U.S. postcard views (that is, privately printed cards that required stamps to be affixed for postage) are generally thought to be cards that bore scenes of the Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. Views were printed on both postals and blank cards that required letter-rate postage for mailing. The cards circulated widely (as evidenced by the numbers still available).
The snowballing popularity of postcards during the next couple of decades was part of the rage for expositions -- Trans-Mississippi (Omaha, 1898), Pan-American (Buffalo, 1901 -- where President McKinley was assassinated), Louisiana Purchase (St. Louis, 1904), Jamestown (Hampton Roads, 1907), Hudson-Fulton (New York, 1909), Panama-Pacific (San Francisco, 1915).
These special events each provided an occasion for a set of colorful commemorative cards. New technologies made the cards specially impressive. The German chemical industry produced brilliant dyes and inks, and perfected the lithographic printing process for mass production. When the United States finally authorized privately printed postcards at the same mailing rate as postals, the floodgates opened. "Made in Germany" became the byword for postcards that turned black-and-white photographs into dazzling color views of seemingly everything in the landscape, and a fad for postcards swept America.
Postcard collectors divide the history of postcards into eras. They use general features of the card to assign it to a period. The size and design of the card, the printing technology and paper used, and the wording of the text that appears on the card all contribute clues that help date individual cards:
Pioneer Era -- before 1898
In the United States, the prehistory of postcards is consigned to the Pioneer Era. This includes everything from the first card mailed with a letter stamp to the extravagantly colored Columbian Exposition cards -- anything, in fact, that had a stamp on the outside and no inside and was privately manufactured to go through the mail before Congress said that was legal in 1898. In 1873 the cost of sending a non-postal card was set at 2 cents.
Private Mailing Card Era -- 1898 to 1901
On May 19, 1898, Congress authorized private printers to make and sell "Private Mailing Cards" and encouraged the use of such cards by lowering the postage required to mail one from 2 cents to 1 cent, the same as postals. These cards bore the wording "Private Mailing Card" to distinguish them from government-printed postals. (The card at the head of this page from the Jackson Homestead collection is one example.) Like postals, the private mailing cards allowed only address information, no message, on one side of the card. Many pictorial cards compensated by leaving a small blank area along an edge for the sender to write a few words to the recipient.
Undivided Back Era -- 1902 to 1907
On Dec. 24, 1901, changes in the postal regulations allowed private printers to use "Postcard" or "Post Card" on their products. Other requirements remained the same. The reservation of the back for the address, rather than divided between an address and a message, gave rise to the designation of such cards as "undivided backs." Changes in postal regulations in 1907 permitted the address side of the card to share space with a message.
The six-year undivided-back period corresponds to both a phenomenal growth in the popularity of postcards and the popularity of the Charles as a social and recreational destination. As a result, many cards that carry views of the Charles River have undivided backs -- and diagonal marks on their corners that indicate they have spent at least part of their lives in postcard albums. Collecting postcards and putting them into albums became a major hobby, and the albums, with their pages specially slotted to hold cards by their corners, were sold by the millions as well.
View cards were just one category of postcards that were bought and mailed. Comic cards with funny photographs or drawings and snappy sayings were another. Some of the most sought-after cards are paintings of beautiful women, often signed by the artists. The most popular in terms of sheer volume were holiday cards. Long before Hallmark, Americans made almost any holiday an excuse to send millions of postcards -- not only Christmas, but the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, St. Patrick's Day, and even Washington's and Lincoln's birthdays were occasions to send the very best postcards.
Real Photo Cards
While "real-photo" cards don't automatically belong to a particular era, they do represent an important subspecies of postcard. A real-photo card is an image printed on photographic paper with the back stamped or printed with the design elements required for mailing.
Real-photo cards appeared in the pioneer era and grew in popularity along with the public's burgeoning interest in both postcards and amateur photography. Many commercial photographers and photofinishers offered prints on postcard backs, and Kodak sold a camera that made negatives the size of a postcard, and allowed the photographer to write a caption on the negative. Many Newton scenes were recorded as real-photo cards, particularly before World War I by the Boston photographer Herbert E. Glasier, and C. O. Tucker, and in the 1930s by the studio of Foster of Waltham.
Today real-photo cards are especially prized by collectors for a couple of reasons -- because the photographic prints carry greater detail than comparable ink-based technologies, and because photography was such a democratic medium: real-photo cards often picture scenes and subjects that do not appear in volume-produced postcards -- images of small towns and family pictures that are often unique.
Divided Back Era -- 1907 to 1915
On March 1, 1907, postal regulations were relaxed to divide the available real estate on the address side of postcards. The address was squeezed over to the right half of the card back to permit a message on the left. While postcards still have divided backs and the "divided-back era" thus extends to the present, the term is generally used to refer specifically to the golden age of the postcard in the United States, from 1907 up to World War I. Postcards became a national mania in this period. One chronicler quotes official figures from the U.S. Post Office saying 677,777,798 postcards were mailed during the fiscal year ending June 30, 1908 -- at a time when the total population of the U.S. was 88,700,000. (6)
White Border Era -- 1915 to 1930
White-border cards are distinguished by what they're not. When World War I cut off the flow of beautifully lithographed, lushly colored cards from German printers to the U.S. market, domestic printers filled the gap -- and did it, on the whole, very badly. Lithography was replaced by coarser half-tone process printing, like the photographs in newspapers, and the subtle multi-color overlays of lithography were lost. Printers made do with screen tints and process washes, but the quality just was not the same. Economizing led them to add wide unprinted borders to the cards, which let them use smaller printing plates and save on ink.
By the end of the war in 1918 the public mania for postcards had subsided, due at least in part to the inferior quality of the available cards. Even when German production was available again the public's interest didn't revive. The golden age was over.
Linen Era -- 1930 to 1950
As the 1920s turned into the 1930s paper-making and printing technologies changed the nature of postcards. An inexpensive, brighter, uncoated paper stock with a higher rag content and a fabric-like textured surface was developed. Brighter inks and offset printing technologies could put a brilliantly colored image on this new paper. The cards, called "linens" by collectors because of their surface texture, became the new standard for manufacturers like Curt Teich in Chicago and Tichnor Bros. in Boston.
While the offset technology couldn't hold the detail of photographic images, the brilliant colors of the cards were used by designers to compensate, and the result was views cards that featured heavily retouched and garishly tinted photographs and comic linens, artist-drawn cards that lacked subtlety both in their themes and their visual appeal. Millions and millions of linens were printed across a period that ran from the early 1930s to the late 1950s. When America fell in love with the automobile and took to the roads on vacation in the 1930s racks of linens filled the roadside stands. During World War II servicemen could "frank" their mail home by marking it with an APO address, and the Post Office delivered more millions of linens for free. When the war, was over, though, the new, high-quality chrome cards began to push the suddenly old-fashioned-looking linens off the racks.
Chrome Era -- 1939 to present
In 1939 the Union Oil Co. of California began publishing postcard views of Southwestern scenes which were given away as premiums in the company's service stations. The Union Oil cards introduced new printing technology. Cards were printed in four-color half-tone process with a varnish overcoat called "photochrome," probably because of their link to Kodak's newly introduced Kodachrome color reversal slide. Kodachrome slides were the basis for most of these new "photochrome" cards, a name soon shortened by collectors to "chrome." This new technology yielded a high-quality, detailed image with a shiny surface that was close to photographic quality and in realistic color. World War II slowed their spread, but by the early 1950s chrome cards took over the postcard market, replacing both linens and black-and-white real-photo views.
Postcards are still almost entirely chromes. The computer has changed the look of view cards in the last few years, as designers working with digital image-editing software have turned blue skies into blazing sunsets with an abandon not seen since the linen cards of the 1930s, and added larger and larger type effects, reflecting the public's preoccupation with logos and brand names.
The most noticeable change in postcards since the beginning of the chrome era has been their size:
- "Standard." For almost a century the standard size for a postcard was 5 1/2 inches by 3 1/2 inches. The first postal cards issued by the Post Office were roughly the same size as a standard mailing envelope in the middle of the 19th Century. Private manufacturers of postcards quickly began to experiment with the size of cards -- the Jackson Homestead collection includes several double-width panoramic cards published by Rotograph in 1905, for example. But throughout the golden age of postcards, from the pioneer era through white borders and real-photos and linens and chromes, the vast majority of postcards were this standard 5 1/2-by-3 1/2 size.
- "Continental." In the last two or three decades, it seems, everything in America has been supersized, from french fries to laundry detergent. Postcards are no exception. The "standard" size for postcards has increased from 5 1/2-by-3 12 to 4-by-6. Collectors call these larger cards "continentals," because presumably the larger size first became common on the Continent.
- "Supercontinental." The latest development in the never-ending battle to create something that will catch the public's eye and pry open its wallet are "postcards" that are even larger than "continental" -- 7 by 4.5 inches and up. These are too big to mail at the postcard rate (currently 23 cents): the Postal Service requires letter-rate postage, 37 cents. Probably few of them are actually mailed, anyway. These megacards seem to be marketed as souvenirs, mini-posters to be taken home and put on a mirror or a refrigerator.
-- David DeJean
- Neis, Stefano; "A Brief History of Postcard Types".
- Konwiser, Harry; "The American Stamp Collector's Dictionary," Tudor Publishing Co., New York, 1949.
- Smith, Jack H.; "Postcard Companion and Collector's Reference," Wallace-Homestead Book Co., Radnor, PA, 1989.
- Konwiser, op. cit. See also J. Garland Marks, "Postal Cards" in the Scientific Philatelist for July-August 1942.
- "Scott's 2003 Specialized Catalog of U. S. Stamps and Covers," Scott Publishing Co., Sidney, OH, 2003.
- Neis, op. cit.
The Postcard FAQ -- a good starting point for exploring postcards.
Rotopex -- detailed information about Rotograph and its cards.
Real Photo Postcard Stamp Boxes -- This invaluable resource, currently hosted by postcard dealer Ron Playle, can help you date real photo cards by their back designs.
Vintage Views Postcard Links -- this page hasn't been updated in a while so some links don't work, but it includes a lengthy list of postcard reference sites