A Brief History of Postcard Types

By Stefano Neis

When did the use of Postcards start?
A copyright on a private postal card was issued to John P. Charlton of Philadelphia as early as 1861, later transferred to his fellow townsman, H.L. Lipman. These early cards, decorated with a slight border pattern and labeled "Lipman's postal card, patent applied for", were for sale until 1873 when the first government postcards appeared. Plain postcards were in use well before that. They were issued by the post offices of various countries with the country's stamp imprinted on them. They are referred to as "Postals". The first appearance of a non-postal "postcard" that was privately produced to which postage must be affixed, is accredited to occurring in Austria in 1869. By 1870 picture postcards were being published in limited quantities throughout Europe. Until recently, it was thought that U.S. postcard use lagged farther behind that of European usage.

NOTE: Writings were not permitted by law on the address side of any postcard until March 1, 1907. For this reason many postcards up to 1907 have messages across their fronts. Writing on the front of early postcards is not a fault.

Pioneer Era (Pre 1898)
It used to be thought that "most" pioneer cards began with the colorful postcards placed on sale at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois, on May 1, 1893. Those postcards are of illustrations of buildings and views of the Exposition printed on government postal cards and those printed on privately published souvenir cards. The government postal cards had a printed 1 cent stamp while the souvenir cards required a 2 cent postage stamp to be applied to them.

Recent detailed studies by advanced collectors have shed light on even earlier advertising postcards in this early postcard era. The greatest concentration of these postcards are from New York, Philadelphia, and other large metro areas in the U.S. and abroad. The earliest known postcard (as of Sept. 1996) is postmarked Dec. 1848! No doubt the further study of this area of postcard collecting will reveal many more postcards from the 1848 to 1893 time line.

Most pre-1898 postcards share a few common traits: The postcard of this era is characterized by an undivided back (no line going down the center of the back of the postcard), and many contain printed lines on the back for the name of the addressee and his address only. Pioneer U.S. postcards are mostly from big Eastern cities.

Side Note: During this time only the government was allowed to use the word "POSTCARD" (one word) on the back of the postcard. Privately published postcards in this era will have the titles "Souvenir Card", "Correspondence Card", or "Mail Card" on the back. Government cards will also have an imprinted Grant or Jefferson head 1 cent stamp on them. Private postcards required a 2 cent postage.

Private Mailing Card Era (1898 to Dec. 24, 1901)
On May 19, 1898, by an act of Congress, private printers were granted permission to print and sell cards that bore the inscription "Private Mailing Card". We call these cards "PMC's". Many early Pioneer postcards were reprinted as PMC's. Postcards of this era have undivided backs. During this period around 1900, Real Photo postcards (RPs, postcards on film stock: i.e. pictures) began to filter in use. These early real photo images were mainly advertising pieces.

Note: In 1898 postage required for mailing a postcard was reduced from 2 cents to 1 cent.

handClick here for an example

Undivided Back "Postcard" Era (Dec. 24, 1901 to March 1, 1907)
The use of the word "POST CARD/POSTCARD" (as one or two words) was granted by the government to private printers on Dec. 24, 1901. Writing was still not permitted on the address side. The publishing of printed postcards during this time frame doubled almost every six months. European publishers opened offices in the U.S. and imported millions of high quality postcards. By 1907, European publishers accounted for over 75% of all postcards sold in the U.S. The vogue of lithographed cards caught Eastman-Kodak's attention as well. They issued an affordable "Folding Pocket Kodak" camera around 1906. This allowed the mass public to take black & white photographs and have them printed directly onto paper with postcard backs. Various other models of Kodak "postcard" cameras followed igniting a real photo postcard era. These cameras shared two neat features: their negatives were postcard size (the major reason why so many of these images are so clear) and they had a small thin door on the rear of their bodies that, when lifted, enabled the photographer to write an identifing caption or comment on the negative itself with an attached metal scribe.

Note: At the end of this period in time, the picture postcard hobby became the greatest collectible hobby that the World has ever known. The official figures from the U.S. Post Office for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1908, cite 677,777,798 postcard mailed. That was at a time when the total population of the U.S. was 88,700,000.

handClick here for an example

Divided Back Era (March 1, 1907 to 1915) (Golden Age)
Postcards with a divided back were finally permitted on March 1, 1907. The address had to be written on the right side of the back of the postcard while the left side was reserved for writing messages. Postcards from this period are most collectible when they do not have writing on their fronts. At this time in American history the postcard hobby became a public addiction. Publishers printed millions of cards in this era. Most postcards were printed in Germany, the world leader in lithographic processes. At the height of the country wide mania, WWI caused a crash in the hobby. The advent of WWI caused the supply of postcards from Germany to end. Poorer quality postcards came from English and U.S. publishers. The lowered quality of the printed postcard, recurrent influenza epidemics, and WWI war shortages killed the American postcard hobby. During the war years the telephone replaced the postcard as a fast, reliable means to keep in touch.

handClick here for an example

White Border Era (1915-1930)
After WWI, the German publishing industry was never rebuilt. Other European publishers were forced out of the U.S. market by high tariff rates. Most locally available postcards were printed by U.S. publishers during this period. On view postcards, to save ink, a white border was left around the view, thus we call them "White Border" postcards. The higher costs of post-war publishing combined with inexperienced labor caused production of poorer quality cards. The public rapidly lost interest. "Movies" replaced postcards as a visual experience. Higher competition in a rapidly narrowing market caused many publishers to go out of business. Real photo postcard publishers, on the other hand, enjoyed great success. Various types of rotary drum negative imprinters allowed runs of 1000s of postcards of a particular image. Roadside postcard racks contained a great variety of these images.

Note: Another notable exception to the "poor quality" of this time frame are the European "Hand Tinted" postcards of France and Belgium. These were photo postcards of all topics and subjects which were colored by hand to lend a realistic or stylized look. Some are truly works of art. Unfortunately this brief era ended abruptly also. Coloring of the postcards was accomplished by teams of trained women artists sitting in a circle or row in a room. The postcard images were passed down the line from one girl to another, each being responsible for one color. To get the fine detail needed for working on the relatively small postcard images, the women wetted the tip of their cotton covered brushes with their lips as they worked. Eventually the lead in the paint they used led to illnesses forcing the discontinuation of this type of postcard.

handClick here for an example

Linen Era (1930-1945 (1960?))
New American printing processes allowed printing on postcards with a high rag content. This was a marked improvement over the "White Border" postcard. The rag content also gave these postcards a textured "feel". They were also cheaper to produce and allowed the use of bright dyes for image coloring. They proved to be extremely popular with raodside establishments seeking cheap advertising. Linen postcards document every step along the way of the building of America's highway infra-structure. Most notable among the early linen publishers was the firm of Curt Teich. The majority of linen postcard production ended around 1939 with the advent of the color "chrome" postcard. However, a few linen firms (mainly southern) published until well into the late 50s. Real photo publishers of black & white images continued to have success. Faster reproducing equipment and lowering costs led to an explosion of real photo mass produced postcards. Once again a war interferred with the postcard industry (WWII). During the war, shortages and a need for military personnel forced many postcard companies to reprint older views WHEN printing material was available.

handClick here for an example

Photochrome Era (1939 to present)
The Wizard of Oz affirmed America's love for color images. A new type of postcard, the color "Photochrome" (called Chrome) appeared around 1939. These "Chrome" postcards started to dominate the scene soon after they were launched by the Union Oil Company in their western service stations in 1939. They were easily produced, of high photo quality and most importantly, they were in color. Their spread was momentarily slowed down during WWII due to supply shortages, but they replaced both linen and black & white postcards by 1945 in the roadside postcard racks. Linen firms converted to photochrome postcards or went out of business. Black & white postcard firms merged with larger companies or disappeared.

handClick here for an example

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