Grading Postcards, Postcard Preservation & Terminology

Grading Postcards

Postcard History


When buying or selling postcards, everyone wants to know the condition of the postcard.
This rating system is used for older or antique postcards.


M - Mint : A perfect card just as it comes from the printing press.  No marks, bends, or creases. No writing or postmarks.  A clean and fresh card.  Seldom seen.

NM - Near Mint : Like Mint but very light aging or very slight discoloration from being in an album for many years.  Not as sharp or crisp.

EX - Excellent : Like mint in appearance with no bends or creases, or rounded or blunt corners.  May be postally used or unused and with writing and postmark only on the address side.  A clean, fresh card on the picture side.

VG - Very Good : Corners may be a bit blunt or rounded.  Almost undetectable crease or bend that does not detract from overall appearance of the picture side.  May have writing or postally used on address side.

G - Good : Corners may be noticeably blunt or rounded with noticeably slight bends or creases.  May be postally used or have writing on the address side.

FR - Fair : Card is intact.  Excess soil, stains, creases, writing, or cancellation may affect picture.  Could be a scarce card that is difficult to find in any condition.

Source: J. L. Mashburn
and Postcard Collecting

Preservation of Postcards

Collecting vintage paper creates some special concerns regarding its preservation. If you like to keep antique photo or postcard albums complete as they were originally assembled, you will have even more problems. The real disadvantage is that most early albums were made of inferior green or black construction paper that leaves a residue on the postcard corners. If a top quality album was used, this slick paper didn't move or breathe leaving heavy indents on the postcards called album marks. Cards should be removed from these old albums.

History of Postcards The major enemies of paper are fire, water or humidity, dirt, sunlight, mold, and bugs. If you are investing large sums of money in postcards for your collection or dealer's stock, fireproof file cabinets or a vault is advisable. Collections can be protected in a safety deposit box, which is cool, dry, dark, and theft proof. 

Separate each item with acid-free paper, glassine, or Mylar to prevent ink transfer. Stand cards on edge when possible, stacking causes damage to embossing and mechanisms.

History of Post Cards Keep humidity at 50-65%; too low and the paper becomes brittle; too high and microorganisms grow. The temperature should be under 75 degrees. Heat causes faster chemical deterioration.

Postcard HistorySunlight is a great destroyer of paper. If you wish to display your framed collection, do not place items in direct sunlight. Instead, display them on interior walls away from natural light. When having your items framed, be sure to request museum mounting. If the shop doesn't know what you are talking about, select another store.

Nothing should ever be done to paper that cannot be easily undone. If an inventory must be kept, do it in pencil. If the item needs to be secured to album pages use only stamp hinges, photo corners with clear Mylar tops, linen or paper tape. Never affix any kind of tape to the front of your postcards.

Dealers use plastic sleeves and album pages. Collectors should not, unless they are sleeves or pages of archival quality. A dealer's stock is constantly changing and cards are seldom in contact with this Poly Vinyl Chloride (PVC) storage system for long.

Postcard Collecting This PVC material will cause chemical damage to antique paper if left for long periods of time. In addition, postcards that are not in a humidity controlled environment risk water damage from condensation forming inside of the sleeves. This can be seen at outdoor flea markets. When items in plastic are exposed to the sun, they heat up creating condensation that can cause irreversible water damage.

Post Card Collecting Before you panic about the storage of your postcards, remember they have survived nearly 100 years in old deteriorating postcard albums. They probably will survive many more years with just a reasonable amount of care, but only archival protection will preserve them indefinitely.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Antique Postcards©
by Susan Brown Nicholson

Photograph and Printed
Postcard Terms

Albumen Print - An image printed on paper using egg albumen (the white of an egg) mixed along with whey (derived from curdled milk).  The albumen and whey is boiled, filtered, and then mixed with grains of iodide potassium. These prints usually show a brown, yellow, or purple tone. Almost all albumen prints are done on very thin paper and then mounted to cardboard. This process was very common in the last half of the 19th century and was used most on cabinet cards.

Album Marks - Discoloration or heavy indentations on the corners of the cards from the acid, leaching out of the antique album pages, or from weight.

Archival - Any museum quality material that will protect postcards for extended periods of time.

Artist Signed - Any postcard that has a printed signature of the illustrator. This does not mean that the postcard artist autographed the card, although examples do exist. If the publisher has printed a byline clearly identifying who did the work, the card is considered artist signed.

Cabinet Card - A simple term used to describe a print, usually an albumen print that is no more than 6inches, (unless it is an imperial cabinet card) that is mounted upon period cardboard. This was the most common way to display portraits in the 19th century.

Cancellation (COF) - A card that has been postmarked and cancelled on the front.

Carte-De-Visite (cdv)  - An albumen print upon a cardboard mount with dimensions no more than 5inches mostly used as a visiting card.

Collodin Prints & Gelatin Silver Printing Out Print  - These are two different types of processes, but the finished product looks almost identical and is very difficult to tell apart.  They look similar to albumen prints, but the paper isn't quite as thin as the paper used in a albumen printing and they do not need to be mounted as do albumen prints. These two processes were used widely in the late Victorian and early Edwardian periods.   This process on most cards is simply stated as a Gelatin Silver Print.

(CHR) - Any card after 1939 with a shiny paper surface. The term is derived from Kodachrome.   These are modern glossy cards and are most prevalent among traders. They are the most common type of card you will find on postcard racks today. Chrome refers to a process used to make the cards. The chrome cards were first published in the 1950's and continue to be published today.

Composite - This is a photograph with two separate images printed on the same photo paper.

- Refers to the physical condition of the postcard. Terms used are Mint, Near Mint, Excellent, Very Good, Good, Fair, and Poor.

Crazing - These are the tiny cracks and fractures you many times see in the emulsion or the top layer of a card.

Deckled-Edge  - A jagged edge designed around the photograph, most popular from the 1930s-1950s.

Deltiology - This is the study of postcards; the person doing the research, a deltiologist. Randall Rhodes of Ashland, Ohio, first used the term. It means (from the Greek) the science or study (logos) of small pictures or cards (deltion).

Die Cut - Any paper cut by the publisher into a shape other than a rectangle, such as the shape of an angel, Santa, or animal.

Die Cut Hold to Light - A hold to light (HTL) postcard that transforms from day to night when a bright light shows through the tiny holes cut on the surface of the card.

Divided Back (DB)  - A postcard back with a center line to divide the address from the message. Divided backs appeared in 1902 in England, 1904 in France, 1905 in Germany, and 1907 in the US. This helps to date unused postcards. Cards before these dates have undivided backs.

EdwardianThe period during which King Edward VII reigned, from 1901 until his death in 1910.

- Postcards that have designs slightly raised above the card's surface. Heavily embossed postcards have almost a papier-mache style, that stands greatly above the surface.

Emulsion - The photosensitive coating, usually of silver halide grains in a thin gelatin layer, on photographic film, paper, or glass.

- Any printed or hand written item normally discarded after its intended use such as calendars, postcards, tradecards, and valentines.

Foxing - Brown spots of mildew in the paper's surface that is actually a fungus. These spots of mildew, penetrating the paper, cannot be removed by erasing but may occasionally by removed by bleaching.

Gelatin - A card with a varnish-like coating producing a glossy surface. The surface usually cracks or shatters.

Gelatin Silver Developing Out (Silver Print) - This process is still in used today.  It began to be used sometime in the 1870's.  It is a common and visually appealing way to print images.  With age, the silver in dark areas of the print is often visible at certain light angles, especially if the photograph recto has been in contact with paper.  Silver prints that have been stored face to face (emulsion touching emulsion) will often show little or no signs of silvering.

Gelatin Silver Printing Out Print & Collodin Prints - These are two different types of processes, but the finished product looks almost identical and is very difficult to tell apart.  They look similar to albumen prints, but the paper isn't quite as thin as the paper used in a albumen printing and they do not need to be mounted as do albumen prints. These two processes were used widely in the late Victorian and early Edwardian periods.   This process on most cards is simply stated as a Gelatin Silver Print.

Golden Age of Postcards - From 1898 to 1918.

Government Postal - A postcard that has a preprinted stamp on the back. The government postal office issues these postcards and publishers use them to print designs and advertising messages. They were especially used before the Act of Congress 1898.

Hold to Light - Any postcard that creates a different image if held to the light. Some are as simple as day to night, others as complicated as Winter to Summer. There are die cut hold to lights and transparencies.

Installment - A series of postcards designed to be sent one a day. The completed set forms one picture. Some installments are vertical, such as an Uncle Sam figure; others form horizontal, such as a running horse.

Linen - Postcards published in the late 20s through 50s, using a textured paper with a cross hatched surface. These are antique, non-glossy postcards. The surface resembles linen fabric. The paper they are printed on tends to yellow somewhat with age.  The cards romaticized the images of gas stations, diners, hotels and other commercial buildings. Using the photographic image of an establishment, all undesirable features, such as telephone poles, junk yards, background clutter, and sometimes even cars and people were removed by air brushing.  Most of these cards were printed in the US by the Asheville Postcard Co. and can only be found in a smaller regular size.

Mechanical - Postcards that have moving parts. It may be simple as a die cut top revealing a different idea of the previous image when opened. It could be as complicated as pulling a tab for a curtain to move and totally change pictures. Some mechanicals have wheels that change the faces on a body or dates on a calendar.

Miniature - Postcards done as a novelty during the Golden Age. They were about 1/2 the size of the standard 3 1/2 x 5 1/2 inch postcards. They have stamp boxes and are often postally used. The most desirable are those by the Scandinavian artists or publisher John Winsch.

Novelty - These cards include mechanicals and cards that have item attached, such as bags of salt, real hair, metal medallions, paper applique, silk, or even pennies. Some novelty cards are die cut shapes or have holes in which fingers can be inserted to make the postcard figures appear to have real arms, legs, or even a nose.

Oilette - A term used by Raphael Tuck and Sons of England to refer to a particular style of postcard production. The oilettes often looked like oil painting, with noticeable brush strokes.

Over Sized - The standard postcard size during the Golden Age was 3 1/2 by 5 1/2 inches; the standard modern postcard size is 4 by 6 inches. Any card larger than these sizes is considered oversized. Modern postcards are often called continentals.

Pioneers - Postcards issued before the Act of Congress in 1898. They carry instructions on the back, such as, "Write the address only on this side - the message on the other, or Nothing but address can be placed on this side, or This side for address only".

Platinum Print - Invented in the 1870's it was used for its fine detail and soft gray tones. This process uses a combination of platinum and iron salts for printing.  Many early 20th century artists' works were done using this process and is also found in photography.  By the 1930's this process fell out of favor and even prints during its prime period of use are hard to find. 

Poly Vinyl Chloride (PVC) - Poly Vinyl Chloride, polymers derived from vinyl chloride used to make plastic pages and sleeves. These can cause damage to postcards over time.

Postcard - A card specifically made with the intention that it could be used by itself as a mailed message or souvenir.

Postmarked (PM) - A card that has been postmarked.

Pre-Linen - Cards that were printed on matte or heavy paper stock through the 1930's.

Private Mailing Card (PMC) - Private Mailing Cards were issued between 1898 and 1901.

Private Postal - Postcards produced, not by the government, but by private business or publishers.

Puzzle Cards - A European term for installments. In America, it refers to hidden picture cards, jigsaw puzzle cards, rebus cards, or anything that is a puzzle to solve.

PVC - Poly Vinyl Chloride - Poly Vinyl Chloride, polymers derived from vinyl chloride used to make plastic pages and sleeves. These can cause damage to postcards over time.

Real Photo Postcard (RPPC) - A term coined to distinguish between commercially printed photographic images and an actual photograph printed on photograph paper with a preprinted postcard back. Real photo cards are more desirable than commercially printed postcards. Most real photos are one of a kind, while commercially printed photographs were produced in large quantity.

Rebus - A puzzle postcard on which words, phrases, or sentences are represented by pictures of objects and signs, the names of which, when sounded in sequence afford the solution.

Recto - The front side or face of the photograph where the image appears.

- A dark brown color applied to photographs or other prints. Inky secretions of the cuttlefish produce this coloration.

Series - Groups of postcards that belong together in a collection. The individual cards may or may not have been printed at the same time. More than just a common topic, a series has a common artist and publisher.

Sets - Postcards published in a group of 4, 6, 7, 8, or 12. These were sold in packets or individually. Examples are: days of the week or months of the year.

Silk - Postcards where silk fabric is applied to the design, or the total image is printed on silk fabric, then attached to a postcard back.

Silvering -  A degeneration in gelatin silver prints where the silver salts have come to the surface which is usually the result of paper contacting the emulsion.

Topics or Topicals - Postcards that are not views, but are of subjects such as baseball, kites, cats, and golf.

Tradecards - Advertising cards issued before 1900. Store keepers gave then away in products or with the purchase of a product. They were very popular before the postcard and were often times glued into large scrap books with other die cut scrap.

Transparency - A type of Hold to Light postcard that creates its transformation with many thin layers of paper. A total change in image is caused by strong light behind the postcard. There are no die cut holes in the surface to achieve this transformation.

Undivided Back (UDB) - A postcard back without a dividing line to separate the message from the address. Undivided backs on postcards help date the cards (see divided back).

Vernacular Photographs - Photographs taken by unknown and anonymous photographers without manipulation of the finished image whose happy accidents and successful failures resulted in surprising and tantalizing works of art.

Verso - The reverse side of the photograph.

Victorian - The period during which Queen Victoria I reigned, from 1837 until her death in 1901.

View Cards
- Postcards that feature cities and places within cities, such as parks, main streets, depots, store fronts, bridges, and roads. They are not topics such as Halloween, cats, or Clapsaddle.

Vintage Photograph -  A vintage photograph is a photograph that was made around the same time as the negative was made.  Example:  If a picture was taken in 1903 and the image was then printed in 1903, then that photograph would be a vintage one.  If the same image was printed again in 1956, instead of 1903, that photograph would not be vintage, but would be marked as "printed later."

White Border Postcards - These cards were printed in the early 20th century before the linen postcards and were in regular size only, approximately 1915 until the 1930's. White border cards are easily recognized due to the white border, unclear view and were not printed on linen like paper. Most of the time they will have a stamp box that reads "Place once cent stamp here". This type of card is becoming increasing rare and are almost always used.


Postcard Sizes and Types



Continental size: 4X6 inches (15 cm X 10.5 cm) Many of the new cards you purchase today are of this size. Mostly published after the 1940's.

Regular (or Standard) size: 3 1/2 X 5 1/2 (9 cm X 14 cm) Many of the older cards are of this size.

Oversized: Anything larger than a continental size.  Mostly 5X7 inches, but some can be found in larger sizes. Although this size of cards is popular with postcard companies and tourists, many collectors do not want them because they are more expensive, not easily filed, cost more to mail, and harder to trade with others. The advantage is of course the more detailed view of the scenes shown on the cards.

Modern size: These are about 6 1/2 X 4 3/4 inches.  They are often classified as a smaller type of oversized card.


Postcard Types

View Cards

View cards have, since postcards began, been the mainstay of the collecting field.  People have long collected and traded cards of their home towns and places they have visited. View cards offer historic reference to buildings, streets, and even towns which may no longer exist or that have changed significantly over time. Even views produced in the photochrome (chrome) era may no longer look the same. The earliest cards offer much in the social history of the times as we look at early forms of travel and the beginnings of telegraph, telephone and power lines. The messages written on the cards often give us insight as to the picture shown or the sentiments of the day.


Greeting Cards

The greeting card is almost as basic as the view card in the earlier eras, though as the time graph has shown, its popularity declined in later era's. Christmas, Easter, Birthdays and most other holidays and special occasions were well represented and are fairly common. However some greetings such as the "Labor Day" cards, are considered scarce. Today most collectors choose a topic within a specific holiday in order to limit their searches. For example some choose Christmas cards depicting Santa in green robes only. Early greeting cards are some of the most beautiful cards every printed. Publishers competing for sales, printed cards using intricate embossing techniques, high caliber art work, superior inks, expensive lithographic processes and even novelty additions such as glitter, ribbons, metal, silk and feathers.


Historical Cards

Historical cards are printed to commemorate events such as war, social problems, expositions, parades, coronations, politics and so on.  These cards offer much to the serious collector in the way of increased value. This is a wide open field with much to offer anyone interested in twentieth century history. Often this type of card was made of a real photograph with few copies being offered for sale. This is especially true of disaster cards depicting floods, fires, wrecks, etc.  Often the historical significance of a card comes form the message written by the sender.


Art Cards

The art card is probably the most important category in antique postcards. Unlike the view or greeting card, most art cards were special interest cards when they were printed and in most cases brought a much higher price. This rarity, combined with the skill of the artist of this period, make these cards very popular among collectors today. To better understand this popularity, think of these cards as 3 1/2" x 5 1/2" original high quality prints, which they are, instead of as postcards. No where in the world of art, does such quality material exist at such low prices. The postcard market, in the first decade of this century, was a very large business. Over $200,000,000 in pre-inflation dollars! This booming market drew the very best artists of the period, creating a wealth of quality material unmatched in the art world. Also at this time, some German publishers produced a series of "Old Master" art reproductions, the card's intensity and depth of color is without parallel as they spared no expense in printing the best.


Photographic Cards

Coming into their own recognition as art cards are the fantastic photographic art cards. These real photo art studies of beautiful women, children, lovers, etc., are often hand tinted in great detail and in colors which almost defy description. Also made popular were the photomontage techniques which allows photos to be altered into original art creations.


Sources: The Encyclopedia of Antique Postcards©
by Susan Brown Nicholson
Modern Photography
Postcard Collecting


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