The History of Postcards

Origins of Postcards  Postcard History  History of Postcards  Post Card History and Origins  Origins and History of Post Cards

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Deltiology, the official name for postcard collecting, is thought to be one of the three largest collectable hobbies in the world along with coin and stamp collecting.  Postcards are popular because of the wide range of subjects, with just about every subject imaginable being at some time, portrayed on a postcard.  History itself can be tracked on postcards, from historical buildings, famous people, art, holidays and more. 


The First Postage Stamp

Penny Black ~ The World's First Postage Stamp

The Penny Black which was issued in England in 1840 is the world's first adhesive postage stamp.  The stamp has a portrait of Queen Victoria, is primarily black in color and is one cent, so it has become to be known as the Penny Black.

Before 1840 postage rates varied as they were dependent on how many sheets of paper were used and how far the distance sent.  The postage was also not paid by the sender, but by the receiver.  Postage was at that time quite expensive and many times the receivers refused the deliveries.

In 1837 the Postmaster General of England, Sir Rowland Hill, proposed several different reforms of the postal system including postage being paid by the sender, a set rate anywhere in England and proof of prepayment of the postage.

Sir Hill's proposed systems were passed by Parliament in 1839, called the Penny Postage Act and shortly thereafter the first Penny Black was issued.  The first Penny Black for sold on May 1st, 1840.  There was also a two penny stamp, which was identical with the exception of it was blue in color.  The two cent stamp was issued for any mail weighing more than 1/2 an ounce.  The first blue two cent stamp was sold on May 8th, 1840.

To prevent forgery, the stamps had watermarks of a small crown on the back and they were printed on large sheets each containing 240 stamps.  They were cut apart by scissors until perforated stamps were issued in 1854.

For proof of payment and that the stamp had been used, the cancellation mark came to be.  Originally the cancellation mark was made with black ink, but being hard to see on a black stamp it was later changed to red.

Adhered postage stamps proved to be very popular and soon many other countries in Europe began producing stamps.  The first postage stamp in the United States was issued in 1847.  The first two stamps were five and ten cents depicting Benjamin Franklin on the five cent stamp and George Washington on the ten cent stamp.


The History of Postcards

Pre-Postcard Era
1840 - 1869

Prior to postcards came the lithograph prints, woodcuts and small cards that were the predecessor of the "mailed" postcard.  They were primarily hand delivered. Another direct ancestor seems to be the envelopes printed with pictures on them. These first envelopes were produced by D. William Mulready, E.R.W. Hume, Dickey Doyle, and James Valentine.

The private postal card was developed by John P. Charlton of Philadelphia in 1861 for which he obtained the copyright which was later transferred to H.L. Lipman.    The cards were adorned with a small border and labeled "Lipman's Postal Card, Patent Applied For".  They were on the market until 1873 when the first Government Postcards appeared.

Plain postcards were used prior to the Lipman postcard and were issued by individual countries with that country's stamp affixed upon them.  These cards were referred to as "Postals".

The first "non-Postal" postcard, meaning a privately made postcard where postage had to be affixed was introduced in Austria in 1869 and by 1870, picture postcards were all the rage!


Pioneer Era
1870 - 1898

US Postal Mailing Card

It is said that the first postal card was recommended by Dr. Emanuel Herrmann, in 1869, and was accepted by the Hungarian government in the same year and then first printed card in 1870, a historical card, produced in association with the Franco-German War. The first advertising card appeared in 1872 in England. The first German card appeared in 1874.  The Heligoland card of 1889 is considered the first multi-colored card ever printed.  Cards with pictures of the Eiffel Tower in 1889 & 1890 gave the picture postcard a huge start on its way to mass popularity.

In the United States, the earliest known exposition card was issued in 1873, showing the main building of the Inter-State Industrial Exposition in Chicago. This card as well as other early advertising cards, usually bearing vignette designs were not originally intended for souvenirs. Thus the first card printed with the intention for use as a souvenir were the cards placed on sale in 1893 at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago. During this period all privately printed cards required the regular two cent letter rate postage, the new government printed Postals required only one cent.  The government cards had a preprinted bust of either Jefferson or Grant and once cent.

The United States issued pre-stamped postal cards in 1873.  The Unites States Postal Service was the only one allowed to print the cards until May 19, 1898 when Congress passed the Private Mailing Card Act which then allowed private firms to produce cards.  The private mailing cards cost one cent to mail instead of the letter rate which was two cents.  The term "Private Mailing Card"  was required to be printed on cards that were not printed by the United States Postal Service.  Only the government was allowed to print the word "Postcard" on the back of postcards.  Private printers used the terms, Souvenir Card, Correspondence Cards and Mail Cards.  

Most postcards up until 1898 are "Undivided Back" cards meaning they do not have the line going down the center of the card.  Also, writing was not permitted by law on the address side on any postcard until March 1, 1907.  Any messages were written across the front over the photographs or artwork on the card.

Private Mailing Card Era
1898 - December 24, 1901

Private Mailing Card

Starting in 1898, American publishers were allowed to print and sell cards bearing the inscription, "Private Mailing Card, Authorized by Act of Congress on May 19, 1898". These private mailing cards were to be posted with one cent stamps (the same rate a government postals) instead of the previous two sent rate. This was perhaps the most important event in making the cards more popular.  Writing was still only allowed on the front side of the card as with government postals and previous pioneer cards.

Around 1900 we saw the first "Real Photo" postcards.  These were postcards that had real photographs and were usually printed on  film stock paper.  Although most "Real Photo" postcards were advertising and tradecards, many were of entertainers and portraits of family members.

Undivided Back Era
December 24, 1901 - March 1, 1907

Undivided Back Postcard

On December 24th, 1901, the U.S. Government allowed the use of the words "Post Card"  or "Postcard" to be printed on the undivided back of privately printed cards and allowed publishers to drop the authorization inscription previously required by law.   Writing was still only allowed on the front of picture side of the card but right at this time, other countries began to permit the use of a divided back, allowing the front to be primarily for the picture or artwork and the back left for the address and any message.  England was the first to allow divided back cards  in 1902,  France followed in 1904, Germany in 1905 and finally the United States in 1907. These changes brought in the "Golden Age" of postcards as millions were sold and used.

In 1906 the fashionable Photo and Lithographed cards made Eastman Kodak enter the marketplace by making an affordable camera called the "Folding Pocket Camera".  The public was now able to take black and white photographs and have them printed right onto postcard backs.  More cameras of this type entered the market which then brought on the Real Photo Postcard era.  The negatives were the same size of the postcard and the photographer had a small metal tool that allowed them to write directly onto the image.

It is said that the publishing of printed postcards during this time period doubled every six months.  By 1907, European card publishers began opening offices in the United States and accounted for over 75% of all postcards sold in the United States.  

At the end of this period in time, the hobby of collecting picture postcards became the greatest collectible hobby that the World had ever known. The official figures from the U.S. Post Office for their fiscal  year ending June 30, 1908, cite 677,777,798 postcards mailed.  At that time the total population of the United States was only  88,700,000!


Divided Back Era
March 1, 1907 - 1915 ~ The Golden Age

Divided Back Postcard

With  the exception of a few small countries, Divided Back cards were now used worldwide.  Finally the back of cards were used for both the address and for any message, leaving the front of the cards untouched showing only the beautiful artwork or photography.  Previously and during this period most of the postcards were still being printed in Europe, especially by the Germans whose printed methods were the best in the world.  These cards exhibited the brightest colors and the finest artwork.  Some of the most prolific card artists moved to Germany.  Postcard collecting became a public addiction.

Unfortunately the threat of war saw a quick decline of imported cards and WWI brought the supply of postcards from Germany to an end.  A lower quality of cards were coming from England and from publishers in the United States.  Due to the war, influenza epidemics and the poor quality of cards brought and swift end to the American postcard hobby.  The telephone quickly replaced the postcard as a way to keep in touch and thus was the end of the "Golden Age" of postcards.

Early Modern Era aka the White Border Period
1915 - 1930

White Border Postcard

Up until this period the Germans had dominated the postcard market.  Now that the supply of cards being imported declined, cards were being primarily supplied by printers in the United States.  American technology then started to advance and the United States began producing some higher quality cards, although they still produced mostly inferior cards in order to compete in the market place. 

After WWI, the German publishing industry was never rebuilt.  Many of the finest publishing houses in both England and Germany had been bombed, original art and equipment was destroyed.  Other European publishers were forced out of the market in the United States by high import taxes. 

Most postcards were printed by U.S. publishers during this period.  The higher costs of post war publishing combined with the inexperience of making cards brought down the quality significantly.  To save on the price of ink, "white borders" were left around the postcards.  Soon the public lost interest in postcards and collecting and the postcard and greeting card market plummeted.    Going to the movies was the new "visual" experience.  Many postcard and greeting card publishers went out of business.  

However the view card market remained strong.  Real Photo card publishers were not effected by the decline.  New rotary drum printers let publishers print thousands of cards of one particular image.  Roadside postcard racks began to spring up at every tourist attraction.  

Another exception to the decline were the "Hand Tinted" postcards being produced in France and Belgium.  These were photo postcards with various topics which were colored by hand giving them a realistic color look. Many were true works of art.  Unfortunately these cards did not last long.  The process of hand tinted card was very labor intensive and unhealthy!  Mostly women artists sat in rows while the postcards were passed down "assembly line" style.  Each women was responsible for a particular color.  The cards were small, the artwork detailed.  Women would wet the tip of their brush, usually cotton covered, with their lips as they worked.  Soon the lead in the paint took its toll as women became sick.  Hand tinted postcards soon were discontinued.

Linen Card Era
1930 - 1944
(although many say 1945 while others say 1960!)

Advancing technology now allowed publishers to print cards on a linen type paper stock with very bright and vivid colors a huge improvement over the "white border" postcard.  The high rag content gave the cards the look of being printed on cloth or linen.  Many postcards retained the white border but slowly cards began being printed to the edge of the card.  View and comic cards were the most often published and they became even more popular for a cheap way to advertise. The building of America's highway infra-structure can just about be documented every step of the way by Linen postcards.  During this time, sets and series were few and far between and the greeting card was almost exclusively replaced with the new French-fold cards.

Most of the production of linen postcards stopped around 1939 with the beginning of the color "chrome" postcard, although a few linen publishers published well into the late 1950's.  Real photo publishers of black & white images continued to have success.  With even better equipment and lowering costs led to another explosion of real photo produced postcards.   But once again a war interfered with the postcard industry.  This time WWII.  During the war, shortages and a need for military personnel forced many postcard companies to reprint older views and only when printing material was available.


Modern Photochrome Era
1939 - present

Confirming America's love for high color and bright images and a new type of postcard, the color "Photochrome" (called Chrome or Modern Chromes) appeared.  "Chrome" postcards started to take over the marketplace immediately after they were launched by the Union Oil Company.  Sold in their western service stations, they were easily produced, were of high photo quality and of most importance, they were in true living color!   Although production and sales were slowed down due to supply shortages during WWII, they made a quick comeback after the war and dominated the postcard market.  By 1945 they replaced both linen and black & white postcards in roadside postcard racks.  Most linen firms converted to photochrome postcards or  went out of business.  Most black & white postcard firms merged with larger companies or simply disappeared.  

Even though
we have seen huge increases in postal rates for postcards from one cent to the current twenty - plus cents and with the dawn of the internet, free e-cards seeming to dominate card giving today, postcard popularity continues to rise. Even the greeting post card is making a big comeback, although many are reproductions of the older cards.   Photochromes are in color and the closest to real photographs and are most commonly used today.  There even seems to be a new generation of artists interested in producing art for cards.

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