IN THE POST: Origins of the Postcard

A pile of vintage postcards - photo by Getty Images

Letters sealed in envelopes sent through post were how people communicated until the mid-19th century. Back then, mail was charged by the distance mailmen had to travel. The fees were also collected from the recipient, which resulted in plenty of rejected mail and unpaid mail carriers. This method cost the post money with almost no returns on investment, so in 1837, Roland Hill proposed that fees should be charged from the sender and that letters be charged by weight. This led to the creation of postage stamps, which began in Great Britain in 1840. The stamps showed how much the letter weighs and how much the sender should pay. Heavier letters would have more stamps and, therefore, cost more. From this postal innovation, it was a short jump to the creation of the postcards.

A postcard printed by Charlton and Lipman – photo by | Wikipedia

Postcards, as we know them today, could have been inspired by the picture envelopes in which cards were sent. These envelopes would have comics, pictures of the season or holidays (New Year, Valentines, Christmas, etc.), patriotic pictures and even musical notes. John P. Charlton was the first person to copyright a postcard in the United States in 1861. This was after Congress passed a law that allowed privately printed cards weighing an ounce or less to be sent through the mail.

Hymen L. Lipman bought Charlton’s copyright and began reissuing these postcards in 1870. They became Lipman’s Postal Cards. The earlier postage cards, though, did not have pictures on them. They were picture-less cards designed to contain the recipient’s address and the postage stamp on one side while the other side is used for the message. Eventually, advertisers saw the cards as a medium to market products and services. They used Lipman’s Postal Cards for printed messages and illustrations. These cards were widely used until the release of government-produced postcards.

Penny postcard 1873 – photo by New England Historical Society

Congress approved legislation for government-produced postal cards in 1872. By 1873, the first government-issued postcards were released. Privately-owned publishers were still allowed to continue printing postcards. But they were more expensive to mail (they cost 2 cents) and so the government issued postcards (costing 1 cent per card) became more popular with the public. Also, only government-issued postcards were allowed by law to bear the term “Postal Card.”

Before the release of postcards in the United States, Austria issued the world’s first official postal card in 1869. The following year saw other countries like Switzerland, Prussia, Bavaria, Great Britain, Luxembourg, and Baden releasing their own. In 1871, Canada, Norway, Finland, Holland, Belgium, Sweden, and Denmark did the same. France, Russia, Algeria, and Chile followed suit in 1872. In 1873, Spain, Japan, and the United States released theirs. Finally, Italy, Serbia, and Romania released postal cards in 1874.

Exceptional Eiffel Tower by Libonis post card circulated October 13, 1889 in Paris – photo by Catawiki

1874 also saw the creation of the Universal Postal Union. The Union was formed to create a uniform set of regulations that govern international mail. One such regulation determined the standard accepted size for postal cards, which is 3 ½ by 5 ½ inches. To ensure that their cards would be accepted overseas, many US publishers added the phrase Postal Card – Carte Postale.

The first true picture postcard appeared in 1889. It was a souvenir card from the 1889 Paris Exposition with a picture of the Eiffel Tower printed on one side. Its popularity led to publishers following the same style. Austria was the first to release coloured picture postcards.

Postcard, Chicago Columbian Exposition, 3 Buildings, 1893 – photo by Cathy Kent | Pinterest

In 1893, souvenir cards became popular after being issued on a large scale at Chicago’s Columbian Exposition. Many expositions followed suit. The pictures on these cards were relatively small to provide more room for messages. Multiple scenes decorated with surrounding flourishes were fashionable at the time. There was a boom in printing these pioneer cards – as they were called – following the Columbian Exposition, but many factors caused these cards to be ignored. Aside from the impact of the Great Depression, these cards cost more to mail than government postal cards. Between these cards and a more private sealed letter, people preferred to send the latter as they cost the same but offered more privacy.

In the United States, the government decided to allow privately printed postcards to be mailed at the same price, provided that publishers followed numerous printing regulations. These increased the popularity of the use of souvenir and exposition cards as well as the competition among publishers. The regulations coupled with the need to compete with many other postcard publishers forced some to discontinue production and close up shop, despite the popularity and affordability of such cards.

Picture Perfect: Picture Postcards

Eastman Kodak Advert Cameras & Photography, Pilot Boat, Real Photo, New York, 1902 – photo by HipPostcard

Sending photographs with messages written on the back was common in the 19th century. It wasn’t until 1899 that the first real photo postcard was sent in the US mail. They were produced in small numbers until 1902 when Eastman Kodak began to market them seriously. This was after Kodak bought the Velox photo paper rights. This photo paper came with a pre-printed postcard back making them perfect materials for photo postcards.

US government released new postal regulations in 1901, which included the use of the phrase Post Card for privately printed cards. They also relaxed size and colour restrictions. Pictures in postcards became larger and better in quality which led to them being bought more for their pictorial value.

Divided Back Postcards

Divided Back postcard, UK, 1902 – photo by Old Postcards

Great Britain issued the first divided back postcards in 1902 with France and Germany following soon after. The back of these cards was divided in two: the left side was meant to contain the message while the right side held the postage stamp as well as the address. This brought about the ballooning of postcard sales overseas.

The United States adopted the same format and included it in their postal regulations in 1907. These cards, with the picture taking up one side of the card, are similar to the ones used today.

White Border Postcards

White border postcard. U S Veterans’ Hospital, Muskogee, Oklahoma, 1947 – photo by Jackie’s Vintage Postcards

German printers dominated the postcard printing market until the beginning of World War I. American printers began to supply most of the postcards in the United States. Because they did not have the technology the Germans had, the US-produced postcards were of lower quality, leading to the loss of interest in buying postcards and ending the supposed postcard Golden Age. With lower sales, printers saved money by not printing on the edges of the card, leaving a white border around the picture. These postcards retained the divided back but included a description of the picture.

Linen Postcards

Linen postcard, Kellogg Boulevard looking west, St Paul, Minnesota – photo by Jackie’s Vintage Postcards

The name pertains to postcards that appeared to be printed on linen. While they were not actually printed on linen, the 1930s printing technologies allowed printers to create images that had that particular effect. Curt Teich & Co. were the most notable printer of the time and they issued the first linen postcard in 1931. Their process made use of brighter dyes and allowed faster production. Some of them had white borders while others had printed edges. This type retained the divided back and picture information. Linen postcards continued to be produced for another decade after the emergence of the photo chrome.

Photo Chrome Postcards

Chrome postcard, Tiara East, Deerfield Beach, Florida, Condo – photo by Jackie’s Vintage Postcards

1939 saw the advent of the modern photo chrome postcards. These postcards first appeared in Union Oil Company’s western service stations. The Second World War saw the decline in postcard production due to limited supply, but production and sales went back up after the war. These postcards resembled photographs and are coloured. Their high-quality pictures make for wonderful souvenirs and collectors’ items which they have become with the rise of ecards and email.

Photographs and Memories: Collecting Postcards

Postcard collecting or deltiology came about shortly after the first picture postcards appeared. People bought postcards not only to send messages but also to add to their collection. Some would collect postcards featuring the places they’ve been to or those with pictures of iconic places and landmarks. Some collectors preferred postcards that served as miniatures of notable works of art. Others favoured postcards published on specific years or those with a vintage design.

People would also establish clubs or organisations that are interested in the history and collecting of postcards. In their meetings, they may exchange or purchase cards that they wish to have in their collection. One could also visit museums that feature postcards or find them in auction houses and antique stores. Below is a list of the types of postcards collectors would look for.

Notable Publisher Cards

1908 International Art Publishing Co. Gold Bordered Postcard, Roadster Filled with Holly – photo by Flickriver

Postcards by well-known publishers or famous artists are often sought after by collectors. Some publishers with quite a following are International Art Publishing, Raphael Tuck & Sons, and John Winsch. Cards illustrated by artists like Ellen Hattie Clapsaddle, Frances Brundage, and Louis Wain are also quite popular.

Vintage Holiday Cards

‘Halloween’, Raphael Tuck & Sons Ltd., 1908 – photo by Toronto Public Library | Designboom

Vintage holiday postcards from the 1900s to 1920s are popular with collectors. The cheerful designs commemorating New Year’s, Easter and Christmas are commonly seen in postcard collections. Santa Claus is a very popular theme, but more obscure holidays like Rosh Hashanah or Halloween are quite rare, which makes them more sought after and therefore fetch higher prices.

Photo View Cards

Postcards featuring hometowns, landmarks, and vacation spots, especially if they are from the 1950s and older, are quite valuable to deltiologists.

Risqué and Humorous Cards

Vintage CAMPING Comic Risqué Postcard, “I’m Seeing Everything on this Trip”, Linen – photo by HipPostcard

Collectors also look for funny postcards, while others prefer cards that may have mature content. Some of these cards may not be appealing to certain groups and may not be appropriate for collectors of a certain age bracket due to their theme.

Of course, other factors determine the value of a postcard. Aside from the age of the postcard and the popularity of its artist or publisher, a postcard that proves to be a correspondence of a notable personality (presidents, royalty, etc.) would fetch a higher price on the market and would definitely be sought after not only by deltiologists but historians as well.

First postcard, hand-painted caricature of postal workers, sent to Theodore Hook in Fulham, London, possibly by Hook himself as a practical joke – photo by PrintRunner

The most expensive postcard sold to date is an 1840 postcard sent by writer Theodore Hook to himself. It was bought by Eugene Gomberg, a Latvian collector, for £31, 758.75 at the London Stamp Exchange Auction in 2002. The postcard was also believed to be the oldest, predating the earliest known card by 20 years.

Postcards are one of the most interesting items to collect, as they offer a glimpse of history and art in one neat package. Make sure you do your research and check the provenance of any item you wish to purchase. Happy hunting!