THE HISTORY OF POSTCARDS
by Joelle Steele
It's hard to believe that postcards have been around for more than 150 years! And collectors have preserved many of these beautiful examples of postal art. The earliest postcards, now known as "mailed cards," were sent at the same rate as letters. The first one was mailed shortly after the United States issued its first postage stamps (Scott #1-5¢ Red Brown Franklin, and Scott #2-10¢ Black Washington) on July 1, 1847. It wasn't until 1861 that the United States authorized cards printed by non-government entities to be sent by mail at rates varying according to the distance they were sent. In 1869, Austria became the first to issue an official, government-sanctioned postcard.
PIONEER ERA (1873-1898)
The date May 12, 1873 marks the beginning of the first of several "eras" in postcard collecting: the Pioneer Era. It was on this date that the United States issued its official postcard that had one side for the address only and the other for a message. Referred to now as "pioneers," these earliest cards posted for only 1¢ — regardless of the distance they were sent — a welcome reduction in cost from the letter postage of that time. Postcards that were privately-printed posted for 2¢ if there was anything other than advertising on them.
Prior to 1874, the sizes of postcards and other mailers had varied greatly within individual countries and throughout the world. The Universal Postal Union was formed to set regulations governing international mail, and it was then that the size of 3-1/2" x 5-1/2" became known as "standard" for postcards, although that size varied by small fractions, as did the later 4" x 6" "continentals." Austria came up with another first a few years later in 1889 when the first known color postcard was printed there.
It wasn't until May 1893 that postcards were produced on a large scale and could be printed for other than advertising purposes. They were mass-produced as mail cards or souvenir cards of the Columbian Exposition (Chicago World's Fair). Postcards were all the rage in the United States and Europe at this time, despite an economic depression in the United States that began with the Panic of 1893 and didn't see signs of recovery until 1896. During that time, many printers went out of business, and so postcards were largely being printed in Europe. By 1897, an enlarged, postal regulation size "businessman's card" was allowed for advertising. Its variations in shapes made it the forerunner of later novelty postcards.
EARLY CENTURY ERA (1898-1917)
On May 19, 1898, the Early Century era or "golden age" of postcards began with the introduction of the United States' "private mailing card." This allowed American publishers to print their own cards, marked with the words "private mailing card." Privately-published postcards quickly overtook the market, giving independent publishers the opportunity to meet the demand for these 1¢ mailers. The backs of the cards were undivided and were for the address only. Messages had to be written on the front where there was often a small blank area allotted for that purpose. On December 24, 1901, publishers could officially use the words "post card" on the backs of their postcards.
In 1902 Europe, England became the first to allow postcards to have a divided back for both message and address. France and Germany followed suit in 1903 and 1904, and the United States finally got on the bandwagon in March 1907, ending what we now call the "undivided back" era (1901-1907) and beginning what has since become known as the "divided back" era (1907-14). The divided back was a great innovation that allowed the front of the postcard to be used entirely for an image or a promotional message. The postcard business boomed as a result.
Postcards were the rage during this era and they were already being collected and stored in albums. All kinds of pictures were printed onto them, including photographs on photographic card stock — "real photo" postcards. The first "real photo" postcard was mailed in 1899, but it wasn't until after George Eastman bought the rights to Velox photographic paper around 1902 that photos could be easily produced directly onto card stock, complete with a pre-printed postcard back. By 1903, Eastman was also selling a postcard camera, and self-publishing photographers then became a big part of the postcard industry, especially in tourist areas.
Real photo postcards were exactly what they purported to be: genuine photographs with postcard backs. You could tell they were photos because under magnification there were no dots like you normally find to this day in photos that are reproduced in books or magazines or on non-real photo postcards. Real photo cards brought images of exotic locales into the homes of Americans — especially after 1902, which is when rural free delivery began in America and mail delivery came to those who lived outside of the cities. Real photo postcards were also popular as vehicles for documenting family gatherings and historic events. Early real photo postcards had captions etched/scratched onto the negative, and it appeared on the photo like white lettering, the ones for the tourist markets being the neatest and easiest to read.
The United States Bank Panic of 1907 did not lead to a depression like the Panic of 1893 did, but the shortage of credit sources caused a number of postcard publishers to leave the business. Compounding this problem was the fact that most postcards were being printed in Germany, which was known for its high quality lithographics. So, in 1909, the United States Congress, under pressure from American printers, imposed a tariff on imported postcards. American retailers responded by stocking up on these imports before the tariff went into effect. Postcard prices plummeted due to the overstocks that resulted. But, by 1912, American printers were still unable to match the quality of their German counterparts, and postcard demand dropped, with more than one-fourth of American postcard publishers going out of business. In 1913, the "French fold" greeting card we know so well today was introduced, and the demand for postcards fell even further.
When World War I began in Europe in 1914, there were still American postcard publishers who relied on Germany for their printing — despite the tariff. But by 1915, postcards were no longer being printed in Germany and some American publishers were forced to turn to England for printing, while others simply fell back on the inferior quality of American printers. But American printers (and the rest of the world) relied largely on colorants and inks manufactured in Germany, and those were now in short supply. American printers began publishing postcards in black and white with white borders to save on ink. England was also feeling the pinch as far as printing supplies were concerned. Postcards were being produced to keep up troop morale and for propaganda purposes, but more printers in America and England were going out of business during this time. As if this were not already a blow to the postcard market, on November 2, 1917, U.S. postcard postage was increased to 2¢, further reducing postcard demand. The so-called "golden age" of postcards had ended, But it was not the end of postcards.
MID-CENTURY ERA (1918-1939)
After World War I ended, U.S. postcard postage dropped back down to 1¢ on July 1, 1919, and by the early 1920s, continental-size postcards (4" x 6") started production in Europe. The quality of cards produced in America during the Mid-Century Era was a continuation of the clearly inferior printing that marked the end of the previous era. Up until about 1930, black-and-white cards with white borders continued to be common ways that American printers saved on ink costs, and the time period from about 1915 to 1930 is referred to as the "white border" era. It was during this time that the publisher information on the back of the cards became more detailed, the number of greetings-type postcards dropped, and scenic postcards remained popular.
When 1931 rolled around, a new kind of postcard was becoming popular as a result of the latest high-speed presses. This was the start of the "linen" era (1930-1945), a time when postcard stock had a high rag content and felt a little like fabric and even had a woven texture to its surface. Curt Teich was the original pioneer of the linen era. Sadly, however, inks were still not of the best quality, and the quality of the printing itself, plus these overly vivid ink colors, resulted in unnatural-looking images. Some linen postcards had the white border while others, like those of Teich, were a full bleed (the colors went to the edges of the card).
Linen postcards are relatively easy to find these days, but they were not produced in quantities even remotely close to postcards of the "golden age." In addition, people were not collecting postcards the way they once had; postcards had become largely disposable items. On April 15, 1925, United States postcard postage was again raised up to 2¢, again impacting on the sale and use of postcards, but the rate hike was reduced back down to 1¢ on June 20, 1928, by popular demand. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, postcard production was at an all-time low, and the linens dominated, as did monochrome and hand-colored postcards. In 1939, a new era dawned in the postcard industry with the advent of photochrome postcards.
PHOTOCHROME OR CHROME ERA (1939-present)
The picture postcards we are used to seeing in the 21st century have been produced for more than half a century. They are printed using the chromolithic process, which results in natural, life-like colors and a shiny, slick photographic finish. But "chromes," as they are called, should not be confused with real photo postcards. Chromes are printed and real photo postcards are true photographs on postcard stock. Real photo postcards are usually black-and-white or sepia-tone, and chromes are almost always full and vibrant color.
Chromes were first published in 1939 on Kodachrome color film which had come on the market only three years earlier. This allowed color separations to be made without the aid of the human eye. Oddly, the first chrome postcards were not produced by a postcard publisher. Instead, they were produced by the Union Oil Company, which used the cards at some of their service stations throughout the Western United States. The early chromes that followed were produced in limited numbers, mainly because publishers thought they would never be accepted as anything other than a short-lived craze. As it turns out, they were wrong. While linen postcards were still being produced during this time, by the mid-1950s, chromes had pretty much replaced them in popularity, if not by supply itself.
When America entered World War II in December 1941, there were again war-time shortages of materials. But, as with World War I, postcards were a valuable means of keeping up the morale for the troops and also for propaganda use. As the war drew to a close, an interest in old postcards from earlier eras began to occur, and postcard clubs started to appear, the first one being the Metropolitan Post Card Collectors Club in New York City, founded in 1946.
During the 1950s, the continental postcard size (4" x 6") became the most popular, and by 1956, improvements in the postcard printing process ensured a far higher quality appearance in all chromes. Chrome postcards were everywhere. But, the 1¢ postcard that had been a fairly reliable mainstay for more than 50 years, had come to an end, starting with a rate hike to 2¢ on January 1, 1952.
The story from the 1950s on has been a sad one for postcards in general. In addition to the slow delivery rate of the United States Postal Service, the high cost of paper and the corresponding increase of E-mail usage, as well as a non-stop series of postcard postage increases — from 3¢ in August 1958 to an alarming 28¢ by 2009 — postcards have dropped to an all-time low in popularity. Today, only collectors have a place in their homes and their hearts for these sometimes beautiful masterpieces of postal art and history.
This article last updated: 04/07/2012.