The history of postcards begins with calling or visiting cards, cards used by Ladies and Gentlemen to announce not only a visit but one’s social status as well. But it was the invention of postal cards in the middle of the 19th century which really started the ephemera craze known as deltiology.
Up until the invention of postal cards, cards printed with postage paid indicia and sold by governmental bodies, cards and notes were either delivered by hand (like calling cards), or delivered via post, in sealed envelopes.
The idea for the postal card originated in Germany in 1865, however it wasn’t until Dr. Emanuel Herrmann wrote and published an article about the use of such cards that the Austrian government issued the first postal card on October 1, 1869. During this time, now called the Pioneer Era (1870-1898), other countries, including the US jumped on the postal card bandwagon. The official postal cards were rather plain looking, but they were quickly joined by advertising cards and within decades, at the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago on May 1, 1893, souvenir cards.
At first these cards had difficulty capturing the public’s fancy. Not only were the ones issues by post offices & governments a bit aesthetically challenged, but the idea of sending private correspondence sans an envelope was not desirable. Anyone who could read, might read! Including the servants and the mail carriers themselves. This alone was a bit of a cause for alarm, but there was also great impracticality.
Originally, the early cards had little room to write. It was only legal to write on the front (picture side) of the cards only. Also, in the USA, while the government printed “postals” required only one-cent postage, all privately printed cards required the regular two-cent letter rate postage. Who would pay the same price with such small space for a message?
In 1898 some things would change though. The Private Mailing Card Act of 1898 would allow for private post cards to be sent at the same one-cent rate, provided the cards had “Private Mailing Card, Authorized by Act of Congress on May 19, 1898″ printed on them. Like many things, the postcard’s popularity would increase due to low price, and the Private Mailing Card Act is considered by many to have been the greatest assist in postcard popularity. On December 24th, 1901, the U.S. government allowed the use of the words “Post Card” or “Postcard” to be printed on the backs of privately printed cards and allowed publishers to drop the authorization inscription previously required by law, yet still have the same rate at government issued postal cards.
As mentioned, it was illegal to write a note on the address side of the card, but soon, another change would also help postcards curry favor: Divided backs. Divided backs (a postcard back with a center line to divide the address from the message) came along (in 1902 in England, 1904 in France, 1905 in Germany, and 1907 in the US) and the public had more room to write at a very cheap rate of just one-cent. At this rate, many people, used postcard to keep in touch with friends and relatives near and far — and as mail was delivered twice a day, postcards were a timely way to correspond and even arrange dates. The official figures from the U.S. Post Office for their fiscal year ending June 30, 1908, cite 677,777,798 postcards mailed — and that with a total population of the United States at 88,700,000.
Throughout the Golden Age of postcards remained just one penny to mail, but it wasn’t just the cheap-factor which enamored the public; it was the art too.
Postcards were popular then as they are now — and for the same reasons; they provided a portrait of life. Postcards paraded fashions — both in terms of ads and what Aunt Mable was wearing. Postcards delivered news — fires & floods, as well as Tommy’s wedding and proof of Liza’s Suffrage march. Your local newspaper may not have any photos of world events, but you could have them arrive in the mail from anywhere, sent by nearly anyone.
While the Victorian age allowed more and more people to travel, so the postcard allowed for those travels to be shared. And all of it was do-able due to technology.
At first most postcards were printed in Germany, where lithographic techniques were superior and painstaking quality workmanship was very cheap. The lithographed cards and photo postcards pushed Eastman Kodak to create the Folding Pocket Camera in 1906. This camera allowed the public to take their own black & white photos and have them printed right onto postcard backs — including, even, a small metal tool which allowed them to write directly onto the image. As more cameras of this type entered the market, the Real Photo Postcard era began.
After World War 1 and until around 1930, the demand for postcards was still great. With the loss of major publishing sources from Germany (which never quite recovered it’s postcard making industry after the war), the US and England were forced to move from publishers to printers as well. The American postcard industry was new, inexperienced, and the labor costs were high; in order to both compete price-wise and keep up with demand, the US cut a few corners… In fact, they left a little white space along all the four sides, saving on ink, and created the White Border card. These cards were typically mass produced and of inferior quality.
By 1930, technology now enabled publishers to print cards on a linen type paper stock with cheaper inks yet still have bright and vivid colors. View and comic cards were the most published postcards.
Less than a decade later, the color “Photochrome” (called Chrome or Modern Chromes) appeared. These “Chrome” or CHR postcards were launched in 1939 by the Union Oil Company. The views of Western scenes were given away at their Union 76 filling stations whenever gas or oil was purchased. They were easily produced, had a high photo quality and were in true living color — so vibrant, they ran linen and black & white postcards out of Dodge, even with a production slow-down during WWII. This production format is still the most popular for postcards made today.
The postcards made today may not seem to have the same immediacy or novelty. They may seem antiquated & quaint, even kitschy. But the old postcards, with their images of yesterday and the scripted words on their backs, tell us of life as it was. Kind of like blog posts, really. But the kind we can hold in our hands. Who doesn’t want to see the places & people of yesteryear? The main streets, railroads, amusement parks, strange roadside attractions, the silly parade float?
One day — not too long from now, either — your local main street, your parade float, will no longer look as they do now… Why not start saving the images now?