‘Pre-Postcard Period:’ 1848-1870

Before the United States government authorized postal cards and postcards, some people sent cards through the mail with attached postage.  Collectors refer to these cards as "mailed cards."  I have none from that early era but I do have this more or less contemporary sample.  The Abigail Adams Historical Society, Inc. used a plain card in the late 1990s to announce to its members the society's activities and meetings schedule for the upcoming year.  The mailing of appropriately sized cards with attached postage is still legal today.  (Card #1)

Sometimes, the sender would wrap (cover) the card in plain paper to retain privacy.   Hence the word "cover," as in "First Day Cover," came into use.  One thing leads to another, and that usage contributed to the development of the envelope.  The aspiring artist couldn't leave all that clear space on the envelope, so he/she illustrated it.  The illustrated envelopes probably contributed to the development of the picture postcard. (Card #2)

1861 Charlton Postal Cards

In February of 1861 Congress authorized the public to send privately printed cards through the U. S. mail system.  That same year, John P. Charlton copyrighted the first postcard in the United States.  Postcards were already in use in Europe.

Mr. Charlton teamed up with Hyman Lipman.  The first of their postcards to be mailed was mailed in 1870.  Notice please, the Charlton/Lippman cards are labeled "postal cards."  The government had not yet restricted use of the phrase "postal card." (Card #3)

This is an opportune moment to point out that amongst post card collectors, there is a difference between Post Cards and Postal Cards.  A postal card is issued by the federal government and has postage imprinted on it.  Post Cards are printed by private individuals and businesses.  The sender must attach postage.

An early postal card, dated 1893. (Card #4)

The postmark is not clear but the message side is clearly dated.

Congress authorized the manufacture and use of postal cards in 1873.

Ulysses S. Grant's portrait illustrates the postage.

An early postal card, dated 1893

The postmark is not clear but the message side is clearly dated.

Congress authorized the manufacture and use of postal cards in 1873.

Ulysses S. Grant's portrait illustrates the postage.

1870-1898 Pioneer Period

Some post card collectors have dubbed the era 1870-1898 "The Pioneer Period and rightly so.  The period is marked with innovations.  I will deal with two major innovations

1873 Postal Cards

Congress authorized the manufacture and use of postal cards in 1872 and issued the first such card in 1873.  The law specifically states that only the government may use the phrase "Postal Card."  The law also reserved the postage side of the card (back) for the address and the other side (front) for messages.

However, there is no difference in meaning between the phrase "post card" and the word "postcard."

1893 The Columbian Exposition Postal Cards

The United States government was interested in helping the 1893 Columbian Exposition (World's Fair) make a favorable impression on the nations of the world.  Amongst the government's contributions to the fair were two series of specially printed postal cards.  One series, printed in 1892, announced the coming of the fair.  A second series, issued in 1893, was available to visitors of the fair and the public.  Like millions of tourists to follow, the visitors bought and sent the postal cards throughout the world. (Card #5)

An interesting feature of these postal cards was that the government illustrated them with a building constructed on the fairgrounds.  These post cards led the way to the picture post card.

The government has not illustrated its postcards since 1893 but the postal service has illustrated the postage on their postal cards; first with portraits of prominent persons; more recently with colorful, oversized postage, honoring events, and places.

A Private Mailing Card, 1898 to 1902. (Card #6)

Plain font in contrast to many ornate fonts.

A Private Mailing Card, 1898 to 1902.

1898-to date, The Modern Era of Post Cards

The year 1898 marks the beginning of the "Modern Era" of postcards.  The Modern era is comprised of several special eras.

1898-1901 Private Mailing Cards

On May 18, 1898, Congress authorized the private printing of post cards but with limitations.  The address side of the card had to carry the words "Private Mailing Card, Authorized by Act of Congress May 19, 1898."  Sometimes the publisher entered the required phrase with an ornate scroll-like font.  Other time, the publisher entered the required phrase with a plain font.

In one form or another, the back side (address side) of the card had to bear the required message "This Side for Address Only."

Although the card could not describe itself as a government printed "Postal Card," it could use the phrase "Postal Card-Carte Postale" to be eligible to enter the international mailing system.

The message side (front) could contain a picture, a message, or both.  Consequently, publishers left enough blank space on the picture side to accommodate – sometimes a short message – sometimes a long message.

Other Examples of Private Mailing Cards

Souvenir Mailing Card is an allowed alternate form of saying "private mailing card."  (Card #7)

Personally, I enjoy the more ornate scrolls and decorations of the "private mailing card." (Card #8)

The front of this undivided back post card has large clear space for message. (Card #9)

The back (address side) of an “undivided back” post card carries the phrase “This side for the address” on the bottom left corner. (Card #10)

1901-1907 Undivided Back Post Cards

In December 1901, the Postmaster-General authorized the use of the words “Post Card” but restricted one side of the card to “Address Only.”  This ruling resulted in manufacturers leaving space – some large, some small - on the picture side (front) of the card for messages and the address side (back) remained undivided.  Like the Private Mailing Cards of 1898-1901, the post cards of 1901-1907 did not have a dividing line.  This 1901-1907 era of post cards is known as the “Undivided Back” era.

The ruling authorizing the use of the phrase “post card” came out so late in 1901 that collectors often refer to 1902-1907 as being the era.

Multiple images were popular even on the earliest of picture postcards. (Card #11)

Transitional Post Cards

When the law changed in 1907, the manufacturer was eager to “modernize” his cards and go to the divided back.  He was also eager to use the images he had in stock.  This led to picture sides having the clear spaces for messages and divided backs.  I consider these cards as “transitional post cards.”

Examples of Divided Back Post Cards.

An example of a divided back Post Card. (Card #12)

An example of a divided back with a message. (Card #13)

Full-Photo Post Cards 1907-1915

With space for a message available on the address side (back) of the postcard, it became feasible to print a larger picture on the message side (front) and the full photo post card became the style.  Postcards reached the peak of their popularity at this time.  Because of their popularity, manufacturers printed immense quantities of cards.  Because Europe had superior machinery and color technology, most of these cards were printed in European countries, especially Germany. 

Among the earliest of postcards in my collection are messages referring to the existence of and/or the size of the sender’s or the recipient’s post card collection.  In addition to the picture, the collector could collect by publisher and series.  Remember, newspapers were not able to print high quality images at this time.  Post cards were news carriers. (Card #14)

A hometown Continuous-Tone RPPC signed by Roper. (Card #15)

In this example, the card is unnumbered.

Real Photo Post Cards (RPPC), 1903-1930

In 1903, Kodak produced a camera that provided post card size images suitable to print on post card stock.  In 1907, when postal regulations allowed the divided back postcard, the sender was able to send a message along with his picture.  An endless variety of post cards – some amateur, some professional - came into being.  Some had borders; some not so.  Most were 3½ by 5½ inches; others not so.  Some were mass produced; others not so. Some, undoubtedly, were even unique.  

The ubiquitous combination of professional photographers, hobbyists, and individual snapshots combined to make the postcard era the most photographically documented era in world history.  I recognize three major categories within the RPPC category.

Photo Post Cards, 1915-1930

The popularity and availability of the camera was growing at this time.  The instinct to create “do-it-yourself” postcards showed its presence.  Kodak was the first to meet this demand.  The company developed and marketed a “Post Card Camera.”

Film manufacturers made and marketed appropriate “Photo Post Card” photo paper.  Attach postage, address the back, and you have an inexpensive way to tell your cousin, across the country how you look today.  You can still affix postage, address your photo, and mail it across country but the one and two cent postage rates have increased significantly. (Card #16)

The “Photo Post Card” stock seems thinner than the typical post card stock.  Notice that the postage box reminds you that you used Kodak Photo Paper.

Back of Photo card DIY.  (Card #17)

Another Roper Continuous Tone RPPC. (Card #18)

The signature is barely visible on the umbrella at the bottom right.

Continuous Tone RPPCs

Among the RPPCs in my hometown collection of post cards are many with continuous tones; what appears to be a brownish overtone.  Many, within that group, are signed and numbered by “Roper.” Roper, it seems, is an itinerant photographer who took local photographs, mass produced them, and sold them to local merchants.  The local merchants in turn sold them to their customers.  These brownish tint post cards are in high demand among collectors.

I have one similar continuous-tone postcard with a silvery-bluish tint.  Is it a defect or another process?  I don’t know.

Photography Studio Post Cards

Portrait studios jumped on the bandwagon.  Just as today when you order a number of copies of your child’s wallet size school photo, you could order a number of portraits printed on postcard stock.  Portrait studios print their postcards on a heavier stock than that provided by manufacturers of photo post card stock.

My brother would strangle me if he knew that I used his first communion picture to illustrate this article.

Another family photo on a post card.  My wife’s great-grandmother and her three daughters.  No one ever mailed the card but thankfully someone did label the back.  The photo is from Newfoundland before 1913. (Card #19)

White Border Era 1915-1930

With the outbreak of World War I, post card publishers in the United States turned to local printing shops for service.  Local printers did not have the technology of the German printers.  Consequently, there was a reduction in the quality of the finished card. (Card #20)

In order to save money by using less ink, printers left a white border on the cards they printed.  They often used the border to print a caption on the border. Often, the publisher printed a descriptive message on the message portion of the address (back) side of the card.

Sometimes, the white border postcard has a yellow border.

Linen Period 1930-1945

Beginning in the early 1930s, printers were able to print postcards on less expense stock (paper and/or thin cardboard).  This stock contained a high rag content causing the finished product to have a linen-like appearance and more brilliance in the collar.  The images on these cards sometimes lacked the clarity of their predecessors.  Post cards retained their popularity as a means of inexpensive communication.  The picture just plain “t’ain’t what it used to be.” (Card #21)

The linen post card did not gain popularity with the post card collector until the 21st century.

Linen post cards may have a white border or may be printed to the edge of the card.  I find the linen characteristic most prominent in comic post cards printed for military personnel.

Photochrome Period 1945-present

In 1939 the printing industry developed the photochrome process.  The World War II years prevented the widespread adoption of the new process.  After the war, it became dominant but the popularity of post cards waned due to faster and less expensive means of personal communication.  The post card became relegated to the role of inexpensive, easily stored, “Wish you were here” souvenirs available almost exclusively at tourist attractions.  No longer were itinerant photographers photographing virtually every inch of the United States.  No longer were postcards important inventory to local retail shops. (Card #22)

Of the more than one thousand post cards that I have in  my hometown  collection, this 1978 4x6 inch post card is the only contemporary post card I have found with the exception of political advertising cards.

Of the more than one thousand post cards that I have in  my hometown  collection, this 1978 4x6 inch post card is the only contemporary post card I have found with the exception of political advertising cards.

Four by Six Inch Post Cards

In the 1960s, a larger, 4x6 inch size post card became popular and then dominant with the general sender of postcards.  Unquestionably, the 4x6 inch post cards produce a better photo image than prior eras.  (Card #23)

The photochrome process enables the industry to produce various sized, quality post cards – some as large as 8x10 inches.  

There is still a large variety of post cards arriving in your mail to enjoy and collect. Most are advertisements.  Many organization’s meeting notices.  Some are political.  A few are of the “Wish you were here” variety.

A military comic post card printed on “linen” stock.  (Card #24)

A dozen popular topics are: trains, prominent personalities, churches, military, ocean-going vessels, monuments, animals, airplanes, automobiles, National Parks, art reproductions, and comics.

Other reasons for collecting postcards are the postage affixed, the postmark, and the messages on the card.

Enjoy the hobby.