Photographs were occasionally sent through the mail as handmade cards in the 19th century, but it is George Eastman who is most responsible for the development of the real-photo postcard. Prior to the 1880’s negatives were produced on glass with a freshly made and still wet photosensitive emulsion. With the invention of the dry plate process and roll film, amateurs started taking pictures in great numbers. So many companies started up to supply them that they depressed the entire market. To survive in this highly competitive climate Eastman developed a complete and easy to use camera system he named Kodak, -You press the button, we do the rest. This marketing strategy not only allowed him to survive but also propelled him to the top of his field. While the first known real photo postcard made its appearance in 1899, they did not begin to be made in number until Eastman bought the rights to Velox photo paper with a pre printed postcard back, and began to seriously market it in 1902. A year later he put an inexpensive folding camera on the market that produced negatives the same size as postcards allowing for simple sharp contact printing. No other company put nearly as much money into advertising. Great efforts were made to distinguish the artistic quality inherent in real photos from that of halftone reproductions. Between 1906 and 1910, Kodak offered a fee based service where they would process and print real photo postcards adding to their convenience and popularity.
Real photo postcards proved cheaper to make than the traditional cabinet cards the public was used to and they soon went out of fashion. With many people now able to create their own cards with simple Brownie cameras, studio photographers were feeling the loss of revenue from their portraiture work and most started publishing their own cards to make ends meet. All but the most important photographs were now shot in the postcard format. While some became well known for their line of photo cards, most others had to become a master of many trades. Local events as well as scenery were captured, printed, and often sold out of the photographers own studio. Many times elaborate studio props would be made to attract customers for informal portraits. This was very popular at resorts and amusement parks where many photographers took up residence. Many became salesmen offering their work to other local retail outlets, while others took up the itinerant life, traveling the country in search of subjects and sales.
Labeling real photo postcards was an expensive affair. Since no additional printing was actually required on the card, adding ones name or even a title was an extra step involving time and money better spent. Printers required minimum orders larger than the number of cards most photographers produced. Professional photographers had the luxury of printing real photos as they needed them, without the expense of maintaining inventory. Many cards were titled by writing on the negative, and sometimes a photo studio would rubber stamp their name on a card’s back, but more often than not it was just left blank. Because of this the quantities of any particular image made are often unknown, as many do not indicate who made them or where the photograph was taken. Many one of a kind cards produced by amateurs in their homes are indistinguishable from those made by factories in large quantities. But there are those photos that possess such great personal charm that there is no doubt they were made by amateurs. Not interested in art or style, they often give us the best look into the ordinary lives of people at that time.
During WWI interest in real-photo cards did not decline as fast as printed ones because their supply was not dependent on imports and they remained readily available. In 1914 Kodak introduced their Autographic camera that had a special door in the back allowing photographs to be easily labeled by writing directly on a negative with a scribe. 1914 was also the year that Germany’s Ur-Leica readapted motion picture film creating a 35mm still camera. It was not mass marketed however until the 1920’s, and only became popular during the 1930’s. The smaller negatives required postcard sized prints to be enlarged often with an easel to hold the paper in place, making white borders more common. With the invention of the PACO high-speed photo printer in 1910, up to 1,200 real-photo cards could be contact printed in an hour. But it was not until 1937 with the new Velox rapid projection printer that photo cards were mass produced by enlarging. In the 1940’s when continuous paper processors, based on motion picture technology were introduced, the rate of production doubled. The increasing number of small sized negatives from a growing variety of amateur cameras continued to be contact printed adding some unusually broad borders to cards. A whole new generation of faster photo papers were eventually created to accommodate the growing interest in the enlarging process.
With the ability to produce many more cards cheaply some companies reprinted images shot decades earlier. Though brighter, glossier, and containing more contrast, they lack the homemade charm of earlier cards. While the Kodak Girls encouraged many to take up photography, real-photos postcards started loosing their popularity in the 1930’s as other sources of photographic imagery became more readily available. After photo-like photochrome cards were introduced real photo postcards have all but disappeared.
Use the link below for a more compleate history of this period.