METROPOSTCARD.COM GUIDE TO VARIATIONS
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Guide to
Variations in Printing


While it can be assumed that by acquiring all the numbered cards of a set that set would be complete, but this assumption can be somewhat misleading. No matter what card you own there is always a possibility that a variation of it may exist. Variations can take on a number of forms for a number of different reasons. Some variations are unintentional but inherent in the printing process while others are created on purpose. The motivation for these changes must often be left to speculation as the precise reasoning can be impossible to determine without documentation. While some changes are obviously purposeful, similar changes could just as well be accidents. Most variations were probably caused simply by the absence of reference material when creating new printing plates for an image. Many collectors will purchase a variation by mistake, thrown off by the differences into believing they have not seen that image before. It is not hard to imagine that publishers were aware of this possibility when designing these cards for their original audience. In fact it was sometimes advised in trade publications that postcards should not be ordered in quantities above one thousand so that a request could be made to the printer upon reordering to give the card a different look. In this way a retailer would have more fresh cards to offer and increase sales.

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Postcards

Republishing - Both these cards were produced by the same publisher, printed in the same lithographic technique, and have the same identification number. They well illustrate the inherent problems in duplicating an image. Differences in cropping, coloration, and skies, which can all be seen here, are the most common variations to be found on cards. These are all explained individually in the examples below.



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Publishers - All three of these cards were made by different publishers using different printers, but they were all obviously made from the exact same photograph. The best way to match images of different styles or techniques is to look for transient objects such as boats, cars, or people; if they are all in the exact same position you will know that all the printed images were made from the same photograph. The odds are this image came from a photo supply house that sold it to any interested party without any rights to exclusivity. As the negative would have been in black & white each printer made up his own pallet. Clouds were rarely captured on old film and were drawn in by a retoucher. Each card shows the retouchers discretion in a variety of details.



Postcards

Recropping - The poor light sensitivity of early photographic papers meant that images were contact printed, not enlarged. This encouraged negatives to be made on large glass plates. By the time postcards became popular photographs were already being exposed on film but the format was still quite large with the smaller negative being the same size as a postcard. Publishers in their quest for imagery used many of these older plates as well as contemporary large format photos to create smaller postcards that they could cropped in a number of different ways. When a card sold well and needed to be reprinted, the negative was often repositioned slightly differently. In these cases it is hard to determine if a better composition was found, variety to increase potential sales was sought, or if it just happened by accident.


Postcards

When changing postal regulations ended the use of private mailing cards in favor of the post card, and then latter allowed for a divided back, the size and ways an image could be positioned on a card changed with them. Many publishers would reprint the same image from an old card onto one in the new format. The new proprtions created often entailed enlarging and recropping the image. Even though the two or three recropped cards created this way could contain images quite different from one another, they often carried the same identification number.


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These two cards were produced by two different publishers but using the same lithographic halftone technique. The photo they were taken from was probably purchased from a stock supply house for they are identical in transient detail. Despite the fact they are both from the same period with each utilizing a large writing tab, each publisher chose to crop the scene very differently creating whole new compositions. The differences in sky and overall coloration also show how much influence the retoucher had on the final design.


Autotype Postcard Postcard

Sometimes the size of a negative was so large it allowed for the composition to be cropped either horizontally or vertically. In this rare case the cards appear to be made from an autochrome and colors could also be matched. It must be noted that even though this image is photo based the colors were separated out by eye to create ten different printing plates in the chromolithographic tradition.



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Enlarging - Enlarging an image when a card was reprinted was also a common practice among certain publishers. While this is definitely done on purpose the reasoning remains unclear. It could have been made for compositional improvement but considering the dramatic changes in sky and coloration it was probably changed to get more use out of the same photograph.


Postcards

While the two cards from the same publisher pictured above carry identical identification numbers and titles they were not made from the same photograph. At first glance one appears to be an enlargement of the other but the details do not match up. They are only of the same subject. This is a good example why collecting by identity number is not foolproof.



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Mirroring - It is difficult to believe this variation was created by accident since negatives are exposed to printing plates emulsion side down. A new negative was probably made for this image to extend its life by creating a variation. Note that the colors have not just been altered but they have changed the season as well.



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Coloration - When a specified color scheme was not provided to the printer by the publisher along with the black & white photograph, it was left to the production manager or retoucher to make colors up. When a card was reprinted at a later date the colors were often made up differently. While these types of changes can be subtle they are often very dramatic. Sometimes they vary to such a great degree that the color change must have been done so on purpose. These two cards by the same publisher have the same number and title and are cropped only a little differently.


Postcards

When colors are changed on postcards they are usually either in the minute details or overall color cast. The simple shifting of hue from brown towards blue was common and could quickly change a card’s appearance while rendering both versions believable. In certain views where the scenery carried few preconceived notions of proper color the hues could be made up and changed by the retouchers whim with little consequence. This often resulted in beautiful cards that were great distortions of reality.


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Hand coloring by its very nature is an imprecise process. Most printers set up a means of production to help compensate for the quirks of individual hands, and to turn out finished pieces at a high rate. The most common method of doing this was to create a production line where each colorist would be responsible for only one color or one area of the card. At other times stencils were employed to specifically guide the colorist. In the examples above neither method was used as the hand coloring is very different between them. Not only have different colors been painted into identical areas of each card, the overall pallet is not even the same.


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Even when there was no concerted effort to change the colors of a postcard subtle differences could still occur in hand colored cards. The different backs on these two cards show they were printed at different times. Although the composition is only cropped a little differently in each, and the distribution of color in the same pallet is almost identical, they read quite differently. While it is impossible to know the exact reason for this it may be assumed that more dramatic changes would have been made if a new look was really wanted. It is more likely that the differences simply have to do with how heavy a hand each colorist approached their cards and nothing more.


Postcards

On these two cards the coloration is not only different but it creates an entirely new time of day. While both cards retain the same identity numbers, the title of each differs; one refers to moonlight over the harbor while the other makes reference to a sunset. This is an obvious example of purposefully creating a variation to get more cards from a single photograph.



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Night - Very few photographs were actually taken at night because of the long exposures required. Some dimly lite scenes could not be captured on film at all. The most common practice was to selecte a daylight scene and just print it in darker colors, and add in the moon along with some dramatic lighting effects. The final look in these types of cards is usually that of a very unnatural scene. The title and identification number on both these cards by the same publisher remain the same.



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Clouds - Early film was not very light sensitive and long exposures were required. Capturing a good grayscale often meant sacrificing highlighted details. This rendered the sky in many photographs into a flat plane of white. It was left to retouchers to draw in the sky as they best saw fit. When a card was reprinted, the clouds had to be made up again. In this case the retoucher most likely had access the original postcard or photograph, or there may have been traces of these bold clouds captured in the negative to use as reference. While both skies are very similar and based on the same source they are not the same. The difference indicates the presence of a retoucher’s hand rather than mechanical photographic reproduction.


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In this example a good retouched sky was not to be wasted as two different scenes make use of the same drawn clouds. Once drawn in the sky could be photographed and easily added to a number of future cards, composition permitting. Some printers kept a good size stock of such imagery, for its reuse could rapidly speed up production and cut labor costs. A printer can often be recognized by the style of the hand drawn clouds on his cards even when no name is present.



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Adding and Subtracting - During the retouching process unsightly objects could be removed from an image, which was quite often done. Sometimes the styles of dress or the make of a car would give away a scene’s age and by removing or altering them an old image could be reprinted at a later date for a brand new audience. Objects could also be added in to make a scene more interesting. This was often done with ready made decals of people, cars, and boats, but retouchers also drew in additions from scratch. In this example the figures lack fine detail and texture when compared to the surrounding scenery, which means they were most likely drawn in than taken out.


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The numbers on both these different looking cards are the same and examination of the fine detail shows they were made from the same photograph. Retouchers have removed the horse drawn wagon and replaced it with a car on a later publication in order to appeal more to tourists now traveling by a newer mode of transportation. There are other changes to the composition as well. The latter card is cropped more narrowly since a writing tap is no longer needed and detail has been removed from the foreground along with a tree from the background.


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These two cards are by the same publisher but printed using different lithographic techniques. Note that in the night version they neglected to remove the patches of sunlight raking in through the trees. The car being absent in the daylight version implies it was added to the night scene though that alone is not proof. The awkwardness with which the car is drawn is a better sign that it was added in, and most likely by placing a pre-printed decal into the landscape. Since decals were often only available in one size they had to be positioned at the perfect height on the picture plane in order to look natural. This was not often achieved and in most cases they look out of proportion to the rest of the image.


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At first glance one may think that the views down the streets on the left and middle cards were captured by two different photographers, when both cards were most likely made from the same negative. The figures in the postcard to the left are way too small for the composition indicating that they were added in by a retoucher who positioned his decals at the wrong height on the picture plane. The middle card contains a view down the same street only this time with differently posed figures. While they appear to look more realistic here and thus perhaps in the original negative it is very unlikely that anyone would have gone to the trouble of removing them just to put in a different set of figures. Though the first card is printed in gravure and the second in lithography, small details in the background of both cards also indicate that they were shot at the same time. The figures in the card to the right help support this theory as they are the same as those found on the middle card even though it is a completely different street. The coloration may be different but it is obvious that the figures for both these postcards came from retouchers using the same decal.


Postcards

While some cards were changed when reprinted at a latter date, other images were altered soon afterwards to offer the public more choices quite possibly at different prices. These two cards were printed about the same time and from looking at identical scratches in the image, from the same plates. There has been some minor retouching on the latter card to reduce the size of the artist’s name and to name the boat. The most obvious difference comes from an extra press run in which a gold foil is stamped into the card with an embossing die. Its pallet has also been warmed up to better harmonize with the gold.


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One of the major figures on the horizontal card was removed from the composition when reprinted in a vertical format. The dog’s leash was placed into a new hand as well. While this type of editing can now be done in a breeze with digital software it took much longer for retouchers to montage a new photo transparency just years ago. In this case there was no photo editing as both these cards were produced through chromolithography and the images were hand drawn directly onto the printing substrate. Great care was always taken by these craftsmen to carefully render the image before them without adding any personal style to their work. This accounts for the two cards looking almost identical but there are always nuances to rule out photo editing. Dots can never be laid in the exact same pattern even when filling in the same shape. There are also more obvious clues such as in a figure’s hand that displays three fingers on one card and four in another. The second card was completely redrawn from scratch.


Postcards

The exact same positioning of the figures on horseback in these examples indicate that these two cards were created from the same photograph with typical changes changes made in coloration and with the clouds in the sky. But these cards have resulted in two very different views as the backgrounds are completely differ. To create a more dramatic composition the background on the right card has not just been visually enhanced but totally made up or perhaps borrowed from a different photograph. Even the rock overhang has been exaggerated for greater drama. This also clearly shows that changes in a scene may not all be due to the passing of time, and we can only accept postcards views as a slice of history if we do so with a healthy dose of skeptisism.


Postcards

Both of these postcards were printed as tinted halftones by the same publisher. While the reprint at the bottom has the typical retouching changes that might be expected such as in the color and patterns on clothing and different formations of clouds, it is still very obvious from the posed figures that each card was produced from the same photograph. What may not be obvious at first glance is the large amount of retouching that was done to the skyline. Additional buildings were added on to the reprinted image to give the skyline a more impressive look.


Postcards

Since their inception postcards have proved to be an efficient and inexpensive method of communicating timely messages. While many such cards have been printed up for the purpose of advertising goods or promoting events some have sought even cheeper methods of mailing. This was often achieved by purchasing an overstock of cards at a discounted rate and then overprinting them, usually on a small hand press with a new message. This method could be used to great effect but more often than not the message did not relate to the image. This is an old tradition dating back to trade cards, and it is still in use today. Though some overprints are contemporaneous with the card, others were sometimes put on decades after the postcard was first published.



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Style - Individual art directors and retouchers had great influence over a postcard’s final look. Almost everything outside of composition and overall disposition of lights and darks was achieved through artistic vision. Even when visual information or desired effects were provided by the customer, the retouches hand always shined through. While the expectation of different hands producing different effects is not unwarranted in areas such as skies and with color, these differences can also show up in unexpected ways. These two cards are produced by two different publishers but they are taken from the exact same photo and both were made using lithographic halftones. The final results however are not nearly the same as each card’s style is highly mannered by an individual disposition and touch.



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Medium - Some publishers printed cards utilizing a number of different techniques. Sometimes different photographs were used for each and sometimes it was the same. Here the same photograph was used to create a black & white card and one printed in color. Note the slight difference in cropping. The black & white image shows a little more detail for it is not covered in successive layers of ink. While retaining the same title, this publisher has given each card its own unique identity number.


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These two cards by the same publisher also have the same title but different identity numbers. One is hand colored and one is printed in color. Note while there are differences between the two skys the details on the water’s surface are identical. This indicates that both cards were produced from the same photograph.


Postcards

At first glance these two cards appear to be the same type of variation as the pair illustrated above it; one is hand colored while the other is printed in color gravure. But here the hand coloring is problematic. The paint is applied in a somewhat careless manner not consistent with the quality of other cards by this publisher. The paint is also applied in a heavy manner, a technique not normally found on hand colored cards. It is so heavy in fact it may have been painted with an opaque gouache rather than the traditional translucent watercolor that would let the printing beneath it show through. The pallet used is also very varied, which is inconsistent with the three RGB colors normally used in coloring cards at this time. The conclusion is this card was issued in black & white and was latter hand colored by the person who purchased it. The final proof is in the identification number. Both cards share the same number but have different prefixes. This publisher uses the prefix H to denote hand coloring while the card reads G, which was used for their black & white series. Though rare, a good many cards were colored this way and they do not always contain such obvious clues as in this example.


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Sometimes it is easy to discern the properties that make cards different from one another but not the reason. In these two identically cropped cards by the same publisher, one is printed in color, the other in black & white then hand colored. While this is a common variation the hand colored card is only partially painted in, only one area for each of the three RGB colors, and done so in a sloppy manner. An immediate impression is that the hand colored card is a working proof but it has a different identification number on the back which most likely means they were issued independently of one another. It could be a card that was never finished being colored. Some cards were also made with only a little hand coloring added to enhance them without adding to the cost of labor. While some of these work well, others just look cheap and ugly. But since other cards by this publisher are of a high standard it seems unlikely that they would have intended a finished product to look this way. It must be remembered that some cards on the market today were never meant to be sold when they were made, and both proofs and cards with errors can now be found. The most likely possibility is that it was issued as a black & white variation, and then hand colored by the person who purchased it, but none of these answers seems totally satisfactory.


Postcards

While these two cards by the same publisher appear to be another simple variation of cropping and technique, one hand colored and one in color gravure, they are not. Though the technique does differ they were made from two different photographs, probably taken minutes apart. The clue is to be found in that which tends to be transient. In this case the horse in the seemingly identical shots refuses to pose taking a drink on one card and curiously looking into the camera on the next.



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Real Photo - Many times identical images can be found as a real photo and a printed postcard. In some cases the photographer might create his own real photo postcards and then have additional cards printed up to sell. On other occasions a photographer that has produced real photo cards may eventually sell his negatives to a stock photo house or directly to a publisher who will then reprint the images in ink. Sometimes a publisher would just buy a real photo postcard off the rack, then send it to his printer to published it under his name. Printing cards with variations in them was often used to disguise this type of stolen imagery. In this example the unmarked photo seems to have been taken long before the printed card was mamufactured, but their exact connection to one another remains unknown.

Real Photo Postcards

Since independent photographers often lacked the means, capital, and distribution systems available to larger publishing houses they only produced limited quantities of real photo postcards at any one time. This often led to variations in cropping, exposure, and even the photo paper used. Newer papers often had optical brighteners added to them creating images with higher contrast but less detail. While there are obvious physical differences between the two postcards above the exact same positioning of the clouds tells us they were made from the same negative. In this case however the story is more complicated. The older card with a flat finish and some toning has the initials of a well known photographer on the front. The newer card on brightened high contrast paper lacks his initials but the name of a large photo publishing company is printed on the back. Since the newer card presents a wider composition it means the firm that produced it had access to the negative and the image was not stolen. In this case the negatives were probably purchased and reprinted on new cards without providing photo credit. It was once common practice to take credit for a photograph if the publisher owned the negative no matter how many hands it passed through.



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Card Backs - Many publishers continually redesigned the backs of their postcards. Sometimes this was done to differentiate those published from one year to the next or one series from another. Other times it was just a matter of little care being given to create a consistent look. In any case the backs of postcards can vary so much that there is little expectation in consistency. There are however times when the backs of cards are so different they are worth mentioning. The Egyptian landscape on the front of both these cards are identical to one another and carry the same number and title. One however was manufactured for an American audience, while the other with Arabic writing was clearly meant to be sold in a foreign market. While it may be assumed they are produced by the same publisher, their name appears on only one of the cards.



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Quality - Differences in postcard quality are not technically variations but it is worth mentioning nevertheless. These two cards were printed in the United States by two different publishers approximately 20 years apart. While both cards are printed in halftone lithography, with a limited pallet, and from approximately the same vantage point, they could not be more different. The top image uses black ink printed with a fine halftone screen to carry the tonal range of the scene, which sets up its foundation. The traditional RGB colors of that time were added in a muted fashion to act as a subtle tint. The bottom image also uses a black halftone as its key plate. The dot frquency pattern here is more more open, larger but less dots per inch, rendering less detail. The three color pallet has been shifted to red, yellow, and blue, and when combined with the more open screen they read more intensely. Retouching here was kept at a minimum and the results are large ill-defined flat shapes. The true difference between the two cards is the amount of time and skilled labor that went into producing them, and ultimately someone’s decision that this image was good enough.



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Yellowing - Postcards have been printed on a variety of different paper types throughout their history. Those on poorer quality paper that contain more contaminants have suffered the most. In many cases cards such as linens that can contain plentiful amounts of acid residue may have yellowed more than cards printed fifty years earlier on better stock. Exposure to airborne contaminants and even poor quality album pages can also yellow postcards so the same type of card stored in a different manner can age differently. Because many early cards were printed in a RGB pallet the yellowing of the paper they are printed on can greatly alter their appearance. This is not always unattractive as foliage appears greener and the warm glow is often appealing. However it must be remembered that this is not the way they looked when first manufactured and purchased.



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Classic Views - There have always been places that have attracted the eye of the tourist more than others. Sometimes the attraction is more specific than place or subject with a focuses on a very particular view. Trophey Point at West Point, New York is one such place among many. It is one of this Nation’s oldest tourist attractions and the view from this particular vantage point was captured by painters, printmakers, and photographers over many years. Each artist may have arrived alone, but they came with preconceptions that caused them to work within a hundred feet or so of their predecessors. Nearly every regional publisher produced at least one postcard of this scene, not from the same negative but with a very similar idea in mind. While the finished postcards may look different from each other in technique and specific composition, they are all variations of one another in their attempts to embrace the same concept.




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