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Pre History of the Postcard
By the mid-19th century a perfect storm was brewing; innovations in printing combined with governmental and social changes had created an environment in which the introduction of postcards seemed inevitable. Small shops that had long dominated the printing trades began to be overtaken by a large scale industry made possible by new steam powered cylinder and platen presses. Even the practice of making sheets of paper by hand gave way to long webs manufactured by machine. Lithography, which was invented only a half century earlier had quickly become commonplace. Even the use of photography spread rapidly, and many eagerly experimented with various means of reproducing it in print. The development of the photo gelatin process would grow to play a major role in the printing of postcards that continued well into the 20th century.
In addition to technological breakthroughs, changing social habits created an environment that laid a fertile ground for postcard development. There had been a long tradition of placing images and writing together on paper since the end of the 18th century. This practice grew alongside the growth of the middleclass. First there were visiting cards, then pictorial stationary followed by illustrated covers. Some of these items were used for correspondence while at other times they were simply collected as mementos. The 19th century was also a time when the scrap books and friendship albums created by women were an important part of their social lives. They eagerly gathered up all the new photographic and printed material that was becoming commonplace. These habits greatly helped cement the relationship between printed material and collecting of which the first postcards would be a continuum.
As the U.S. Post Office Department underwent a number of reforms it turned it into an organized money making institution that inspired people to use its services. The sending of the first postcards was a very informal matter at first since there were no clear regulations regarding their posting. Even the word postcard is a bit of a misnomer for no one then knew what a postcard was; postage was just affixed to a card and sent off with some expectations that it may arrive at its destination. Today these items are usually referred to as mailed cards. Since mailed cards of this period were not collected in their own time, few survive to give us an accurate history of their use. It is usually the most common and mundane objects used within a society that eventually becomes the most difficult to recover.
Without all of these changes laying a foundation, postcards could not have appeared in the years that followed.
MAILED CARDS 1848-1860
The early days of the U.S. Post Office Department were marked by much confusion, patronage, and inefficiencies. Postage was originally paid by the addressee and by the page, not by weight. Envelopes were rarely used for they counted as one page toward postage. It was often cheaper to ship hundreds of pounds of crated goods than to mail a single letter. Because postage was used as an unofficial tax, Congress was rarely in a mood to make any reforms to aid the consumer. When the United States issued its first postage stamp in 1847 it was largely in response to private competition that began attending to the government’s deficiencies. Many of these changes were inspired by private competitors, from whom the government was able to appropriate proven ideas without incurring risk, and then monopolize them.
There were no sanctioned postcards in use at this time but a stamp was sometimes affixed to a picture or blank card stock that held a message and sent through the mail at letter rate. The earliest known example of this is a card postmarked in December of 1848 with printed advertising on it. The mailing of these cards should be viewed as individual events and not a trend. They ultimately did not have much influence on postcard development, but as a whole they exposed the public’s interest in their use. As private competition forced more changes in postal regulations to be made, lower uniform rates and practices such as using stamped envelopes were established. While the new standardization of postal regulations created better service it would also lead to the elimination of informal mailed cards.
Papermaking is an ancient art where pulp consisting of organic fibers suspended in water is laid over a flat screen and left to dry. These simple basics principals have not changed over time. Traditionally made by hand, paper moved to machine production in the first half of the 19th century. Within forty years the entire industry had been mechanized. Louis Robert was the first to figure out how to make paper in rolls in 1798, with Thomas Bonser Cromton perfecting this machine for commercial use in 1820. The use of rolled paper, called webs in the printing trade, was instrumental in speeding up the printing process and led to the development of the Flatbed Cylinder Press. Most cards however were printed in slower sheet fed presses.
Papers of this time tended to be made from cotton and flax (rag). Wood was sometimes milled into pulp as a cheap alternative to the more costly rag fibers but it produced a weak paper. Eventually a chemical process was developed that was able to break down wood fibers into purer cellulose that allowed for stronger bonds. Though this chemical process replaced the slow laborious task of grinding wood, it was not often used until further methods of removing the vast amounts of impurities were developed in the 1870’s. This new method not only brought down cost, but it greatly increased the paper supply so urgently needed by growing industrial practices. Generally most postcards were made from chemical pulp (wood), giving them both hardness and limited durability. Several layers of paper would be pressed together to create card stock, then coated with China clay to help brighten the image and prevent ink absorption. It wasn’t until the mid-1900’s that a practical wood pulp, card stock, and coated papers all became available.
Three basic forms of printing dominated most of the 19th and 20th centuries. The oldest of these is the relief process in which the whites are cut away from a block, and the original flat surface is then coated with ink and pressed into paper. Traditionally used to create woodcut prints, it eventually evolved into a method of printing text known as letterpress where individual characters of type are set into a frame to print a page of text. Pictures were typically added to printed pages by utilizing engraved wood blocks of the same thickness as type so that it could also be set in a frame. In the 400 years since its first use by Johannes Gutenberg in Germany this method changed very little until the 1870’s when line block came into widespread use. This new technique provided a convenient way of transferring an image onto a metal plate through photochemical means, which could then be reliefed through a chemical etch. This process could also easily be combined with metal type and it was used extensively in the printing of newspapers, books and postcards, especially after it was adapted to halftone printing. While some postcards are still printed in woodblock, the technique was most widely used to reproduce halftone images until it began being replaced by offset printing in the 1960’s. Prints created by this process are characterized by solid hard edged tones. This characteristic kept it in use for printing sharp clear text, such as titles onto cards, when images were printed in techniques that created softer tones.
Intaglio is a low relief process in which sheet metal is incised with the aid of hand tools or acid. Unlike relief printing, the surface remains clean while the depressions are filled with ink into which paper is pressed. This method produces a very high density of printed ink, creating dark lines and rich tones. Line etching and engraving are the most common traditional uses of this medium. When used to reproduce text it is referred to as copperplate. This labor intensive technique was used sparingly in commercial printing because of its high cost. Hand engraving was typically used only for creating small paper objects and fine illustrations until it took the form of gravure, where a tonal image is transferred to a plate by quicker photochemical means. Photogravure, invented in 1867 would eventually be used to create some early postcards but it was generally replaced by the more efficient rotogravure method in the early 20th century. While the high quality this printing method produced insured its use in postcard production, especially in Europe, its high cost kept it from dominating the printing trades. After the Second World War it was rarely used for postcards though digital technology is breathing new life into it.
Lithography, a planographic printing method, was invented in 1798 by Alois Senefelder. These prints are pulled off a chemically treated flat plane rather than a mechanically reliefed surface. This chemical process causes the substrate to selectively absorb and repel water, enabling it to only accept oily ink from a roller in the areas of the original greasy drawing while being repelled from the remaining wet surface. Prints of the best quality come from drawings made on polished Bavarian limestone, though they can also be pulled from specially textured sheets of zinc or aluminum. The wider availability of metal plates makes them cheaper to use, but they cannot match the quality of stone printed images. Lithography was the best way to reproduce gradated tones before the use of photo emulsions. The process was largely used by artists until the mechanized lithography press was brought to the United States in 1868. Lithography and its various incarnations have dominated the printing of postcards from the early chromolithographs of the 19th century to modern offset printing today.
Two types of presses have dominated the printing trades since the early 19th century. One was the Bed and Platen press where paper is laid over an inked form on a flat bed and pressure is applied by means of a heavy metal plate that squeezes them all together. Based on the hand press these new more efficient machines could be powered by steam and still be operated by pressmen utilizing traditional skills. By mid-century much commercial work had switched over to the speedier cylinder press, which proved its excellence in printing newspapers and large book editions. While the cylinder press became the chief competitor to the platen, it required special training to use and was not suitable for printing smaller items in more limited quantities. To meet these special needs Daniel Tredell of Boston built the first small scale version of the hand press in 1818 that became known as the Jobbing Platen. This press was basically an American invention eventually manufactured in many varieties to satisfy specific needs. Many of these old models were used well into the 20th century. Both of these press types have played an important role in the printing of postcards since their inception. Without them postcards could have never been manufactured in the quantities needed to supply the craze that collecting would become.
When a method of engraving the polished end grains of hardwoods was developed, it proved a satisfactory way to mass produce finely detailed pictures. The durability of these engraved wood blocks allowed them to be locked into the same forms used with type so they could be printed together. Eventually these wood blocks would be made even stronger by making molds of them and then casting them into metal. A great deal of 19th century illustration employed this method with beautiful results. It was not uncommon to see this process used on early advertising postcards that required text alongside an illustration. Highly skilled artists were needed to create wood engravings making it a slow and expensive technique that greatly limited its commercial use. When the cheaper photomechanical halftone process was invented at the end of the century, it brought an end to the use of Xylography in commercial printing. Illustrations would now largely accompany type in the form of halftone line blocks. The old style however had enjoyed popularity for so long that many line block illustrations were made to imitate wood engravings.
Visiting cards began to be produced in the latter 18th century as a polite means of offering introduction according to the etiquette of the day. These cards were not directly exchanged between the parties themselves, but past along by hand through their servants. They were highly decorative and often carried motifs that were related to the owner’s occupation. Many of these motifs would later become popular subjects for trading cards and postcards. Visiting cards were also often used to convey short messages that were written on their backs. By the beginning of the 19th century their designs grew more plain until they resembled the more modern engraved business card. The decorative tradition however held out in some places longer than others as in New England where they were still commonly found in the 1870’s.
During the 1820’s, Nathaniel Currier found his skills as a draughtsman while an apprentice at Pendleton Brothers of Boston, the first firm to set up a professional lithographic shop in the United States. He had been depicting disasters ever since his own New York shop opened in 1834, in an environment where illustrated news was almost unheard of. In 1840, when the steamer Lexington caught fire while crossing Long Island Sound and burned with a great loss of life, Currier quickly printed a broadside of the event and hawked it all over the city’s streets. This pictorial news scoop drew nationwide attention and orders for prints propelled his small business past all competitors.
As the firm grew larger Currier hired James Merritt Ives as a bookkeeper, but his shrewd eye for the market brought them together as partners in 1857. When the Currier & Ives firm closed in 1907 they had become the world’s largest distributor of newsworthy and decorative lithographic prints. Other companies followed their lead in the production of popular imagery as the public’s interest in prints seemed to have no limits. While few Americans could afford the luxury of purchasing paintings, these mass produced images became ever more affordable to people from almost all walks of life. This phenomenon is often referred to as the democratization of art, but there were many in the 19th century who did not view this change in a positive light. They saw art as an elitist enterprise for an elite audience, and thought the dissemination of art to the masses only cheapened it.
Until the postcard was introduced, it was lithographic prints that largely filled the public’s hunger for pictorial imagery. Prints straddled two worlds as they captured contemporary scenes of the American landscape while possessing the freedom to ignore reality. Although they often depicted news items, their creation were not seen in journalistic terms, which allowed for a great deal of romanticism to seep in. When they depicted tragedies or battle scenes they left out the gory details in favor of more palatable sentimental or patriotic content. While the introduction of the real photo postcard in the early 20th century would present a more realistic view of the world, popular prints not only remained a serious competitor to postcards in their early years, their long tradition of depicting America as the public expected to see it was carried on into general postcard production. The promotion of history and meaning through myth is a paradigm that continues to this day.
The Romanticism that took hold of Europe after the French Revolution found a life of its own in America. Notions of the general goodness of humanity that could best be found through a returning to nature, and of emphasizing feeling over intellect fit in nicely with the American ideals of egalitarianism and individualism. With a great wilderness before us the notion of connecting with God on a personal level through nature became paramount. These ideas largely took hold in the Northeast, noticeable in the romantic writings of Cooper and Longfellow before evolving into the transcendentalist works of Emerson and Thoreau. While Romanticism and Transcendentalism would be short lived as movements, they would both have lasting effects on culture and national identity.
It was these types of transcendentalist beliefs that allowed Thomas Cole to reflect on nature and begin painting landscapes when he first traveled up the Hudson River by steamer in 1825. By mid-century the Hudson River School was at its peak in practitioners and audience. Artists were now avoiding classical motifs, which were just recently considered essential to an academic education. They were replaced by paintings of pastoral settings where man and nature coexist in peace, or depictions of the wilderness as a manifestation of God. This type of imagery grew ever more popular in proportion to the actual American landscape being ravaged by industrialization and unrestricted development. By the time postcards came into fashion this movement had largely been replaced by more realistic tendencies in art but its influence has remained strong in the American character to this day. It laid the foundation for finding value in American tourism, where natural features could hold their own against the ruins of Europe. This idea came to play a major role in postcard production; not just in depicting tourist sites but in how and what was pictured. The concept of scenery was born.
THE FASHIONABLE TOUR
Europeans of wealth had long been taking the Grand Tour of the Continent, visiting those cities of importance. It revolved around a social world in which the travel to specific locations would demonstrate one’s good taste thus confirming social status. The notion of re-enforcing class distinctions through travel was carried on here through the tours of American cities between Philadelphia and Boston with certain sites not to be missed. The lack of visual traces of history when compared to those of Europe was problematic until Romanticism collided with Capitalism and a uniquely American experience was born. Focus would be shifted away from emphasis on the historical to that of the natural and by the 1820’s it had become known as the Fashionable Tour.
Tourists would venture out from New York and proceed up the Hudson by steamer with stops at West Point, the Catskills, and Saratoga Springs. Next they would head west on their journey along the Erie Canal all the way out to Niagara Falls. Large hotels catering to the tourist rather than casual traveler eventually began to spring up. As the middle class grew so did their participation in touring, for amenities and services once exclusively reserved for the privileged could now simply be paid for. Natural areas too remote for large-scale commercial exploitation but recognized for their tourist potential were put aside in preserves. By the time postcards were in production many such places had already been attracting tourists for decades, and now with an established audience they were ready for their role as prime subject matter.
While attempts were made to create a public school system in colonial America, it lost momentum as many in this pluralistic society opposed the teaching of an official religion and English only language policies. Private schooling for the wealthy then became the norm until the 19th century when reformers argued that a public system would help unite our diverse population into good citizens. By 1853 Massachusetts and New York both mandated compulsory attendance for their new schools systems, and by 1918 all States had created public schools for at least elementary education. While the trend to create public schools received ever growing public support, Catholics largely opposed them and private religious schools continued to flourish. At the end of the 19th century public education had created large numbers of literate Americans throughout all economic classes. Without this development postcards would have never been produced to the extent they were. It can even be argued that there is a correlation between States that were slow to embrace public education and the lower quantities of old postcards that were published there.
The nature of gelatin is to be absorbent; it swells in cold water and dissolves in hot. In 1839 the Scotsman Mungo Ponton discovered that when a dichromate is added to the mix and is absorbed by the gelatin it becomes photosensitive, and once dried and exposed to light it loses its absorbent qualities. These principals quickly led to a means of more quickly reproducing photographs through printing reproductions of them. This gelatin emulsion could easily be applied to paper and flat printing plates. When areas were exposed to light and others masked as with a photographic negative, an image in low relief was formed after it was washed out. With further processing, techniques such as collotype, gillotype, photogravure, and many more variants continued to develop.
In the early 1860’s J. W. Swan invented a gelatin tissue that could be photosensitized by using the same basic principles, and then later adhered to a printing substrate’s surface. This was especially important in lithography where it was difficult to work directly with a heavy stone. Tissues would later play an important role in rotary printing because of the inability to photo expose a cylinder. Industrial espionage was very prolific in this era causing many gelatin processes to be kept so secret their details have been lost to us over time. For this reason, not to mention the love for puns in this age, these methods are sometimes referred to as The Black Arts.
Josef Albert made the first collotype in Munich in 1868. A glass plate was coated with a photosensitive dichromate colloid gelatin that when exposed to a negative and processed, created a continuous soft tone image. Collotypes could be printed in a manner similar to that of a lithograph, which aided its quick acceptance within the printing trades. The glass printing plate however was a major drawback for it is very fragile substrate and could yield 2000 impressions at most. This severely limited its commercial use but it often proved adequate for the small press runs of postcards. This process is prized for its fine detail, higher than that of either lithography or gravure. It remains the most accurate reproductive printing method available to us to this day. While the shallow collotype plate cannot produce the same dark rich tones of Gravure, this property makes it very receptive to hand coloring. The collotype process was eventually elaborated on and given many names such as Albertype, Heliotype, and Photo-type. Though the collotype was eventually adapted for use on metal for more stable press runs, the process has been largely abandoned since the 1940’s with the exception of the fine arts.
PICTORIAL WRITING PAPER
Writing paper seems to have first been decorated with stenciled floral designs in France and Italy during the 1780’s. Soon after it also became very popular to decorate paper that was to be used for a mailed valentine with a thematic printed image. By the early 19th century pictorial writing paper was being printed through both woodblock and lithography, and it was sometimes embossed. While some sheets were printed with military themes for soldiers to write home on, most were used for formal invitations. As more and more views began to be conveyed on pictorial paper they began to be purchased as souvenirs as much as for writing on. This type of paper reached the height of its popularity in the United States and Great Britain during the 1850’s and 60’s, and was sometimes accompanied by matching covers. With the introduction of the carte-de-visite public interest began to wander and the popularity of pictorial paper began to decline, but this product helped to set up demand for cheap printed images that could be mailed or kept as mementos.
Business stationary would be an inheritor of this trend. By the latter 19th century, many firms were using elaborate images within the headers of bills and other forms that went far beyond a company logo. This type of stationary reflects a hunger for imagery as well as the ability to provide it in a cost effective manner.
When Great Britain issued the world’s first postage stamp in 1840, uniform rates were established for sending letters. This meant that mail was no longer charged for by the page, and the use of envelopes, which had previously counted as a page, became much more common. Before long these envelopes began to be printed with illustrations on them, ranging from simple graphic designs to political cartoons, some in color, and some in black & white. It is often during wartime that these covers make their greatest appearance and the American Civil War was no exception. Large numbers of elaborate covers were produced in both the North and the South. Purchasing a cover with a political picture on it was more than a way of expressing an opinion; it was considered an outward display of one’s patriotism. There is much speculation to just how much these pictorial covers inspired the development of picture postcards. In many respects they are one of the forerunners that set up a foundation for sending illustrations through the mail. On the other hand we tend to place pictures on almost everything.
In 1863 the cabinet card was first introduced. It presented a photographic image, almost always portraiture, mounted on a standard size stiff color board to prevent the curling of the thin photo paper. It grew out of the older tradition of the much smaller carte-de-visite, and had replaced it by the 1880’s. Other size formats that carried a variety of subjects were also available under different names but they were never as popular as the cabinet card. All these card formats became highly collectable and it was the rare home that had none to display. The public’s interest in mounted cards began to decline as the cheaper picture postcard was introduced, which eventually replaced it as a more desirable collectable. Between the craze for postcards and the introduction of thicker photo papers that did not curl, the last cabinet cards were made in 1924.
Another very popular type of photo card was the stereograph that largely depicted landscapes. It was made up of two photographs taken at slightly different perspectives of the same subject, and then mounted next to each other on a single long board. When observed through a specially made viewer the picture would appear to the eye as a three dimensional illusion. Invented in 1838 by Sir Charles Wheatstone, their popularity rose and fell with that of other card photographs, though they may have been the most popular overall. They were in stiff competition with postcards at the turn of the 20th century, but their popularity steeply declined after 1905 and by 1924 only one company was left in business. Many companies that produced stereographs would come to sell their photographic inventory to postcard publishers who were desperate to quickly acquire images or they began producing postcards themselves. Some postcard sets would be published in the stereograph format, where the boxes they were sold in were equipped with two lenses that could act as a viewing mechanism.
During the 19th century women were the traditional keepers of family history in the form of journals, albums, and other rememberancers. The most common type of these books was the friendship album that no doubt evolved from the album amicorum, used by university students since the 16th century. From a repository of praise by professors and colleagues they grew to become a record of the relationships between women. They were filled with messages of goodwill, poetry, sketches, watercolors and tokens of affection with all sorts of decorative and meaningful mementos added to them that helped structure and reinforce social bonds. As printed material became more widely available, engravings, chromolithographs and even photos began to be added to them. The elaborate collages that were often made from all this material was a common outcome of personal expression. With no official history to recognize their existence, many women used these books to document their own lives, to say here I am, remember what I have felt and done.
At least as far back as the 1790’s etched and engraved decorative designs were being printed onto sheets of paper from which they would be cut out with scissors and then applied to walls, furniture, or any number of household items. By the 1820’s a great amount of paper scrap was also produced to help decorate women’s albums. The term scrap album still persists to this day. As this activity grew into a very popular middle-class hobby the scrap album often became the center piece of a parlor’s decor. As the use of chromolithography became widespread many printers seeing demand began using its bright and varied colors to attract the collectors of scrap. Chromolithography eventually became the primary means of scrap production. Highly colorful pieces with a glossy finish and already die-cut and ready for pasting (glanzbider or oblaten) were massed produced by the printing houses of Germany. Most pieces of scrap were sentimental in nature and they also began to find their way onto Valentines and other types of greeting and holiday cards.
While these glossy German made chromolithographs were very popular, it is the rare scrap album that is solely made up of them. By the next century the postcard album largely replaced scrap albums though they did not completely disappear. While this reflected a change of allegiance to product, the old habit of collecting remained strong. This tradition of keeping albums was so well established that at the end of the 19th century there was already a large audience for pretty, even if useless printed paper products that postcard publishers could market to. Since the creation of albums was viewed as a feminine activity, most of the earliest postcard collectors were woman.
INTERNATIONAL POSTAGE ASSOCIATION
As an international audience gathered for the Great Exhibition in London in 1851, members of the Society of Arts founded the International Postage Association. The goal of this organization was to establish uniform postal regulations and postage rates for International mail. In October of 1852 their secretary, Manuel de Ysasi began an international journey in order to secure cooperation on this endeavor. While they made much progress in organizing the principals that would be needed to make this happen, the project slowly disintegrated after Ysasi died aboard the U.S. mail steamer Artic when it sank in the autumn of 1854.
In May and June of 1863 the Paris Postal Conference was held at the instigation of U.S. Postmaster General, Montgomery Blair. He was joined by fifteen other international delegates to discuss the idea of universal postage and related issues. They were not able to come to any final agreement at this time, but most of their proposals would be carried forward and eventually adopted by the General Postal Union in 1875.
POST CARD LAW OF 1861
On February 27, 1861, the United States Congress passed a law permitting privately printed cards, one ounce or under, to be sent through the U.S. mail. One-cent postage was required for delivery to locations within 1500 miles, and two cents postage for longer distances. It was the first official authorization for the use of postcards in the world. Much controversy surrounded this issue as privacy concerns and fears of revenue loss to the government abounded. These same issues would persist for the remainder of the century. Forty-two days later a civil war erupted when the government garrison at Fort Sumter was fired upon by rebels in South Carolina, and the postcard debate was sidelined.
LIPMAN CARDS 1861-1872
Sensing a business opportunity in letting the public send quick cheap messages, John P. Charlton of Philadelphia took advantage of the new Post Card Law of 1861 and copyrighted America’s first postcard. The original card consisted of a simple design; a few lines for an address, a stamp box, and the copyright date, all printed in a three color selection. It was marketed as an easy way to stay in touch with family and an inexpensive means of advertising, all for half the cost of sending a letter. None of these cards were ever sent through the mail to anyone’s knowledge.
Hymen L. Lipman was the first to bind a rubber eraser to the back end of a pencil, but his product was rejected by the Patent Office on the grounds that he did not create a new use for two old inventions. Undeterred, he sought out new opportunities. It is uncertain when Lipman met John Charlton, but they were in business together when a second series of cards were introduced carrying the name Lipman’s Postal Card. The earliest known postmark on these cards is of October 25, 1870 from Richmond, Indiana. This time the front contained a pictorial advertisement of an Esterbrook Steel Pen. It was the first authorized illustrated postcard to be sent though the United States mail but it soon became obsolete when the Government released its own postal card. It does not appear that Lipman ever received his requested patent for this idea either.