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1848-1872  1898-1906  1907-1913  1914-1945  1946-1976  1977-2017

Pioneer Cards


Pioneer is a general term applied to postcards manufactured in the United States before the appearance of Private Mail Cards. These cards were instrumental in creating and expanding the growth of the postcard industry. While some feel this era begins with the popularization of exposition cards issued at Chicago’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, a more appropriate date would be at issuance of the U.S. Governments first official postal in 1873. Although privately printed postcards were authorized as early as 1861, they didn’t actually come into use until 1870, and then mostly as an experiment to ascertain their commercial viability. There was no system of national distribution during these years. Whether it was for advertising or souvenirs, cards were printed for a local audience and for the most part by local printers. New York City is the most common subject matter for souvenir cards of this period, no doubt due to its high concentration of printers. Firsts in postcard history have changed hands a few times during the study of this period as new cards come to light.

Possibly the most important development of the Pioneer Period was the general rise of the middle class though an expanding industrial economy. This provided a receptive audience for the marketing of imagery, first in the form of small card photographs and scrap, then trade cards, reward cards, and onto exhibition and souvenir cards. The attractiveness of chromolithography in a largely black & white world cannot be underestimated in enhancing the demand for collectibles. As the craze for cards increased so did the size of the printing industry, which in turn created a need for even more illustrations. Many artists produced exceptional work in these years and the art of color lithography was refined along with it. The invention of the halftone screen was an event of major proportions; the technique would lower illustrating costs to make the printed picture much more commonplace. Innovations in photography took this process from the exclusivity of the artist and brought it to the amateur. The ability to reproduce photographs of nudes became a driving force in card production, but efforts to control its dissemination would shadow and limit freedom of expression, which it does to this day. Although there was much scientific discovery and practical advancement in this period, it was also a time of many economic ups and downs, and certain elements needed to create a true postcard revolution remained absent.



PRIVATE CARDS   1873-1898

The Lipman card soon inspired a new type of privately printed card that ran concurrent with the issuance of government postals. They held the words Correspondence Card, Mail Card, or Souvenir Card on their backs. All of these privately issued cards required two-cent postage if any written message was placed on them. Letter rate at this time was also two cents making these cards very unpopular with the general public so few were ever mailed. Most surviving examples were used for advertising that qualified for a special one-cent rate. There were no size requirements in these days so cards took on many different and sometimes creative forms. The original 1500 mile delivery restriction on penny postage was soon dropped in favor of uniform rates. Even so postal regulations during these years were not consistent and many companies were reluctant to mail private cards in fear that they would not be delivered. Since many wound up being placed in envelopes or given out by hand there was no need to print a standard card back onto them. The entire backsides of many early cards are completely covered with advertising.

The expanding use of postcards for advertising was in large part due to the rural nature of our large country. Our population was spread over too great an area for the European tradition of peddlers to take hold except in our densely occupied inner cities. Customers for goods would have to stock up at the nearest store rather than purchase products daily. As these stores added to their inventory many grew larger and larger, some into what we would now call department stores. To spread their reach further the mail order catalog (wishing books) was introduced by Chicago’s Montgomery Ward in 1872. Postcards became instrumental in attracting customers over long distances and allowed these stores to grow.

Will Call Card


A great number of cards were made apart from advertising to notify potential clients that a salesman would be calling on them. These cards often used the phrase Expect Me or Will Call on them. Originally nothing more than a typeset message, they began incorporating simple designs or illustrations that grew more elaborate over the years. Similar business oriented cards were used to convey all sorts of notices between stores and their clientele.



Long before the first postal system came into being there was a tradition of exchanging holiday cards by hand. The earliest surviving card of this type is a Valentine dating back to the 15th century. Its importance lay in that it marked a celebration through a personal ritual rather than the public holidays that dominated society. By the time postcards were introduced this tradition of privately exchanging holiday cards by hand was so ingrained that few ever even thought of mailing them. Visiting family and friends during important holidays was also part of expected social obligations until the early 20th century, so spending money for postage often seemed a waste. This type of personal face to face exchange slowed the entrance of holiday cards into the postcard market, but as the demand for view-cards increased and they became a larger part of people’s everyday lives, the acceptance of the holiday postcard also grew.

After the turn of the century postcards would become the dominant form of printed greetings and they remained highly popular until replaced by the folded greeting card that was mailed in an envelope. By the Second World War postcard greetings had all but disappeared. Many of the holidays represented on these early cards such as Labor Day, Groundhog Day, and Halloween are no longer considered card giving occasions. While some holidays have long held deep national or religious significance, it can be said that others were created, or at least enhanced by market forces to promote commercial products such as postcards.

Holiday Card

All holiday cards were imported from England until 1875 when Louis Prang published the first Christmas cards in the United States. While others followed in his footsteps, Prang became the dominant force in this business during the 19th century because of his complex designs, embellishments, and high quality printing. As postcards grew in popularity a number of greeting card publishers would eventually move into the postcard business. This did not mark an immediate end to the greeting card for many older cards of various odd sizes were now being mailed as if they were postcards even though they were never printed for such use. After the Post Office Department became more restrictive as to what could be mailed, many of these early odd shaped cards were cut down to regulation size.



During the 1870’s, the German word Verkitschen (to sentimentalize), began to be associated with cheap mass produced consumer items that were without aesthetic value. Soon kitsch came to define that not only made to suit low class taste but what was eating away at higher forms of culture. Elitist ideals however tend to shift, and what we refer to as kitsch today was not necessarily seen in those terms at the end of the 19th century. The debate was more over presentation than over subject. Narrative works that promoted high moral values or told their story through the type of classical symbolism grasped by the educated were seen as fine art. Those that relied on stirring emotions through cheap sentimentality and drama were relegated to kitsch. For greeting cards that were highly dependent on quickly catching the eye of the consumer, sentimentality became a prime ingredient. This was also a necessity in postcard production, which is why many came to look down upon them as objects of low culture. While a real divide opened up between fine and commercial arts, it wasn’t always so well defined. Postcards tended to play to the most common taste of their audience, but fine artists at this time often traveled between both worlds. As postcards grew in number, they would become more difficult to pigeon hole.



Views of places near and far have been sent through the mail long before the advent of the postcard. It was not uncommon for artists to send small drawn sketches or painted studies on stiff board to friends, family, or patrons. These miniature art works were not postcards but mailed with letters in covers. Nevertheless this tradition, while limited, illustrates the long existing receptiveness of sending and receiving images outside of the usual holiday exchange. In many ways they performed in the same manner as holiday cards in that the exchange itself was a reinforcement of social bonds. The giving of tokens is a practice that most likely dates beyond recorded history. William Trost Richards is one of the more notable painters of such card sets. He mailed nearly two hundred watercolors, only slightly smaller than postcards size, in the 1870’s and 80’s. Eventually blank postcards were made available on quality paper with only a printed back so that sketches could be easily mailed.



The Correspondence cards had been suggested by a number of people over the years, perhaps most notably by Dr. von Stephan at the Karlsruhe postal conference in 1865, but it was Dr. Emanuel Hermann who sought an inexpensive way for soldiers to write home that brought them into fruition. The Austrian Postal Administration authorized the world’s first Correspondz Karte on October 1st, 1869. This Triumph of democracy was popular enough to generate three million sales in only three month’s time. Correspondence cards had been a suggestion of Dr. Emanuel Hermann who sought an inexpensive way for soldiers to write home. When the Franco Prussian War broke out a year later, the Prussians issued their own Fieldpost cards with much success. That same year Switzerland, Luxembourg, Baden, Bavaria, and Great Britain joined in. Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Canada issued cards in 1871, followed by Russia, Chile, France, and Algeria in 1872. France, Serbia, Romania, Spain, and Japan issued cards in 1873 along with the United States. By 1874 Serbia, Romania, and Italy also began to issue postals. Many of these early cards included small images printed on the same side that the postage was placed. The earliest of these cards were intended solely for domestic use.

Debated for years, President Grant finally authorized the use of postals in 1872, and on May 12th, 1873, the United States Government released our first official postcard. The words Postal Card were printed on its back along with a one-cent denomination. Only government issued cards were allowed to use in the words Postal Card by law. The side with postage was designated exclusively for the address, the other side for the message. Beginning in 1875 these blank cards were available for purchase in large uncut sheets, and they were acquired by many private firms who could then print across their fronts. Postals quickly proved to be a success as they sold at the rate of a million per day. Prior to 1893 these cards were almost always used for advertising with a rare few used for greeting cards. Although postage rates have since increased substantially, these cards with pre-printed postage on them are still in use. Their printed postage, once confined to presidential portraits, eventually became more varied in design to attract the attention of stamp collectors.

Real Photo Card


The French magazine, La Beaute was a major early source for nude pictures. They sold photographic based images of poses in the nude that were marketed for the use of artists, but these cards became greatly coveted by the general public. Though made in Europe their largest audience was in the United States. These types of cards were most popular in the 1870’s but they had been manufactured as soon as technology provided a convenient way to reproduce photographs in printed form. Most of their backs are completely blank without any postal markings making them difficult to precisely date. They are only referred to as postcards because of the similar size as they were illegal to mail. Actual postcards with nudes on them only appeared around 1900.


On March 3, 1873 at the urging of the N.Y. Society for the Suppression of Vice and the Y.M.C.A. the Comstock Laws were passed prohibiting obscene material from being sent through the U.S. mail. It was not only nudity that could cost a sender ten years at hard labor, but the posting of any sexually related material. This law was also used extensively for censorship. Works by Balzac, James Joyce, Leo Tolstoy, and Walt Whitman were labeled smut and banned from the mail. Almost 18 million postcards were destroyed under this law. Although the restrictions relating to birth control information have since been dropped, it should be noted that this law is still on the books and the U.S. Postal Service is allowed to seize your mail when suspected of containing indecent material. Few today are imprisoned but postcards with nude or suggestive imagery continue to be intermittently confiscated at the discretion of Post Masters.



Prussia’s Otto von Bismarck did not only unify the many smaller Germanic states into a single Empire, he had ambitions to make it the most powerful nation in Europe. With the help of the country’s banks, Bismarck made great strides in stimulating industrial growth after decades of stagnation. By bringing in the latest technologies and machinery they quickly outpaced older industrial nations who by now had much outdated equipment and mismatched technologies from different eras. Germany would eventually lead all of Europe in manufacturing with thirty major factories, some with 1500 employees, producing postcards alone. Production would eventually rise to billions of cards a year.

American publishers formed close ties with German printing houses, sending them some of their best artists to assist in postcard production. By contrast German craftsmen were prohibited from entering the United States by alien contract laws, which helped ensure overseas dominance in the printing trades. Approximately 75 percent of all postcards used in the United Stated prior to World War One were printed in Germany.


Despite Germany being slow to industrialize, there were factors that gave them a market edge when it came to printing. This was the birthplace of the printing press, and it became home to many discoveries and innovations that improved on printing quality and speed. Many of these trade secrets were closely kept, which hampered their competitors in other nations. While the technique of lithography spread worldwide with the emigration of German printers, the hard flawless limestone needed to produce the highest quality prints could only be obtained from a single region in Bavaria. These stones were exported but shipping them over great distance substantially added to the cost of printing elsewhere.

Wages in this new industrial state were also relatively low despite the tradition of the German guild system that did not allow workers to enter trades without necessary skills. While such conditions caused labor unrest elsewhere, German workers tended to be more content due to their low cost of living. Despite Bismarck’s efforts to stop the rise of Socialist ideas, he could only slow their rising popularity. A highly developed welfare system developed, with programs such as Social Security that kept labor relations relatively peaceful. All this enabled German printing firms to charge low prices for their high quality printed products, which made them highly competitive in international markets.


As German collectors reached their maximum capacity for buying postcards, overseas markets began to be aggressively sought. These proved fertile ground for Germany’s low priced but high quality cards, and the free port of Hamburg became their most active distribution point. This was no accident as German City State of Hamburg was already a major seaport when it joined the Hanseatic League in 1241. Now jobbers were sent around the world on the many ocean liner routes that originated here. The Hamburg-Amerikan Line eventually became the world’s largest; their terminal in Hoboken, New Jersey was the entry point for hundreds of millions of postcards. This relationship ceased when their docks were seized by the U.S. Government upon our entry into the First World War.



The General Postal Union was created by the 22 signatories to the Bern treaty on October 9, 1874 in order to form a single postal territory for the reciprocal exchange of correspondence between member post-offices. Within a year they had adopted most of the principals previously set down by the International Postage Association and the Paris Postal Conference of 1863 in regard to uniform mail rates and regulations. A common set of regulations was desperately needed to replace the inconsistencies of individual treaties that governed correspondence between nations and often wound up preventing it.

Four years later they changed their name to the Universal Postal Union. It was in that same year at their World Congress meeting that they agreed to set standards for postcards which all member countries would accept. A standard size of 3 1/2 by 5 1/2 inches was established for government issued postals. Cards would also be allowed to cross international borders at the same rate of postage, and each country would accept the value of the issuing nation’s stamps. Up until this time postcards were only mailed to locations within a nations’s borders as there was no international consensus in their use. In 1948 the Union became a special agency within the United Nations.


Prior to 1898 when postcards were not yet very common and postal regulations regarding them were not yet uniform, some publishers placed the words Universal Postal Union on their backs in place of the usual Post Card to let the customer know that this card would be accepted by member nations and not wind up in the Dead Letter Office. It was also common to repeat these words in French as it was the official language of the Union. Foreign publishers often printed this term in many different languages on the back of a single card.



Only after a decade of use it became clear that there were needs to be met beyond the capacity of the ordinary postal card. Around 1880, specialized postals such as the reply card began to be instituted. Many early designs were based on two cards being printed together that could be separated along a shared perforated edge. They would both be mailed together though only one card was addressed. The second card was only included for the convenience of the addressee who would automatically have a postal with postage paid to reply with. While this might have been helpful for private correspondence, reply cards were largely used by institutions or commercial firms where customer response was essential to their business. Single reply cards also came to be made as a double postal card was not needed under all circumstances. These eventually evolved into the postage paid response cards that came to fill magazines.

Real Photo Postcard


Those who we term middle class largely resemble the older mercantile class that rose to influence not by right of birth but through the acquisition of wealth. The difference is in their numbers, which by the latter end of the 19th century had grown to such an extent that it provided them with great economic influence by means of their purchasing power. For the first time a notably large segment of the population had excess capital beyond what was needed for survival, and much of it was put to use toward acquisitions that provided comfort and displayed social status. There was also now an excess of leisure time that could be devote to pleasurable activities. This was especially true of women, at least those who could afford servants, who began turning their attention toward collecting.

Entrepreneurs would constantly look for new ways to make profits by satisfying this growing hunger. In doing so they would also need to adhere to middle class values in order to gain the largest possible market share. This was not always an easy task for while customers tended to embrace those ideals that created their wealth and reaffirmed their newly acquired social status, they were also restless and pushed boundaries if only with caution. In any case the imagery that would find itself placed onto postcards left the realm of moralization and duty behind to revolve around this new middle class lifestyle of tasteful consumerism that was legitimized by its own weight.



For most of the 19th century photography was generally considered to be just another form of graphic art, but as printers began to protect their trade from this possibly cheaper competitor stronger lines of differentiation began to be drawn. With no clear consensus some printers tried to enlarge their audience by making hand drawn work look as similar to a photograph as they could. Others imbued photographs with as much retouching by hand as possible to more closely resemble traditional artwork. The degree to which this was done all depended on immediate marketing interests and corporate rivalries.

The mysterious nature of chemical printing had always made it difficult for artists to use lithography despite the ease of drawing on a stone. With a growing reliance on photography to produce cheap imagery, the printing trade began shifting its dependence on artists ever faster to that of technicians, which in turn helped contributed to the obsolescence of draughtsmanship in commercial graphics. While the work of retouchers would continue to require high skills, these were aspects of the trade that could be more easily taught. Uniformity in knowledge and skill was the ultimate goal so that everyone would be interchangeable.

Today we are so used to seeing work that is photographically based that we have forgotten that many craftsmen once had skills that enabled them to render highly realistic images. While most postcards relied on some form of photomechanical transfer to achieve their image, nearly as many chromolithographs were entirely rendered solely by hand and eye. Even techniques such as photo-chromolithography that were photo-based relied entirely on artists for their coloration. Photography may have not developed as it did or even at all if it was not for an established aesthetic that accepted realistic rendering into its fold. The concept of realism had gone through a number of conventions and attitude changes since the Renaissance and photography was just the latest version to gain acceptance.



Postcards evolved out of a century that highly prized quality illustration. Many books displayed fine wood engravings and when they didn’t, pages of copper engravings, etchings, or lithographs would be printed separately and added during binding. After the American Civil War the growth of the printing industry and changing ideas about art ignited the Golden Age of Illustration. At this time there was a growing rejection of Victorian notions that art must serve a moral purpose. In its place the idea of art for art’s sake took root, where the pleasure gained from the beauty of art was thought enough to warrant its production. The philosophies of the Aesthetic Movement, and the Arts & Craft Movement, both greatly added to the high quality of illustration available by the 1880’s.

Since these new backward looking movements supported the use traditional handcrafts that were in steady decline since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, it put them more and more at odds with the ever changing world and printing technology. While they would produced great art, they would also find themselves incapable of fulfilling their own goals of providing quality goods for the masses. Despite this these movements continued to exert great influence for some time as they were highly compatible with the growth of consumerism. Conspicuous consumption became a hallmark of the new middle-class, for it was a way to demonstrate rising social standing. This type of self absorbed behavior however contradicted long standing socially accepted manners. The dilemma was eventually reconciled by purchases being confined to items of good taste. In this way the choices of the consumer could be seen in moral terms as moulding both society and the arts in the proper direction.


While the manner in which illustrations would be reproduced underwent unprecedented technological changes, they had to accommodate the same traditional content that most were comfortable with if not the same quality. Many artists that had become known through their graphic work in broadsheets, newspapers and magazines as well as books were still very popular. Though they had been replaced by a new generation of artists by the time the postcard craze took hold, the demand for work by artists such as Daumier and J.J. Granville remained strong enough for publishers to continue issuing their imagery on postcards long after their deaths.


At the end of the 19th century Howard Pyle began teaching illustration out in Pennsylvania. His carefully chosen students would graduate to become a generation of great American illustrators referred to as the Brandywine School. By the time postcards were published in numbers, there were already many skilled and talented artists available to provide images for them. While a number of innovative styles made their appearance in Europe during these years they were slow to affect the graphic arts in America where a more conservative realism remained dominant. Even when depicting fantasy, art was expected to reaffirm the status quo, the social values of the class that held control of economic and political power. This attitude often found itself in conflict with a growing public fascination with the new. Businesses had already learned that a products obsolescence through wear or change in fashion was what drove the economy. While many postcard artists seemed willing to comply with this unwritten social contract, they managed to introduce the new by presenting it through accepted values.



In the latter half of the 19th century the Empire of Japan was forced to open up to western trade. This new contact brought about an exchange of ideas as well as goods, and architecture, woman’s clothing, graphic design, and the fine arts all picked up on Japanese motifs. Western postcards would eventually add Japanese elements to its graphics but also often portrayed what Westerners built and wore under its influence. While this influence, first termed Japonisme greatly affected fashionable trends, it had a more lasting impact on how artists worked, which can be best seen in the new types of compositions that emerged that stressed abstract form over scientific perspective just for the beauty of it. The influence of Japanese stylistic elements in the United States did not gain momentum until it received a wide audience at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876. The style as used here was also tempered by the already existing influence of Chinoiserie, in practice since the early clipper trade. Since Chinese Art also influenced the Japanese, it is not always easy to make precise attributions to influence. The power of Japonisme was much greater in Europe where its patterns and flattened shapes helped inspire the Art Nouveau movement.

Through contact with the West, Japan came to realize that they needed to make changes; that only by joining the modern world would they be able to avoid subjugation. By the turn of the 20th century they had become an industrialized nation, one that was totally prepared to join in the postcard craze that would soon arise. Their graphic artists had already been greatly influenced by Western ideas on perspective, though they were naturally attracted to Art Nouveau works that they helped inspire. Japanese publishers would utilize both traditional styles and Art Nouveau on their cards.



While the Muslim world had an effect on Occidental art for centuries, it grew greatly in influence as painters journeyed into the lands of North Africa and the Middle East in the years after European conquest. It was a time when most people were only able to glimpse into other societies through paintings and their reproductions. The more different these portrayals were from their own common experience, the more interest they drew. Those artists who had the ability to depict exotic lands had an edge in a highly competitive market. The demand for these images of intrigue encouraged artists to depict these places and inhabitants in a manner that stressed cultural differences rather than our common humanity. Social philosophers often depicted the Muslim world as a backward corrupt land, thus providing an excuse for artists to create fanciful scenes often imbued with a type of eroticism that was not socially permissible to paint of Westerners. The forbidden pleasures of harems, slave girls, and other alluring narratives became the subject matter of many postcards as well as paintings. All this produced many contradictory impressions as attempts to interest viewers in true scenes of unfamiliar cultures clashed with Western fantasies. As World War One brought the Ottoman Empire into the fight against the Western Allies, romanticized themes of the Orient lost much of their appeal and rapidly faded in favor of more overtly negative depictions. While Orientalism faded as an art movement, its legacy of depicting Muslims as the mysterious or dangerous other remains embedded in Western culture.



Color lithography had been nearly around since the process was invented in 1796, but most prints continued to be hand colored through the mid-19th century to save money. The first chromolithograph, a print of three colors or more, made in the United States was printed in Boston in 1840. There was a great deal of work involved in their production. All were hand drawn, and each color was printed off an individual litho-stone requiring tight registration. It was not uncommon for elaborate single images to eventually require the use of twenty stones, and some images were created from as many as thirty stones or more to achiever subtle coloration effects that mimicked paintings. Most commercial products such as postcards usually got by with employing ten stones. Though the optical properties of primary colors was well known since the 17th century and often employed, scientific color separation techniques to achieve natural color were not widely used at this time. Nearly all chromolithographs were drawn in small dots; a single craftsman responsible for each color. While this technique increased optical blending, its main purpose was to insure that any draughtsman working on a stone would not impart his own style to the finished piece. All draughtsmen were basically interchangeable as their job was to reproduce a picture with fidelity. Some printers used a splatter technique, overlapping color markings to give the illusion of additional colors with a smaller pallet; but these should be considered color lithographs rather than chromolithographs.

As the quality of chromolithographs increased so did demand. In a world where the limited illustrations that existed were almost always in black & white, these new richly colored images were a true revolution. Their low price compared to that of original art work created a Democracy of Art among a rising middle class. The demand for chromolithography did not only increase the number of popular prints that already seen a steady market for years. This was also an age of an ever increasing amount of consumer products and the need for advertising greatly expanded the printing industry. Posters and trade cards made great use of this technology. Some fine printers continued to use it until less expensive techniques became dominant at the end of World War One. By this time public taste had also shifted and Chromolithography seemed too old fashion.

Collecting Card


The ability to purchase brightly colored chromolithographic pictures in a largely black & white world proved irresistible to many, which quickly increased demand. In a world now filled with color posters, prints, and trade cards, some saw an opportunity to produce additional colorful images on smaller and less expensive format to increase sales. These cards made in a variety of shapes and sizes served no specific purpose other than they could be collected. Many were educational in nature but this was most likely to help create an acceptable rationalization for these compulsive purchases. Collecting Cards became very popular among the public and were printed up to the end of the 19th century. They were issued individually and in sets, came in all sorts of sizes, had blank or printed backs, and depicted any subject that might have interest the public. For the remainder of the century chromolithography was the primary method of producing quality color cards. Their popularity was eventually overtaken by the introduction of picture postcards, especially after the world’s first color postcard was printed in Austria in 1889.

Trade Card


Trade cards were just one form of advertising that utilized the growing popularity and availability of chromolithography. The front would contain a brightly colored picture while the back held the description of a product or service. Some of these were made with generic images so stores could purchase them in small quantities, and then overprint their own information onto them with a handpress. Though usually printed on 3 by 5 inch card stock, some cards came in odd sizes or were die cut, and they could be printed on paper as well. Trade cards were not meant to be mailed but were given away as free advertising. Some however are found today with canceled stamps on them showing they could wind up in the mail anyway. Highly collectible in their heyday of the 1880’s and 90’s, many were placed in albums just like photo cards. This demonstration of the public’s strong desire for printed collectible images helped inspire the production of picture postcards.

Reward Card


The popularity of trade cards as collectibles led to a marketing strategy where cards carrying appealing images and subject matter were included free with packaged goods as a reward for the purchase. Descriptive information as well as advertising was placed on their backs, and they were almost always issued in sets to encourage sales among those anxious to collect them all. Reward cards were usually larger than trade cards but not quite up to standard postcard size. As with collector cards and trade cards they do not fall into the category of postcards since they were not meant to be mailed but they share an inter-related history. While the use of Trade cards faded away at the end of the 19th century, reward cards continued to be used into the 20th century.

Reward Card

In Great Britain another type of reward card appeared between the 1880’s and the 1920’s. They were issued on a quarterly basis by schools as a reward for good attendance by students. Without advertising consuming their backs, they could also be used as postcards. They were illustrated with a wide variety of subjects ranging from scenery to fairy tales. In 1903 they began to be printed in larger sizes, making them impossible to mail as postcards without trimming them down.

Cigarette Card

Small sheets of cardboard called stiffeners were place in packets of cigarettes to prevent them from being crushed. Trade cards soon inspired advertising to be printed on these as well. After 1884 when the invention of the rolling machine greatly increased cigarette production, these cards adopted the format of the reward card where various subjects would be printed on them in sets. Cigarette cards became the most highly collected of all reward cards and remained very popular through the 1930’s.



Ducos du Hauron’s investigations into the color separation process led to many innovations in both photography and printing. He is known as the creator of 3D images called Anaglyphs by printing blue and red hues on one surface from two skewed photographs and viewing them through specially tinted glasses. He had been searching for a way to efficiently produce a color image long before color film existed, and came up with the tricolor printing process, which generally followed the principals of additive color theory. While Charles Cross came up with the same idea at the very same time, it was around 1877 that Ducos du Hauron first produced a full color lithograph from tricolor printing based on the patent he received in 1868. Where chromolithography used a separate printing substrate for every color needed, the tricolor process only required three printing plates each separately inked with red, blue, and green to optically blend into other hues. Printers at this time separated color by eye, and the results were not often satisfactory. After the invention of Panchromatic photo emulsion and halftone screens it became easier to make color separated plates through the use of photography and filters. This made the tricolor process much more popular, and it would be adapted to different techniques.

After the English physicist, Sir Isaac Newton introduced his theories on color in 1704, there remained a great deal of confusion between additive primaries used to describe the behavior of light and the subtractive primaries that color objects for our eyes. Many printers resorted to using red, yellow and blue ink because they had been the traditional primary colors of artists, and were also widely available for purchase. It would take decades before commercial printing caught up with color theory and could put it into reasonable practice.

Postcard detail


Frederick Ives invented the halftone process in 1878 and perfected it into a more practical crossline screen in 1887. This screen allowed a photograph to be converted into a series of varied sized black dots that blended into optical grays. Both photogravure and photolithography were already able to reproduce photographic images since mid-century, but these techniques could not be used with rotary presses that were increasingly preferred by printers because of their high speed. These new halftone images were capable of being stereotyped, enabling the flexible matrix to be attached to a press cylinder, which made them compatible with rotary letterpress printing.

At the same time the technique of wood engraving had reached the point where teams could work on separate pieces of a picture and then reassemble them into a single block for printing, which greatly sped up production time on this normally time consuming process. Although this new method assured that relevant images could accompany breaking news stories, the process still required the work of highly skilled craftsmen keeping costs up. Illustrations from halftones were fast to make and cheap to reproduce; only $20 for a full page as opposed to $300 for a wood engraving. This became a deciding factor as the country slipped into an economic depression during the 1890’s. By 1892 halftones were already revolutionizing the printing business. After the first halftone was used in a newspaper in 1897, thousands of engravers were thrown out of work. The training in printing arts passed from apprenticeships to technical trade schools. Science was now beginning to steer the direction technology would take. Unfortunately for Ives, he never patented his invention believing it could be better kept as a house secret.

Magic Lantern


Though Frederick Ives had little financial success with his halftone screen, he made up for it by patenting some of his discoveries in photography. In 1881 he developed a workable panchromatic film emulsion that captured the full spectrum of light. Up to this point photo emulsions were only receptive to blue light making photographic color separation impossible. Even though panchromatic emulsion still produced a black & white image, different color filters could be placed over a camera’s lens to create a series of black & white negatives that only captured a single color. When these negatives were photoengraved onto a plate and printed in corresponding additive colors, the result created the illusion of a natural color photograph. By 1892 Ives had invented the Trichromatic Camera, which captured an image on three filtered negatives simultaneously. This invention was supplemented with the Kromoscope, a type of magic lantern that was able to project filtered color transparencies to create a full color image based on Ives’ additive color theory. While Ives’ formed his own company to color separate plates for other printers, his process would find wider applications once panchromatic film was finally made available to the public in 1906.



The combination of photographic color separation combined with tricolor printing ushered in big changes to the printing industry but the results were not yet revolutionary. While the goal was to produce a natural color image where hues were determined by an accurate mechanical process rather than the biased eye of a retoucher, technical factors curtailed its implementation. Not only was this method expensive, requiring special equipment and more negatives, the complex nature of production led to more accidental waste. Even though the postcards employing this technique looked somewhat real, they still lacked the vibrancy of color found on other cards. The color inks available at this time did not perfectly match up with the subtractive colors needed to achieve the desired results. There was enough curiosity in the process for some photographers to make their livelihood at it, but natural color postcards were not yet ready to be a commercial success. The ability to render full color images with a limited pallet dramatically reduced printing costs and could not be overlooked. Tricolor printing would largely be reserved for reproducing art work, where the public could not tell if the color was off. When the subtractive primaries, cyan, magenta, and yellow finally became available in the 1930’s natural color printing took off. Tricolor printing was already being referred to as process printing, and now these new inks became process colors.



The line block technique, a hybrid of intaglio and relief printing, was refined by Charles Gillot in the 1870’s. The process based on the earlier paniconograph was first introduced as the Gillotype. Unlike the earlier version that involved a mechanical transfer, this technique was a photomechanical process. Since line block was adaptable to letterpress, and the printing of newspapers, books, and magazines dominated the printing industry, this process became the least expensive method to produce postcards and it was widely used until replaced by offset lithography in the 1950’s. Line block printing remains largely unrecognized today despite its extensive use because so many images were created through this medium to imitate other printing techniques. Since it was printed as a relief it had no trouble imitating other relief methods such as wood engraving. What really insured its continual use was its ability to easily accept a halftone image. It became the principal method by which tricolor postcards were manufactured.



Nineteenth century business practices were generally devoid of any regulation, and business owners rarely employed any safety measures to protect their workers or even their own property. Printing houses were usually full of large quantities of haphazardly placed flammable oils, inks, varnishes, and solvent. In addition there were not only vast supplies of paper on hand, but the floors of these shops were usually littered with paper scraps and dust. Fires often broke out and fighting them was a major challenge. Heavy presses on upper shop floors placed a good deal of stress on a building’s structural integrity under normal circumstances, and only increased the threat of collapse when wooden floors caught fire. Litho-stones could also explode if overheated, spraying rooms with sharp shards like shrapnel from a bomb. Firefighters often refused to enter such buildings, and they were usually left to completely burn to the ground. This was a problem that plagued printers well into the 20th century. It also partially accounts for the lack of information on many postcard firms today as company records were sometimes consumed by flames.

Album Cover


In the years following the American Civil War a whole new consumer culture began to emerge. Industrial mass production could produce goods on a scale so large that a middle class with rising income and leisure time now had access to a whole range of non-essential products including collectables. Photographs in the form of cartes de visite and cabinet cards were made for collectors with special albums to keep them in. Trade and cigarette cards were also collected in albums. Hand colored prints, popularized by Currier & Ives, were widely distributed and sort after. A collector’s journal, The Curio, would release its first issue in 1887. The U.S. Mint sensing a new source of revenue issued the first commemorative coin in 1892 for the anniversary of the landing of Columbus, which was aimed directly at the collector. When exposition cards made an appearance soon afterwards, a collecting culture was already in place to accept them.

Picture postcards, like many paper products such as scraps were first collected by women and many of the early post card exchange clubs were founded exclusively for women. While men collected postals, which was seen as an extension of the serious hobby of stamp collecting, picture postcards were viewed as a temporary fad. I was widely believed that they would never become collectable items because of the large numbers they were printed in. This situation only began to change around 1905 when cards depicting suitable subjects for men, such as ships and trains became more common. As more men were enticed to collect postcards, the hobby took on a more serious approach, and it was not unusual for women to be criticized for their mere interest in pictures.



There were many expositions held in the post-Civil War years to highlight specific regions and promote commerce with them. The 1873 Interstate Industrial Exposition in Chicago, held after the great fire, was the first to issue cards but little attention was given to them. The focus of these early cards was on advertising and few examples remain. It wasn’t until an image of the Eiffel Tower was printed on a souvenir card for the Paris Exposition of 1889 that the world took real notice. By 1893 one hundred and twenty different images of Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition were printed on government postal cards by distributors. The most notable of these cards were the official chromolithographs of Charles W. Goldsmith. Privately printed, these exposition cards required two cents postage to mail but it didn’t hurt sales as was expected for hundreds of thousands were purchased. This demand inspired similar cards to be made the following year for the California Mid-Winter Exposition in San Francisco, followed by Cotton States in Atlanta, the Tennessee Centennial in Nashville, and Trans-Mississippi in Omaha. After Chicago, the sets produced were issued in smaller quantities and today are quite rare. The imagery on these cards usually took up a relatively small portion of the front leaving plenty of room to write a message. Montages of multiple scenes surrounded with decorative flourishes were very fashionable on both cards and illustrations of this period.

Photographs were another popular item sold at expositions. While the subjects depicted were as carefully controlled as those printed on official postcards, there were often great differences between them. Possibly the most popular image to be sold at the Columbian Exposition of 1893 was not found within the official postcard set but on a photo card of the performer Little Egypt. Her talent consisted of what we would now call a belly dance at the ethnic exhibit, A Street in Cairo. While many were horrified by this unchristian act, the great draw it had with the public speaks for itself. This representation of a woman at the cutting edge of accepted female roles was only socially permissible because of its lack of nudity and its presentation by someone who was non-white. This trend of depicting sexualized women would continue and can be best be seen in the enormous quantity of photos and postcards made depicting performers and actresses. While these women were largely looked down upon for their independence, postcards of them would be highly sought after. While many men purchased these cards, their largest audience by far was among women who longed for more independence.


In March of 1883 the International Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property met in Paris to discuss the possibilities of creating intellectual property treaties. The meeting was quite successful and on July 7th 1884 the standards for international patents they agreed upon went into effect. Many printing techniques were being developed in these years and patents were taken out on every nuance of them, which created a myriad of trade names. Even after revising the treaty in 1900, enforcement was hard to come by and it seems that many printers of postcards disguised their use of the same technique by referring to it under a different name. Adding to the confusion were firms that also used their name when referring to the product that they made and the process it was made by. For the most part manufacturers relied on keeping their methods house secrets. This did not always work well as employees moved from firm to firm and took their knowledge with them. Some techniques however were kept so secretive that they would die with the company that invented them



Many of the exposition cards that the public had been purchasing were not acquired for mailing but rather as souvenirs. Noticing a business opportunity at hand, numerous printers started publishing illustrated postcards. By 1896 a great number of view-cards depicting various tourist attractions were available but they did not nearly match the great number of postcards that were all the rage in Europe during these same years. The United States, already many years into an agricultural crisis, saw a number of major railroad failures in 1893 that ignited a five year long depression. Over 500 banks and 16,000 businesses would collapse and unemployment may have reached as high as 25 percent in the manufacturing trades. The publishing industry was especially hard hit. Even many small businesses that may have found interest in publishing could not raise the capital to do so. These difficult times did not eliminate interest in postcards as many continued being imported from Europe, but it slowed the momentum of American publishers down considerably. As the nation rose from the depression in 1898 the printing industry would rebound and postcard production would rise dramatically. It was too late for many important American printing houses that had been staples of lithographic production. There disappearance would open a door for new publishers, but many of these came to rely on German printers who already had a competitive edge and now gained further market share.



Almost all pioneer cards were dedicated to advertising until the larger production of exposition cards began in 1893 during the Chicago Columbian Exposition. While many saw the potential in producing other types of souvenir views for tourists few ventured into this field as our nation&rsquo,s economy soured. The many European made view-cards flooding the receptive American market convinced some printers to take the risk. By 1895 a good many souvenir cards were being printed here depicting large cities and famous tourist attractions both of historic and natural interest. Publishing cards in these years was risky business so the subjects chosen for them relied on those places that had already been attracting large numbers of tourists for years.

Postcard back

Although these souvenir cards sold well it was not the booming sales item it could have been. This was partially the fault of Postal regulations. The standard mailing rate was one cent for both government and privately printed cards but there was a penny surcharge on private cards alone if a message was written on them. This created much confusion and outrage as the rate for a more private letter was also two cents, and in those days a penny was no small change. The government was continuously lobbied to make reforms but no changes would come until the depression years ended in 1898 when the building pressure from all the new publishers waiting to enter the market tipped the balance. When new regulations took effect many publishers found themselves with a large stock of cards manufactured under looser size standards that were now too large to be mailed. Many old souvenir cards were subsequently trimmed down to regulation size, though some uncut cards did manage to get mailed.



In our present age of consumerism, where we are encouraged to indulge every whim that leads to a purchase, it is hard to think back to an era so infused with Puritanism that work in itself was a virtue and leisure was frowned upon. While Europeans seemed more comfortable whiling away their hours in comfort at some resort, Americans needed an excuse to get away. One’s health became the most socially acceptable reason to take leave of the daily grind as spas were sought out to take on the waters, or mountain resorts visited to reap the benefits of fresh air. It is interesting to note that a very high percentage of postcard messages seem to make references to the sender’s health. For some this reasoning was reinforced with religious overtones as camp meeting grounds sprang up in pleasant environments away from the hot dirty cities. Under the guise of attending spiritual oration some pleasure might be had between sermons. Once these forms of getaways were generally accepted, it was not long until a more formal pattern of summer homes, cottages, and cabins sprang up, all for the purpose of revitalizing oneself, body and soul.


Nowhere did people seek a reprieve more than the seashore. Strips of barren land that previously could not be given away for lack of want now grew into whole new summer communities; large hotels, capable of holding hundreds of guests followed in their wake. Social scenes developed around them with only the thinnest veil of health concerns remaining as an alibi. While these activities were mostly reserved for the top half of the class divide, more average Americans were finding parks, beaches, and amusement areas that catered to those with less money and leisure time to spend. All of these trends not only contributed to an environment that was conducive to writing postcards, they were also the subject matter of countless numbers of cards. Class divides are often obvious in the way people are shown spending their leisure moments.



While the telegraph greatly increased the transmission time of messages they still needed to be transcribed and written down, a process too slow for some firms. In 1853 London became the first city to build a pneumatic mail delivery system where cylinders containing correspondence could be propelled through tubes by air pressure at high speeds. Paris with 269 miles of air tubes was the largest system ever built. Philadelphia would construct the first American pneumatic system in 1893 totaling 112 miles. Boston, Chicago, New York, and St. Louis soon followed. It was envisioned that this technology would eventually deliver mail to every home, but it proved to be very expensive to build and maintain. While many European cities used pneumatic mail well into the 20th century, they were shut down in the United States after the First World War. Only New York’s system continued to operate until 1953, carrying 30 percent of the city’s first class mail. While the American system accepted regular postcards, some European countries issued postal stationary for specific use in their pneumatic systems.



A number of inventors tried to replace the quill pen in the 19th century but their attempts failed largely due to leaks in the apparatus. In 1884 Lewis Waterman developed the first fountain pen to be free of the defects that made the others commercially unusable. Originally hand made in his home, they began being manufactured at the rate of a thousand per day by 1900. Other companies started using his basic design but altered the filling mechanism. The nibs on these pens were flexible and needed to be broken in to obtain the individual characteristics of the author’s hand. This made the owners of these pens very reluctant to lend them out. Even though many used pencils to scribble their message on postcards, this small invention freed those wishing to write properly in the fashion of letters from writing desks, and this convenience encouraged more people to send cards. During the 1930’s the cost of these pens place them out of the reach of most ordinary people but by 1950 a cartridge insert made them simpler and cheaper to buy. It wasnÕt long after that the cheap disposable ballpoint arrived, which drove fountain pens out of general use.

Real Photo Postcard


When card stock is painted with a special photosensitive emulsion containing iron salts, and then exposed to a negative with sunlight and washed out with water, an image in a bright Prussian blue is created. They have a very flat finish, and the paperÕs texture remains very evident as the emulsion is absorbed into its fibers and doesnÕt coat the surface. Invented by Sir John Hirschel in 1842, the cyanotype became popular in the 1880Õs because of its simplicity. While this technique is best known today for the rendering of architectural blueprints, the first known postcard made by this process was produced in 1888, and many more homemade cyanotypes would follow well into the 20th century. Kodak even offered a special promotion for a few years in which you could have your negatives printed as cyanotypes. They generally went out of fashion in the 1920’s though postcards printed on deep blue toned bromide photo papers became very popular trend in Europe during these same years. Cyanotypes are a variation of real photo cards, and should not be confused with the many monotone cards printed in blue.

Real Photo Postcard

There were other photo variants developed in the 1870’s, such as kallitypes, platinotypes, and palladiotypes that used the same basic iron salt chemistry as cyanotypes. They all have a similar flat finish, though the colors they produce are in the range of silvery browns. As platinum became prohibitively expensive around the First World War, it was largely replaced by palladium for use on photography, but palladium also soon grew too expensive and by the late 1930’s both methods fell into commercial disuse. Kallitypes, which used silver, are less expensive than the other processes to make, but unlike the highly stable platinum and palladium prints, these are prone to fading. All of these methods were employed to create real photo postcards but in limited numbers.



Artists and amateurs alike painted on blank cards and sent them through the mail long before anyone even knew what a postcard was. This trend continued through the early years of postcard production because it was not always easy to find a picture postcard to purchase. Creative individuals often took it upon themselves to paste found printed pictures or photographs onto paper cards. While some of these were made on government issued postals, other collages were placed on any flat surface available. Although most of these were very crude made, many are also very interesting as they impart a personal touch to correspondence. The desire to create something special was so strong that handmade cards continued to be made even when published postcards became widely available.


A paste-on card can often look like a home assembled card even though they were commercially manufactured. They began to appear in the 1890’s when the supply of postcards was not yet reliable and the amount of customers uncertain. The most common form of paste-on was basically a card printed in letterpress, incorporating a color design or words or both with a small photograph pasted onto it. Sometimes only decorative embossing was used around the image from totally generic stock. This way any sort of image could be pasted in as long as it was cut to fit. These types of cards could be printed in small numbers on a jobbing platen or even a hand press, which substantially lessened the investment risk for a small business. On top of their low cost the speed of production added to their appeal as moneymakers.



In a time when magazine publishers relied on their customers to cover printing costs, prices needed to be kept high; and the only publications that could fetch high prices were those that catered to a very specific audience. By the 1890’s cheaper printing and reproductive methods led to the publication of many more magazines at less than a third the traditional price. This provided some leeway in taking risks. New publications that provided a wider focus found themselves with greater circulation that in turn attracted more advertising. As this practice grew, the traditional way of doing business was turned on its head. From once being at least 80 percent reader subsidized, ads now provide most of the needed capital for the industry. This took magazines out of their high priced niche market, encouraging the rise of cheap general interest publications. After advertising grew into an industry of its own, ads no longer came to dominate postcards as they found a new life in ten-cent magazines.

Real Photo Postcard


The massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890 was the last large scale clash between the U.S. Cavalry and Native Americans. That same year the Superintendent of the Census could no longer place a frontier line on a map and declared the West closed. Even though all land within the borders of the United States was now parceled out or at least administered, sporadic fighting would go on another eight years but to little effect. A number of photographers at this time seemed to redouble their efforts to document the quickly changing landscape and vanishing peoples. Photo studios at the edge of the frontier had become a big business in supplying souvenirs; and their stock would soon play a pivotal role in the expanding postcard market. Photographers were also widely commissioned by railroad companies to create publicity ranging from small souvenir booklets to gigantic exposition displays. They would become a major promoter of domestic tourism through the use of postcards.


As danger faded and Native Americans began being perceived as a dying race, they were quickly redefined from savage killers to noble savages. It was through this perspective that they largely escaped being depicted in the same derogatory terms that other minorities were often shown. At the same time Native Americans continued to face much exploitation, hatred and bigotry, they became part of the national myth that extolled the virtues of this great country. While many saw the hypocrisy in romanticizing a people that we were only recently so eager to destroy, the publics’ fascination with Indians continued to grow the more they became a distant memory. When Buffalo Bill’s Wild West opened at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago it drew sixteen million spectators. This popularity was also reflected in the many images of Native Americans were placed on early postcards.


As the story of the West came to be more romanticized in the publics’ eye, it grew in importance in defining the national myth of the frontier. This myth was not only promoted to help create a greater sense of national identity; this identity was exploited by those who could use it to encourage tourism. In this new climate many artists began to depict scenes of the West populated by events and people long gone but without most of the unsavory details. This imagery would find its way onto postcards after the turn of the century as it became a popular genre. The vast array of Western postcards produced would in turn greatly help to promote this new mythology and shape AmericaÕs identity much more than actual historic events.

Postcard Details


After years of debate over how to best lower the surplus of revenue, the U.S. Congress passed a protectionist Bill written by Representative William Mckinley on October 1890 that placed high tariffs on most imported goods. Postcards were barely into production at this time, but a provision of this bill that came into effect in March 1891 would have a noticeable affect on them. It stated all goods imported into the United States must be labeled with the country of origin clearly printed in English. This only applied to goods shipped to be sold, not items purchased by tourists. Many publishers fearful that Americans might be reluctant to buy foreign made cards tried to confuse the consumer by leaving out the words made in when listing the country of manufacture. It also became common for European publishers to stress their offices in overseas locations like New York, which was the destination for many of their cards. Most publishers complied with the Act after it did not seem to affect the demand for foreign made cards in the American market.



As the Arts & Crafts, and Symbolist Movements gained in popularity, so did the preference for hand made goods over those massed produced by machines. By the early 1890’s the desire for this type of beauty had reached the momentum needed to inspire a new style. Its flowing forms and lines inspired by natural organic forms grew into an international movement influencing all types of design from graphics to architecture. Generally referred to by its French name, Art Nouveau, it was titled differently in every country it spread to as they added their own local traditions to it. The style’s widespread acceptance was due in part to it being based on universal principals of aesthetics rather than a political or social dogma. This style however too often only accompanied products made specifically for the wealthy. The notable exception was its use in graphic design. No other art movement would have as much influence over the design of postcards as Art Nouveau; reaching its height in popularity just as postcards began to flourish. Millions were exposed to the style this way and postcards crossing international borders gave it additional exposure.

Although Art Nouveau came to dominated European design, it never fully took root in the United States. All manner of fashion was slow to cross the Atlantic, and it was usually tempered by more austere home grown traditions. While this style had an influence on American artists, there was no obvious change to the way the public was presented with illustrations. The influence of Art Nouveau may have continued to grow in America had its supremacy not collapsed with European social order at the end of World War One. By that time modernism trends were having inroads in design. The beauty inherent in Art Nouveau allowed for a resurgence of it in graphics during the later 20th century. Even though it never came to dominate design, it continues to be popular. Art Nouveau postcards are widely sought by collectors today.

Novelty Postcard


In 1897 postal regulations allowed for new larger sized postcards for advertising that would come to be called Businessman’s cards. These cards were manufactured in three basic sizes. One was only slightly larger than the average size card and was occasionally die cut into shapes. The more common size was about 8 by 10 inches. Many times they contained nothing but text but elaborate graphics and illustration were also used on them. There was also a larger jumbo size available. Many were published with very complex designs.

While paper novelties had already grown in popularity with chromolithographic printing, in many respects it was the introduction of the businessman’s card that prompted the carry over onto novelty postcards. In addition to being die cut into various shapes many of these cards had three dimensional objects glued to them and mechanical parts that let them move. They provided a way to compete with ads now found in the ten-cent magazines flooding the market. Many of these cards were given out by hand or sent within covers as their odd shapes, size and glue ons made them difficult if not impossible to mail. Many were also placed inside of stores or sometimes hung in mass as window displays.

1848-1872  UP  1898-1906