|History Home Glossary Guides Publishers Artists Topicals Collecting Blog Calendar Contact|
Pioneer is a general term applied to postcards manufactured 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 weren’t actually being used 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 mater 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 have come to light.
Possibly the most important development of this 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 demand for collectables. As the demand 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; they 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 it 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 pieces needed to create a true postcard revolution remained missing.
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 CARDS
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 cards were used to convey all sorts of notices between stores and their clientel.
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. By the time postcards were introduced this tradition of 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 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.
All holiday cards were imported from England until 1875 when Louis Prang published the first Christmas cards in the United States. While others were to follow 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 postcards even though they were never printed for such use. As the Post Office Depatment added on more restrictions many of these cards were cut down to regulation size.
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 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.
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 three months time. Correspondence cards had been a suggestion of Dr. Emanuel Hermann who sought a cheep 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 with the postage. The earliest of these cards were indented solely for domestic use.
Debated for years, President Grant finally authorized 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 successful for they were soon selling at the rate of a million per day. Prior to 1893 these cards were almost always used for advertising with a rare few used as 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.
The French magazine La Beaute, was a major source for nude pictures. They sold photographic based images of poses in the nude for the use of artists, but these cards were greatly coveted by the general public. Though made in Europe their largest market was in the United States. These types of cards were most popular in the 1870’s but this type of card had been manufactured as soon as technology provided a convenient way to reproduce photographs. Most of their backs are completely blank without any postal markings making them difficult to precisely date. They are referred to as postcards only because of the similar size, but they were illegal to mail. Actual postcards with nudes on them did not appear until 1900 or so.
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 mail. Not only nudes but also any sexually related subjects could cost a sender ten years at hard labor. The law was also used extensively for censorship as works by Balzac, James Joyce, Leo Tolstoy, and Walt Whitman were labeled smut. Almost 18 million postcards were destroyed under this law. Although the restrictions relating to birth control information have been dropped, it should be remembered that the 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.
THE GERMAN EMPIRE 1871-1918
Prussia’s Otto von Bismarck did not only unify the many German states into an Empire, he took numerous steps to make it the most powerful nation in Europe. Bismarck, with the help of the country’s banks, made a determined effort to catch up for years of slow industrial growth. This sudden change brought in the latest technologies and machinery that allowed Germany to quickly outpace the 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 card production. German craftsmen were prohibited from entering the United States by alien contract laws, which helped ensure overseas dominance. Approximately 75 percent of all postcards used in the United Stated prior to World War One were printed in Germany.
Other factors gave Germany a market edge as well, for it was the birthplace of the printing press, and it became home to discoveries and innovations that improved on printing quality and speed. Trade secrets were closely kept hampering competitors in other nations. Although lithographs could be made on a variety of substances, 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. While there were attempts to stop the rise of Socialism, Bismarck could only slow its rising popularity. A highly developed welfare system developed, with programs such as Social Security that kept labor relations relatively peaceful. The cost of living here was not as high as in other countries so workers generally found their pay satisfactory, but in the international market their low wages made them highly competitive. The tradition of the German guild system did not allow workers to enter trades without the skills necessary to produce high quality goods. All this allowed German printing firms to charge low prices for their printed products, which created a huge export market.
The German City State of Hamburg, already a major port, continued to grow in significance after joining the Hanseatic League in 1241. As German collectors reached their capacity for buying postcards, oversees markets were aggressively sought out and the free port of Hamburg became their most active distribution point. 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 until seized by the U.S. Government upon our entry into the First World War.
The formation of the German Empire was predicated on the growing nationalistic urges of the German people. Once established, great satisfaction was taken in this feat and the military victories that secured it. Broadly referred to as the Federation Wars, images from these battles and campaigns were generously illustrated on postcards throughout the Empire’s existence despite the fact that the events portrayed had long past. These cards represent a great up swell in national pride and confidence in the face of international resentment by other empires that did not want to share their spoils.
UNIVERSAL POSTAL UNION 1874
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 prevented it. Four years latter 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 country’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 this designation in French as it was the official language of the Union. Foreign publishers often printed this term in many different languages on a single card.
THE MIDDLE CLASS
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 provide 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. There was also an excess of leisure time to 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 they tended to embrace those ideals that created their wealth and reaffirmed their newly gotten 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 that was legitimized by its own weight.
For most of the 19th century photography was considered by most 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 make drawn work look closer to a photo while others imbued photo work with as much retouching by hand as possible. 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 cheep imagery the printing trade’s dependence on artists shifted even 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. 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 from a century that highly prized quality illustration. Many books displayed fine wood engravings and when they didn’t do, 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. 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 is 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. They supported the use traditional handcrafts that were in steady decline since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. While these movements produced great art, their backward looking philosophy would put them more and more at odds with the ever-changing world and printing technology. Despite their inability to fulfill their own goals of providing quality goods for the masses, they continued to exert great influence for some time and helped propel the rise of Art Nouveau, which would become a dominant European style.
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 and for the most part postcard artists willingly complied.
In the latter half of the 19th century Japan began to open up, if not always willingly to western trade and culture in an attempt to join the modern world. While the traditional paintings of Europe created new stylistic schools in Japan, the introduction of an entirely new style, utilizing patterns and flattened shapes, also had a great effect on Western artists. It can be best seen in the new types of compositions that emerged, stressing 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. Architecture, fashion, graphic design, and the fine arts all picked up on Japanese motifs. Postcards not only added Japanese elements to its graphics but often portrayed what Westerners built and wore under its influence. Its power however was much greater in Europe where it helped inspire the Art Nouveau movement. Ironically Art Nouveau would eventually have great influance on Japanese graphic artists in their attempts to Westernize.
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 lives the more interest they drew. The ability to depict exotic lands gave artists an edge in a highly competitive market. The demand for these images of intrigue encouraged artists to depict these places and people 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 mater 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 negative depictions.
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. This country’s first chromolithograph, a print of three colors or more, was made 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 fourteen stones for subtle coloration effects. Some images were created from as many as thirty stones or more to impress potential customers. Though the optical properties of primary colors was well known since the 17th century and often employed, no scientific color separation techniques were available at this time. Some printers used a splatter technique, overlapping color markings to give the illusion of additional colors with a smaller pallet. Nearly all chromolithographs were drawn in small dots. While this increased optical blending, its main purpose was to insure that the craftsmen working on each stone would not impart their own style to the finished piece.. A heavy varnish was routinely mixed into the ink to better create the illusion of paint that it tried to emulate for status. Although a desired quality then, it now often shows up as cracks and white spots where ink has flaked off the paper. Chromolithographs often suffer from looking dull as light cannot easily pass through all the layers of ink and reflect back off the paper’s white surface.
As the quality of chromolithographs increased so did demand. In a world where the limited illustration that had existed was 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. 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, and in 1889 the world’s first color postcard was printed in Austria. For the remainder of the century chromolithography was the primary method of producing quality color cards.
Soon after chromolithography’s introduction it began being used in the production of popular prints that already had a steady market for years. The ability to purchase brightly colored pictures in a largely black & white world proved irresistible to many, which quickly increased demand. Though many more prints continued to be published, some saw this as an opportunity to produce colorful images on smaller and less expensive format to increase sales. These cards 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 their purchase. Collecting Cards became very popular among the public and were printed up to the end of the 19th century until overpowered by the introduction of picture postcards. They were issued individually and in sets, came in all sorts of sizes, had blank or printed backs, and depicted any subject that had a conceivable buyer.
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. Some were made with generic images so stores and manufacturers could purchase small quantities then overprint their own information onto them. Though usually printed on 3 by 5 inch card stock some 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 wound up in the mail anyway. Highly collectable in their heyday of the 1880’s and 90&rsqo;s, many were placed in albums just like photo cards. This demonstration of the public’s desire for printed collectable images helped inspire the production of picture postcards.
The popularity of trade cards as collectables 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 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.
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 be used as postcards. They covered a wide variety of subjects from scenery to fairy tales. In 1903 they began to be printed in larger sizes, making them impossible to mail without trimming them down.
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 the invention of the rolling machine in 1884 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.
PROCESS PRINTING 1868
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 where three color separated printing plates could be made from black & white negatives that were exposed through color filters. While Charles Cros came up with the same idea at the very same time, it was Ducos du Hauron around 1877 that first produced a full color lithograph from tricolor printing based on the patent he received in 1868. Each plate was separately inked with red, blue, and green following the principals of additive color theory. For most chromolithographs color was still separated by eye but after the invention of the halftone screen, process printing grew in importance, especially to the advancement of photolithography. The ability to render full color images with a limited pallet dramatically reduced printing costs. As color theory advanced and better inks became availabe, many printers began switching to the subtractive primaries, cyan, magenta, and yellow in the 1930’s to achieve the same goals. They are now known as process colors and are the most widely used in the printing trades.
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 techniques such as wood engraving. What really insured its continual use was its ability to accept a halftone image.
HALFTONE SCREENS 1878
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 transferred into a series of varied sized black dots that blended into optical grays. Both photogravure and photolithography were able to reproduce photographic images since mid-century, but these techniques could not be used with fast rotary presses, the most commercially used of the day. These new halftone images however were capable of being stereotyped, thus making 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, which greatly sped up production time on this normally slow process. Although this allowed images to accompany breaking news stories, it still required the work of highly skilled craftsmen keeping costs up. Illustrations from halftones were cheep 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.
COLOR PHOTO ENGRAVING 1881
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 panchromatic film emulsion that captured the full spectrum of light. Up to this point film was only receptive to blue light so photographic color separation was 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 capturing differences in color. When photoengraved onto plates and printed in corresponding additive colors, it created the illusion of a natural color photograph. By 1892 Ives had invented the Trichromatic Camera, which captured an image on all three filtered negatives simultaneously. The precise color matching of inks were somewhat difficult to achieve and this complicated process never did well commercially. More success was had with the Kromoscope, a type of magic lantern that was able to project color transparencies based on Ive’s additive color theory. Panchromatic film was finally made available to the public in 1906.
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 was 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 challenge. Heavy presses on upper shop floors placed a good deal of stress on a building’s structure under normal circumstances, and only increased the threat of collapse when 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 often burnt completely 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 all company records were sometimes consumed by flames.
In the years after the American Civil War a whole new consumer culture began to emerge. Industrial mass production could now 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, aimed directly at the collector. When exposition cards made an appearance soon afterwards, a collecting culture was already in place to accept them. 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. 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 began 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 or 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 a 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 seem 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.
INDUSTRIAL PROPERTY RIGHTS 1884
In March of 1883 the International Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property met in Paris to discuss the possibilities if 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 creating a myriad of trade names for them. Even after revising the treaty in 1900 enforcement was hard to come by and it seems that many printers of postcards used the same techniques under different names. 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, though some techniques would die with the company that invented them.
THE DEPRESSION OF 1893
Many of the exposition cards that the public had been purchasing were done so not 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 years. In the United States, already many years into an agricultural crisis, the year 1893 brought a number of major railroad failures 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 were being imported from Europe, but 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. German printers however, who already had a competitive edge had gained further market share.
Almost all pioneer cards were dedicated to advertising until the larger production of exposition cards began in 1893 for 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’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. As publishing cards in these years was risky business the subjects chosen for them relied on those places that had already been attracting large numbers of tourists for years.
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.
REVIVALS AND REVITALIZING
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 may 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 was this done more than at the seashore. Strips of barren land that previously could not be given away for lack of want now grew into whole 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. All of these trends not only contributed to an environment that was conducive to writing postcards, but also were themselves the subject matter of countless numbers of cards.
While the telegraph added great speed to the transmission of messages they still needed to be transcribed and written down, a process to slow for some time sensitive businesses. In 1853 London became the first city to address this problem by building a pneumatic mail delivery system where cylinders containing paper correspondence would be propelled through tubes by air pressure at high speeds. Paris with 269 miles of air tubes was the largest system to be 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 too expensive to build and maintain. While many European cities used pneumatic mail well into the 20th century, they were shut down in the U.S. 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 special postal stationary for use in their pneumatic systems.
FOUNTAIN PEN 1884
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 people used pencils this small invention made it possible to properly write and mail postcards in the fashion of letters from convenient places, not just a writing desk. 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. But it wasn’t long before the cheep disposable ballpoint arrived, which would drive fountain pens out of general use.
Card stock can be painted with a special photosensitive emulsion containing iron salts, that when exposed to a negative and washed out yields an image in a bright Prussian blue. The paper’s texture is very evident as the emulsion is absorbed into its fibers and doesn’t coat the surface. No developer was need other than a water wash. Invented by Sir John Hirschel in 1842, the cyanotype became popular in the 1880’s because of its simplicity. While this technique is best know 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.
There were also variants of the cyanotype developed in the 1870’s, such as kallitypes, platinotypes, and palladiotypes that used the same basic iron salt chemistry. They are similar in texture to cyanotypes though not in color as they produce silvery browns. As platinum became prohibitively expensive around the First World War, it was largely replaced by palladium, but palladium also soon grew too expensive and by the late 1930’s both methods were rarely used. 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.
In the early years of postcard production it was not always easy to find a picture postcard to purchase. Creative individuals often took it upon themselves to paste pictures or draw onto paper cards, which were usually government postals. While most of these are very crude many were also very interesting. These cards were not produced to create art but to impart a personal touch to correspondence. The desire to create something special is why handmade cards continued to be made even when the availability of published postcards became widespread.
Paste-on cards could often look like homemade cards 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-ons were 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. These types of cards could be printed in small numbers on a jobbing platen or even a hand press, which substantially lessened 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 ones that could fetch high prices were those catering 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. Those with a wider focus created greater circulation that in turn attracted more ads, turning the entire industry on its head. From once being at least 80 percent reader subsidized, advertising would now provide the needed capital to publish. This took magazine publishing out of its high priced niche market, encouraging the rise of cheap general interest magazines. As advertising grew into an industry of its own, ads began to move off of postcards and into these magazines.
CLOSING OF THE WEST
The year 1890 saw the last large scale clash between the U.S. Cavalry and Native Americans with the massacre at Wounded Knee. That same year the Superintendent of the Census could no longer place a frontier line on a map and declared The West closed. Sporadic fighting would go on another eight years but to little effect. 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. While many saw the hypocrisy in the romanticizing of a people we were only recently so eager to destroy, the publics’ fascination with Indians continued to have great appeal. When Buffalo Bill’s Wild West opened at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago it drew sixteen million spectators.
As the West became more romanticized in the publics eye so did their interest in it. 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. This vast array of Western postcards produced would help promote a new mythology of the Western Frontier and shape America’s identity much more than actual historic events. The doctrine of Manifest Destiny that propelled settlers across the continent was further romanticized and would soon begin to be applied to lands well beyond our shores.
No other art movement had as much influence on the design of postcards as Art Nouveau. By the early 1890’s the desire for the beauty of the hand crafted over machine made goods, largely inspired by the Arts & Crafts, and Symbolist Movements, reached the momentum needed to inspire this 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. Every country it spread to added its own local traditions to it. The style’s widespread acceptance was due in part to it being based on aesthetics rather than a political or social dogma. Art Nouveau reached its height in popularity just as postcards began to flourish. Too often this style only accompanied products made specifically for the wealthy but its use in graphic design was a notable exception. Millions were exposed to the style this way and postcards crossing international borders gave it additional exposure. Though Art Nouveau would come to dominated European design, fashion was slow to cross the Atlantic. This style had an influence on American artists but it did not fully take root here being tempered by more austere home grown forms of design. Its influence may have continued to grow in the United States had its supremacy not ended at its base as the Continent was torn apart by war. The beauty inherent in Art Nouveau design continues to make it very popular with collectors.
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. In many respects these were the forerunners of Novelty Cards, for in addition to being die cut into various shapes many 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.