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Birth of the Golden Age
The year 1898 marked the beginning of a publishing boom as the U.S. Government reluctantly gave up its monopoly on printing postcards. The public’s desire for illustrated cards had been firmly established by their pronounced interest in exhibition cards in the previous decade. Now with a rising economy all the pieces were in place for the postcard industry to grow in an attempt to quench the public’s insatiable thirst for cards. Some publishers had created ready stock in anticipation of privatization. It did not take much prodding for others to see where opportunity lay. It would however take some years for this codependent relationship to gain high momentum. Part of the problem was with the Post Office Department, who fearing the loss of revenue issued burdensome regulations regarding the use of cards to limit competition.
America’s fresh victory in its war with Spain in 1898 led to a nation with greater confidence and more curiosity of world affairs, though President McKinley’s assassination in 1901 greatly tempered this optimism. While new anxiety about America’s future slowed business growth once again, new postal regulations issued this same year would ease restrictions on private card production, and publishers began to flourish. By 1905 the collecting and sending of postcards had turned into a full blown craze that encouraged more buyers and sellers to get involved. An abundance of available easy credit in these overly optimistic times created a general business boom that allowed the production of cards to increase dramatically, and postcard collecting turned into the world’s largest hobby. Everyone from the local druggist to paper manufacturing firms became card publishers to get in on this phenomenon. While the growth of the middle class provided most of the buying power to sustain such frivolity, postcards in these years were cheap enough to be purchased by nearly everyone. Even the many poorer immigrants who were arriving in this country in vast numbers with little income to spare to collect cards purchased quantities of them for correspondence in order to keep in contact with scattered family members.
These cards gloried in the innovations of their day, happily presenting the new electric light bulb, the automobile, and the aeroplane. This was also a very conflicted time as modern innovations in the arts and technology were beginning to outpace the static cultural values that remained stuck in the last century at an alarming rate. For lack of other outlets, postcards became sensitive to the accompanying changing social currents of their time. Many cards illustrated these conflicting concerns, vying for a greater market share by addressing them while at the same time still being careful not to press too far beyond accepted social values. Rather than expressing a slice of life, postcards better represented the hopes and fears of this particular time.
Many of the most beautiful and interesting postcards ever made came from this short period, spanning little more than the decade that ran prior to the First World War. They were produced in quality, varieties, and in quantities never to be seen again. Interest these old postcards is what primarily drives today’s collecting market.
Even as the U.S. Government was tiring of the cost to produce postals it remained conflicted about turning the burden of production over to the private sector fearing a loss of revenue. At the same time the popularity of exposition and souvenir cards enticed more publishers into the business and their efforts lobbying for reforms grew ever more powerful. This eventually resulted in the long awaited regulation changes that had been anticipated to allow the private printing of postals, but the had come with a number of new restrictions that would still prove burdensome.
Starting on July 1st, 1898 postcards could be sent through the mail for only one cent regardless of whether they contained a message or not. The Post Office Department also ended its monopoly on the printing of postals, but the words Private Mailing Card - Authorized by the Act of Congress on May 19th, 1898 were required to be printed on the back of all cards not issued by the government. Regulations also required that these cards be slightly smaller than standard size at 3 1/4 by 5 1/2 inches and printed on light colored paper of buff, cream, or gray. Many publishers could not afford to redesign their cards to meet these new regulations and they soon went out of business. Even so, the new lower price coupled with the recovery from five years of depression created an increasing demand for cards, which in turn brought a flurry of new publishers into the market. Some had been waiting for the new regulations to take effect and had cards available for sale by that July. Pictures of larger than typical size were now introduced to the front of cards, though many mailing cards retained the format of the pioneers with only a small illustration and a large blank area for writing.
While the new postal restrictions prevented publishers from issuing cards in the older pioneer formats, there were many such cards already in store racks and in the hands of the public when the Act took effect. Since there were no penalties attached to violations of the Act, pioneer cards continued to be mailed for some time and they were either delivered or sent to the Dead Letter Office at the discretion of the mail handlers. Some pioneer cards, especially those with more border than image would be trimmed down to size.
A SPLENDID LITTLE WAR
Although the United States declared war on Spain in 1898 over disputes regarding Cuba, the first shots to be fired would be in the Philippines when Admiral Dewey’s fleet attacked Manila. Since the American postcard industry was in its infancy at this time, the conflict was only captured on a handful of cards, and these only present the war through broad patriotic themes. What these postcards neglect to show is the great divide this conflict created between those who wished to expand the interests of the United States beyond North America and the anti-imperialist movement. In some ways these new concerns reflected the old arguments over slavery where former Abolitionists opposed war while those seeking to impose segregation at home did not see any need to extend human rights to foreigners of other races. Most cards that reference the war were actually published much later, and it took more time to discover that postcards could be used as a propaganda tool.
The more lasting effects of the Spanish-American War on postcards came as a result of the American occupation of the former Spanish territories of the Philippines, Guam, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. Hawaii was also annexed at this time when it became seen as a military necessity to wage war in the Pacific. Likewise the Canal Zone of Panama was added to U.S. possessions by 1903 as a strategic necessity. As the American Empire increased in size so did the number of postcard publishers that produced views of these newly acquired lands. These publishers tended to be Americans who set up shop overseas while the cards themselves were typically printed in the United States or in Germany. Many other American publishers that had only produced local view-cards up to this point suddenly added far away scenes of these new territories to their inventory to help satisfy the public’s newborn curiosity. Although the Spanish-American War ended relatively quickly, the local insurgency against the American occupation of the Philippines dragged on for years. While our new colony generated much interest back in the states, there was almost no representation of our military presence there outside of generic depictions of camp life. The rare exception to this was the real photo postcards made by local or itinerant photographers that often captured the aftermath of massacres.
The Spanish-American War was only be the beginning of a series of conflicts that would soon engulf Western interests in Asia. In 1900 the Boxer Rebellion had broken and American and European troops were landing on Chinese shores to protect their imperialist interests. By 1905 Japan was fighting a very bloody war with Russia on the Chinese mainland in Manchuria over who would dominate Korea. These Asian conflicts were presented on many postcards as war news and editorial comment, but few were manufactured by American publishers despite growing fascination with things Japanese. Publishers in Japan however not only produced many postcards for use by their soldiers, but many that were titled in English. There was a growing audience for cards depicting this ongoing war beyond that of the two contenders, and it was not unusual to have titles in six languages. This however can make it difficult to determine the country of origin when the name of the publisher or printer is lacking. These postcards were not just curiosities, they were now an important source of pictorial news.
Many European publishers were already producing postcards with a myriad of languages printed on their backs to widely expand their prospects of distribution. As the American empire grew, so did the bilingual printing on cards published overseas. This not only expanded the market into which they could be sold, it allowed for smoother handling by diverse groups of postal employees. Most of the postcards published by Americans in their new territories were largely made for the English speaking audience who could afford to buy them; either those back in the States or by the occupying forces and the commercial interests that followed. This reflected a trend in which most post postcards of world views were not made for locals but for Western tourists and occupiers.
Prior to the 1880’s photographic negatives were produced on glass and used with a freshly made and still wet photosensitive emulsion. After the invention of the dry plate process and roll film, amateurs began taking pictures in great numbers. So many companies started up to supply this new group of consumers that they wound up depressing the entire market. To survive in this highly competitive climate George Eastman developed a complete and easy to use camera system that he named Kodak. His motto, You press the button, we do the rest sums up the marketing strategy that not only allowed him to survive but also propelled him to the top of his field. Although photographs were occasionally sent through the mail as handmade cards during the 19th century, and the first known real photo postcard made its appearance in 1899, they only began to be made in number after Eastman bought the rights to Velox photo paper that was then manufactured with a pre printed postcard back. He began to seriously promote it in 1902 and a year later he put an inexpensive folding camera onto the market that produced negatives the same size as postcards allowing for simple sharp contact printing. No other company put nearly as much money into advertising and great efforts were made to distinguish the artistic quality inherent in real photos from that of printed halftone reproductions. Between 1906 and 1910, Kodak even offered a fee based service where they would process and print real photo postcards for their customers, which greatly added to the convenience and popularity of these cards.
Real photo postcards proved cheaper to make than the traditional cabinet cards that the public was used to collecting, and they soon went out of fashion. With so many people now able to create their own cards with simple Brownie cameras, professional photographers began feeling the loss of revenue from their studio work and most started publishing their own cards to make ends meet. All but the most important portraiture commissions were now shot in the postcard format. Postcard backed photo paper became so common that it was used to make all types of small photos whether there was any intention of mailing them or not. While some photographers became well known for their line of photo cards, most had to become a master of many trades to survive. Local events as well as scenery were captured, printed, and often sold right out of the photographers own studio. Many times elaborate studio props would be made to attract customers for informal portraits. This practice became common at resorts and amusement parks where many photographers took up residence. Many also became salesmen offering their work to other local retail outlets or they sold photo equipment and supplies. Others took up the itinerant life, traveling around the country in search of subjects to shoot and sales to be made.
Labeling real photo postcards was an expensive affair. Since no additional printing was actually required on the card, adding ones name or even a title was an extra step involving time and money that most felt was better spent elsewhere. Printers required minimum orders larger than the number of cards most photographers produced. Professional photographers had the luxury of printing real photos as they needed them, without the expense of maintaining a large inventory. Many cards were simply titled by scratching directly on the negative. Some photo studios would rubber stamp their name onto a card’s back or emboss it into the card by hand, but more often than not it was just left blank. These practices led to a situation where we rarely know today the quantities any particular image was produced in or who made them and where the photograph was taken. Many one of a kind cards produced by amateurs in their homes are indistinguishable from those made in studios in large numbers. Real photo cards exist that possess such great personal charm that there is no doubt they were made by amateurs. Without interest in being artistic or stylish, they often give us the best look into the ordinary lives of people at that time.
People of this time were closer to death than we are today. Many that lived a more rural life often having a hand in the slaughtering of animals, and the death of a child due to disease was a sorrowful but more common event. Death was a public occasion where friends and the community at large were expected to say their goodbyes at the family death bed. Some of this had begun to be hidden under romantic notions in the early 19th century but a more matter of fact approach took hold after Mathew Brady’s exhibit The Dead of Antietam held in 1862. Here in place of romantic heroics, images of bloated and torn bodies lying across this great Civil War battlefield became the focal point of the show. They were meant less to shock than to present an unfiltered reality beyond everyday rhetoric. While romantic traditions did not disappear entirely, an emphasis on realism took hold of both photography and the fine arts in the post Civil War years. This duality would become an ever present factor in the production of postcards.
Photographing the dead became a tradition that was passed down to real photo postcards when they appeared. Many cards were made showing a dead family member, often to be passed out to relatives and friends. It was also not uncommon to see bodies torn apart in battle on postcards as this type of sensationalism found a wide audience. This type of imagery began to be suppressed by official sensors during World War One when it no longer supported propaganda efforts. When death was removed from the community to be hidden away in hospitals, the divorce led to a further reduction of this type of imagery on cards. Eventually images of death became unwelcome and largely disappeared from our view of war and tragedy.
With the new postal regulations of December 24th, 1901, the words Post Card replaced Private Mailing Card on the backs of privately manufactured cards. Government issued cards would retain the title of Postal though the public would soon come to use both names interchangeably. Previously issued restrictions on size and color were also relaxed so the new postcard now looked like the old postal only without pre-printed postage on it. As the trend to grace the front of postcards with ever larger images grew, only a small blank border tab, usually along the bottom or side remained to write a message. Though usually simple these blank spaces were occasionally very creatively designed to fit in with the graphics. As the quality of postcards increased they began to be purchased largely for their pictorial value. The higher quality also created a greater demand that brought many more publishers into the postcard market. The cards these new publishers produced only added to the public’s increasing fascination with them. Many of the names that would rise to importance in postcard publishing were already in business by 1903.
SUNDAY FUNNIES 1893
By 1893 halftone technology had advanced to the point that it offered a convenient alternative to traditional color printing methods. While relatively cheap to use, the process was still expensive when compared to simple black & white printing. Major newspapers, always looking for a competitive edge, were quick to add presses capable of color printing to their operations. Cost however still limited color printing to special Sunday supplements that usually carried comic strips. Pictorial stories had become more common by the 19th century but it was the newspaper comic strip that turned them into a popular genre. The Little Bears, which came out in 1893 was the first to have recurring characters. This format was later used in 1895 for Hogan’s Alley, in 1897 for The Katzenjammer Kids, and in 1902 with Buster Brown. Daily comix would not appear until 1907 with the introduction of Mutt and Jeff. The public’s familiarity with the strip’s characters allowed them to be easily used in single frame images that would be published by newspapers in postcard form by the early 20th century. Postcard publishers also began adding the public’s favorite characters to their own cards, which would evolve into a more generic comic not related to any particular strip.
Though tame in their humor when compared to what they would eventually become, these early cards were not without their detractors. Many saw the comix as an assault on American culture. Not only were they mostly published on Sunday, they were low brow appealing to a largely immigrant audience. Some went as far to call it in print a national shame and degradation. Despite this no measures were taken to control them at this time and production soared. All sorts of humorous postcards unrelated to the familiar newspaper strips would follow. This type of postcard quickly became immensely popular and they are still printed to this day.
NEWSPAPER CARDS 1901
In the late 1880’s the competition among newspapers had grown to a feverish pitch, nowhere better exemplified than in the rivalry between the Journal papers of W. R. Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. They were two of the earliest publishers to print comics in color to attract readers. After Hearst stole the first successful strip, The Yellow Kid, from Pulitzer, their conflict became known as The War of the Yellow Papers. As they started to print scandalous stories and invent news items to attract even more readers, the term Yellow Journalism was coined. Beginning in 1903 Hearst’s New York, Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco newspapers started inserting whole sheets of chromolithographed postcards that its readers could cutout. Many other newspapers would soon adopt this marketing ploy. These cards were printed on paper closer to newsprint in weight than card stock, which has added much to their ragged appearance today. By 1907 newspaper postcards began being replaced by printed cutout dolls and toys. A variation of the cutout card was the coupon card, which some newspapers would print on a weekly basis. These coupons in turn could be redeemed for postcards by mailing them back to the publisher.
RURAL FREE DELIVERY 1902
Postage is paid only to cover the cost of transporting mail from one post office to another post office; traditionally there was no such thing as home delivery. If you were lucky a postman or private company would bring mail directly to your home for an additional fee. It was not until 1863 that the Post Office Department started free home mail delivery service in 49 cities. By 1890 free home delivery had expanded its service to all 454 cities in the nation with over 10,000 inhabitants. Even with these improvements 60 percent of America’s population still lived in a rural environment at the beginning of the 20th century and had very limited access to mail service. It might take a day or two of missed work to go out and pick up a letter at the nearest post office and mail often wasn’t retrieved for months at a time. In 1896 an experiment was finally initiated to deliver mail to regions outside of cities. This was a difficult undertaking since most mail went out by horse and buggy until the service was motorized in 1914. This new service however was so widely acclaimed that in 1902 free rural delivery became an official postal policy. The sudden ability for millions of Americans to easily send and receive mail greatly added to the demand for postcards.
To further encourage postcard sales, some publishers began to hold competitions. No one was better at this than the British publisher, Raphael Tuck & Sons who had been at it since 1880. That year Adolph Tuck offered a 5,000 pound prize for the best Christmas card design and entries flooded in. Starting in 1899 they began offering a large prize to the person who could collect the most Tuck postcards within a two-year period. Duplicates were permitted as long as they were mailed from different locations. An English woman took the prize the first year with a collection of more than twenty thousand cards. By 1906 Tuck was offering prizes for the best alternative uses for postcards other than sending them through the mail. All sorts of household products and furniture were submitted decorated with postcards being pasted onto them.
Walking is an ancient activity that often went beyond necessity to become a compulsion that spread mankind across the globe. Though walking was long used as a sign of religious devotion, the Romantic movement of the late 18th century gave this activity another face and those who could took up walking to heal the spirit and for its pleasure. Walking soon turned to hiking with the formation of clubs, the building of trails, and the writing of guides. Its growth largely paralleled that of postcards as it became an activity of middle class leisure. The popularity of hiking did not decline with the Romantics but grew until those rambling out on carefully laid trails or climbing Alpine peaks became so plentiful they could be considered a movement in itself. A number of artists and photographers belonged to these clubs, and they supplied countless images of hikers and rugged mountains for use on postcards. While many of these cards presented outdoor activities in very naturalistic ways, some chose comic ridicule and still others followed a Romantic path that would have been well received a hundred years earlier.
Growing interest in outdoor activities was not confined to what today we might call sports, for it greatly affected social behavior. In Europe hiking became an important element in youth movements such as Wandervogel, which reinforced spiritual beliefs and national identity. In many ways they were a precursor to the counter culture movement of the 1960’s. Changing attitudes toward women’s roles are also reflected in hiking postcards where they captured the dilemma that women faced when being forced to dress in attire required by moral codes that was no longer suited for the activities they engage in. Even postcard nudes left their classical indoor settings and draped boudoirs to now be posed in gardens and forests. While hiking remained a very popular leisure activity after World War One and the religious like fervor surrounding it spawned many more clubs, its presence in postcard imagery began to decline as publishers tied their fortunes to that of the automobile.
While many were engaging the outdoors through hiking, the introduction of the automobile suddenly provided an unexpected alternative. In production for consumers in Europe since 1888 through Benz & Co., autos began being manufactured in America by Oldsmobile in 1902. While autos now dominate many aspects of our lives there survival was not always assured. Early drivers had to contend with unsuitable roads and unreliable vehicles that they could not conveniently repair or fuel. This led to a love hate relationship that was often expressed on postcards. Though this new mode of transportation was romanticized, automobiles largely became a steady subject for comic postcards that spoke to their inefficiency and the hazards that accompanied them. They proved to be an unwanted disruption to many people’s lives and when this sentiment that belittled them was captured on postcard it enhanced sales. Even though autos lost their novelty after Henry Ford put them into mass production in 1914, our continual fascination with anything automotive caused publishers to go out of their way to feature them on postcards. Even traffic jams were still considered something unique enough to warrant their representation. While many new innovations of these times touched people’s lives, this invention offered more than transport and convenience; its promise of freedom would make it an important symbol relevant to this day. A romance with the automobile soon developed that would find its way onto advertising cards as well as those just aimed at capturing its use.
Applying paint to a printed surface by hand may be the most obvious way to obtain a color picture, and though this technique was widely used on popular prints during the 19th century, it was not commonly applied to postcards until 1902. The hand coloring of postcards was considered a low skill job that was almost always relegated to poorly paid women. Despite modern perceptions, a large percentage of factory workers have always been women, and they were often employed in the printing trades. Each colorist was responsible for one hue, which would be applied to the card in production line fashion. The colors used rarely extended beyond the additive primaries of red, green, and blue, though yellow was often substituted for green. When the German printing industry collapsed at the end of the First World War, most hand coloring of cards moved to Belgium and France. The postcards that were produced in these countries tend to have a more varied pallet than early German cards. The hand colored cards that were first produced in the United States usually consisted of little more than a few simple broad washes across a halftone image, but by the 1920’s they were rivaling the finest cards created in Europe in painting quality. As labor costs grew, this process began declining but before it faded away it saw a temporary resurgence during the years of the Great Depression as low wages once again made hand coloring cheaper than color printing.
Pochoir (French stencil) is a method by which color is added to a postcard by hand with the use of cut stencils as guides. By eliminating the guesswork as to where to apply color, the stencils allowed the colorist to work faster with fewer areas left unpainted by mistake. Unfortunately when working by hand, proper registration was often problematic. Known since the Middle-ages this process was first applied on collotypes to achieve subtle coloration. The technique saw its highest use and popularity during the 1920’s when it was used to create bold flat patterns on fashion and Art Deco cards. This stenciling method eventually evolved into the screenprinting process but by then it was too expensive to use for most commercial printing.
Photographs were originally colored with watercolors and dyes, but if not used carefully they could obscure the image or buckle the paper. They also had a tendency to dry unevenly. Sizing was usually applied to a photograph first so the paint would not damage its delicate surface. Special oil based paints were eventually designed for hand coloring where transparent colors would be painted on and then rubbed off so only subtle traces were left behind. Colors needed to be built up slowly so not to hide the image underneath. Sometimes paints were applied so thickly that the image would lose all sense of natural color and take on abstract qualities. During the 1920’s this mannered method of heavy painting would become a popular style, especially with French made cards. Kodak marketed soluble tinting crayons and Velox coloring kits that contained sheets of colored dyes from which pieces could be torn and dissolved in water. Quite a number of real photo postcards were color tinted, but they make up only a small fraction of overall photo card production.
THE HOLY LANDS
For many centuries Jerusalem lay within a Province of the Ottoman Empire but its significance to all the religions of the Levant made it and the surrounding lands of Palestine an important point of pilgrimage to many of faith. Ever since the 19th century photographers have followed in the steps of these pilgrims out of religious devotion or simply to make a profit. For some this was a visit, for others Palestine became their new home. There was a huge market for this imagery among Christians and Jews all over the world and so it was inevitably appropriated by postcard publishers as well. Many publishers who had only previously produced postcards of local or regional views were able to add this far away land to their inventory because of the demand for it. Most customers looking for depictions of the Holy Land never traveled to it. These views were not purchased as souvenirs but as a symbol of faith. Images of Palestine became the only foreign views an average store might carry and postcards were often the only source of such imagery readily available to the public.
In 1903 Theodore Roosevelt bought out French interests in their failed attempt to build a canal across the Panama Isthmus, and construction on a new canal began the following year. The finished project came to rest in the U.S. controlled Panama Canal Zone, which was strategically important for a nation with a two ocean navy. While the canal’s creation led to a significant military presence in Central America, its potential importance in cutting travel time and shipping distance between the Atlantic and Pacific ports in the United States by half is what engaged most Americans. The massive scale of this project also inspired much interest and reverence; it was a practical example of faith in technology and the better world it would provide. It was also a symbol of America’s greatness and destiny as we began to acquire an overseas empire after our war with Spain in 1898. In many ways the Canal Zone became a modern Holy Land representing our faith in modern ideals. Many publishers who never created views outside of their own locality, with the possible exception of Jerusalem, were suddenly carrying postcards of the Canal’s construction. As thousands of workers, shopkeepers, and military personnel poured into the Zone from the United States they created an addition impetus to produce postcards that could be sent back to those at home. View-cards of the Panama Canal continued to be made after its completion in 1914, but they seem far less common than those early cards that depict its construction with a bit of reverence.
PHOTO SUPPLY HOUSES 1904
While large publishers grew desperate in their attempts to acquire photographs to meet the ever increasing demands of the postcard collecting public, many small publishers could not even afford to hire a photographer to produce images for them. Out from this problem grew a new type of business that would warehouse large quantities of negatives and then sell specific subjects on request. Brown Brothers was the first such company, founded in 1904 with a staff of twelve photographers. At first they only targeted large newspapers, which at this time often did not have their own staff photographers. They eventually found that postcard publishers were desperate for their images as well, and developed close ties to the industry. These types of relationships were a forerunner to the stock photography industry that began with the H. Armstrong Roberts Agency in 1920. Photo supply houses and large postcard publishers both sent agents out across the country buying up all the negatives held in stock by various local photographers. They amassed giant collections of images this way, but rarely noting or often forgetting who supplied them or when these pictures were taken. To this day photographs from this period are often attributed incorrectly or to multiple photographers. Images taken decades before the advent of postcards were printed in the mad rush to find unpublished pictures. While the historic date of the depiction is occasionally offered as part of the card’s caption, they were more often than not printed to pass for contemporary scenes.
Catalogs of stock photographs were distributed to potential publishers to display the diversity of images that were available for printing. Small shops might find a picture of their hometown this way, ready for publication. Most of these photos were not copyrighted for the photographer was rarely willing to go through the expense of this drawn out process. Not only was the photographer’s name and date required to be added onto the image, a registration form needed to be filled with the Government along with two copies of the photo. Most photographers wound up with little to no say of how their work would be used and were not given any credit. When credit was given, it usually went to the owner of the negative who was not necessarily the photographer who took it. Stock houses also sold the same images to different publishers at the same time without any regard to how this might affect their client’s profits. It is not uncommon to see the image on a real photo postcard reprinted as a lithograph by one company, and in gravure by yet another. Some publishers just bought real photo cards right off store racks and sent them off to be printed under their own name. After copyright reforms in 1909 brought all regulations under one act, a broader scope of protection was established though many abuses continued.
Works of fine art have long been reproduced on postcards, but those from the early 20th century were very different from the casual reproductions purchased from museums today. They took the form of art cards that reproduced famous paintings in the exhausting hues of chromolithography or gravure where over twenty separately printed colors were sometimes needed to achieve subtle effects. They belong to the tradition of art prints popularized in the 19th century as cheap alternatives to oil paintings. Art cards had a certain status as they were meant to be looked upon as collectible works of art in themselves rather than a means for correspondence. Even the paper they were printed on tended to be heavier than ordinary card stock. They demanded higher prices than ordinary view-cards, sometimes as much as ten cents, so they would not have been casually thrown into the mail. While many of these cards were commissioned by museums and other cultural institutions, high quality publishers mainly produced them on their own and then sought outlets for their sale.
Not all cards depicting artworks were made as high quality art cards, and they should just be looked upon as ordinary art reproductions. Methods of printing varied, though most seem to have been made by the tricolor process. Many were printed in black & white to reduce cost, and they were also issued in the form of real photo cards. They outnumber art cards by a considerable degree as museums who published a great number of art reproductions did not always want to expend large sums on cards, especially if they had limited budgets. Cheaper cards also appealed to those visitors who just wanted a postcard for mailing rather than for collecting. Art reproductions often captured subjects not found in museums such as murals from public buildings and large painted cycloramas depicting historical events for tourists. These types of cards often found their way onto racks amongst ordinary view-cards where they could be purchased as souvenirs. Other imagery taken from popular culture was also reproduced on postcards with varying quality.
ARTIST SIGNED CARDS
While seemingly all the same, a very different type of art card were those that reproduced illustrations specifically designed for postcards. Those that display the artist’s signature are now known as artist signed cards, though sometimes it is enough for unsigned work that was specifically designed for postcard use to be put into this category. The artist’s signature is not actually on the card but on the original work of art that is reproduced along with the signature. Amidst the great volume of anonymous cards, the signature allows specific images to be paired with the artist that created it. This is of interest to many collectors today even though the artist’s name might have had little significance to those who originally purchased these cards. In general the card buying public seems to have been very comfortable with this anonymity. While publishers often paid high prices to very popular illustrators and showed of their signatures for status, the signatures of many others were left off on purpose to prevent these artists from gaining too high a reputation and demanding more money. Artists without a strong reputation were generally considered insignificant to the card making process and their work was often altered at will and discarded after a card was printed.
Between 1880 and 1920 both the quality and the demand for illustration was at its height. The distinction between applied art and the fine arts wasn’t as great then as it is now and leading artists of the day provided many of the pictures found on postcards. Some artists who had become famous for other types of graphic works such as posters readapted their designs to specifically look good in the smaller postcard format. Fine artists also formed cooperatives from which they could publish their own cards. In an age when a dearth of imagery was available to the public, many of these cards proved highly influential in providing information as to what other contemporary but far away artists were doing. Most illustrated cards however did not deal with artistic concerns but simply preyed on the public’s love for the sentimental. Countless postcards were infused with emotional overtones when dealing with the popular themes of patriotism, animals, children, and the American West. The value placed on artist signed cards has constantly shifted with the popularly of individual artists and changing fashion and taste.
Anthropomorphic depictions of animals could already be widely found in illustration when postcards first began to be printed. Although as old as mankind itself, the inclination to give animals human traits became extremely common in the 19th century following the growth of children’s literature. Animals depicted in this manner could easily substitute for human stereotypes thus simplifying narrative content, which became very convenient when applying it to impolite topics. For this reason anthropomorphism was widely employed in satirical and political cartoons. It did not take long for these types of images to be produced in large quantities as artist signed cards and staged real photo cards as well. Dressed representations of animals eventually became so ingrained in popular culture that Postmasters sometimes confiscated cards containing images of animals in their unclothed natural state as indecent material.
After the halftone process provided a cheap and easy way to produce pictures, it freed many artists from the mechanics of reproduction work and they moved on to create original illustrations. At the same time the inexpensive halftone image also increased the desirability of producing pictorial ads for many companies. By the beginning of the 20th century the increase in advertising led to vast growth in consumer research and ad-agencies. When the U.S. Postal Service established a flat rate for advertising in 1914, it grew at a phenomenal rate. As advertising itself became a large industry, it became the most prominent influence on graphic design, and the reputation of many illustrators went down in the public’s esteem. Design was now being perceived as just another form of marketing. With this change in perception fewer artist signed postcards were produced. With the coming of the Second World War, the works of the last great illustrators from postcard’s golden age were largely replaced by comics and photographs.
THE NEW AMERICAN WOMAN
As the American middle class grew, more women began to receive an education and their desire to step out into the world increased as well. This however was also a time of expectations outpacing social realities, and the proper role that women should play in society became one of the most socially disruptive issues of the age. This paradox resulted in a great public demand for illustrations depicting women, not necessarily in traditional ways but pictured exploring social boundaries. While there was a growing acceptance of female sexuality, its expression was largely repressed in the self-confident but innocent representations of women who would never betray the manners of their bourgeois upbringing. While depictions of women were largely still confined to a number of prescribed roles, publishers searching for larger market share created a New American Woman on their postcards even if she did not yet exist in reality.
The popular image of the Gibson Girl, drawn by the immensely popular illustrator Charles Dana Gibson, represented an exceptional dramatic shift in the traditional portrayal of woman. While her physical attractiveness influenced public standards of beauty and made her appealing to many men to the point of becoming a pseudo pinup, the Gibson Girl’s larger appeal was among young woman who were not only inspired by her looks but by the subversive qualities of sexuality and independence that she embraced. She is highly representative of this conflicted time, becoming widely accepted as a feminine ideal in ink by a public that generally did not readily accept the values she expressed in real life.
A differing version of the New Woman could also be found on postcards originating from Europe at this time, though her depictions here were not of a consistent nature. In the newer, more socially progressive nations of Europe such as Germany, women were often sexualized while those countries that were struggling to preserve their cultural identity in a fast changing world such as England tended to degrade women portrayed in any rolls outside of traditional norms. The growing demands of women in all nations had a disturbing effect on those comfortable with the status quo and this growing battle was taken up by postcard publishers, not so much as a social movement but as a testing of the waters. Card publishers supplied what the public demanded and the public seemed widely interested in images that safely challenged accepted values they may have outgrown. Wherever there was a strong denial of female sexuality, those images depicting sexualized women were often embraced by progressives as symbols of independence rather than exploitation. This attitude led women to become the largest market for cards depicting women.
The flatbed cylinder press, used in relief printing, evolved from the early rolling presses used for intaglio work. A form sat on the flat bed of a press while paper was fed on top of it from a long paper roll then both were pressed together with a heavy cylinder. In 1846 R. Hoe discovered a method by which type could be placed on a cylinder (stereotyping) and the first rotary press was born. Its advantage over other presses was its speed but governments that were used to taxing individual paper sheets hampered the development of this promising technology that used rolls of paper (webs). Lithography at this time could make very little use of rotary presses because the thick brittle stones the images were drawn on could not be bent, and the alternative thin textured metal litho-plates were just too delicate and they wore out quickly.
The rotary press would inspired the idea of incising the metal press cylinder itself to run over fed paper for continuous printing. Photogravure had already been used in commercial printing since the feed paper press was developed in 1863, but there was no way to expose a shaped substrate like a cylinder to a photograph through a halftone screen. In 1895 Karl Klic discovered a way to infuse a halftone screen directly into photosensitive gelatin tissue that could be exposed to an image while lying flat before being adhered to the cylinder. This method allowed halftone images to finally be used with gravure on rotary presses. Rather than patent and license his invention, Klic hoped his Rembrandt Intaglio Printing Co. could keep a monopoly on the process; but when an apprentice left for America he took the secret with him. By 1904 rotogravure was in widespread use, which included the production of postcards.
In 1908 two textile printers dramatically changed the way rotogravure would be used. Ernst Rolffs invented a new method of screening rotogravure cylinders where instead of etching an irregular grain into the cylinder with the aid of rosin powder, a line screen imbedded in the gelatin tissue would be used first to impart a regular grid pattern. A depressed ink cell would then be etched to different levels between the lines of this grid so that each would hold a different amount of ink corresponding to the image to which it was exposed. Once etched the cylinder could now turn through a bath of fluid ink while a doctor blade, invented by Eduard Merens, would remove the excess ink from its surface. The image itself was protected from the blade by the raised grid lines that held it. This mechanical inking process sped up printing time considerably and it started replacing the old hand inking and wiping methods within two years. While many American printers rejected the rotogravure process because of cost, it became the mainstay of European monochrome printing.
In 1904 the Cirkut Camera, capable of capturing a 360-degree panorama was patented. Although this device was employed in postcard production, most panoramic cards were made by cropping and contact printing traditional large format glass negatives that could produce panoramas of two or three panels. Even when longer images were desired, there was rarely any loss of fidelity because the great detail these negatives captured easily allowed for enlargement. Cirkut cameras and the similar models that followed were primarily designed for taking large group photographs, but the landscape had been the most common theme for panoramic paintings for some time, and this tradition continued on with postcards. Since they were printed two, three, four, sometimes eight times the typical postcard length they were most often folded so they could be mailed as regulation sized postcards. The rarity of these cards increases with the number of folds they contain. Some long unfolded cards were also produced and panoramic compositions were placed on ordinary sized cards creating very large blank areas alongside it. Many of these paneled cards have not aged well and have torn apart from excessive folding. A single card with one torn edge, especially without any title or markings on the back, is usually a sign that it is only a piece of what was once a much larger card. Though sometimes labeled as novelty cards, panoramic postcards are usually just considered a variation of the view-card.
The influx of immigrants to the United States has always directly correlated to the famines, wars, political unrest, persecutions, and economic failures in other nations. In the years that postcards grew most in popularity, immigration to America was at its height. In 1906 The Bureau of Immigration was founded in an attempt to help control their numbers. As the golden age of the postcard began, nearly 14 percent of the entire U.S. population was foreign born. In places like New York, an important entry point, the foreign born made up 26 percent of the State’s population. Immigrants soon became to be seen as a specific type closely associated with New York City and thus were most often presented on cards from that location in a stereotypical manner. Postcards created a safe distance through which poverty and squalor could be romanticized.
Even though many postcards were produced depicting scenes of immigrants and their communities, it is difficult to judge who they were predominantly marketed towards. These new arrivals became a general subject of pictorial interest to many people already here, as were all cards of types, and at the same time immigrants created a new market for postcards themselves. This demographic had much need to communicate with scattered family members, and as postcards were cheaper to mail than letters and readily available, they became the popular choice of correspondence. While postcards also had the benefit of providing pictures of a new home, this enticement could only go so far. Even at a penny, a postcard was an extravagance that many immigrants struggling to survive just could not afford to mail let alone collect.
James Clerk Maxwell created the first color photographic image in 1861. It was based on the additive color process where black & white transparencies would be projected through red, green, and blue filters resulting in a natural looking picture. The Lumière brothers patented the autochrome process in 1906 based on the same additive color theory. Only here a layer of dyed potato starch granules was combined within a panchromatic emulsion where the grain could act as tiny RGB color filters. When processed, the final result was a one of a kind positive color glass transparency, not a color print. There had been previous attempts at creating color photographs, but it was not until the release of panchromatic emulsion from its patent in 1904 that natural color reproduction was possible. It was not only incorporated into the Lumière process, it allowed color separations for printing to be more easily made. Although autochromes quickly grew in popularity, the film was expensive and its speed was too slow for many photographers. It was adapted to tricolor printing, but the colored inks needed to render proper natural color did not yet exist. Autochrome film would improve in the years that followed, and it would have growing competition, but it never came to revolutionize commercial printing. Even so, it remained the only viable commercial source of natural color photographs until 1936.