> History   Home   Glossary   Guides   Publishers   Artists   Techniques   Topicals   Warfare   Blog   Contact

1848-1872  1873-1897  1898-1906  1907-1913  1946-1976  1977-2017

Post Cards
Between the Wars


While new Congressional Acts would lift the 1909 tariffs imposed against foreign producers of postcards the damage was already done. By 1913 the postcard market had bottomed out as cards were dumped at discount prices, and poorer quality cards were already beginning to become dominant. The First World War would add unforeseen circumstances into play that would further hurt the sale of cards. These new unexpected elements superseded the market forces that normally drove card production, taking many important decisions out of the hands of publishers. Many of the resources required by printers suddenly became difficult to find or denied to them completely as they were diverted towards war production. Even so postcards continued to be manufactured and purchased for they played an important role in keeping up wartime morale, and were also an important tool in spreading propaganda. The war years themselves really need to be looked at as a closed interim period in regard to postcards, for the surrounding events did not follow any sort of historical progression. While the new circumstances had great influence on postcards, they just suddenly appeared and then ended.

The postwar years remained troubled and full of uncertainty as the old social order collapsed. The printing industry following the war was a shadow of its former self. Some companies had merged in efforts to save themselves but many of the best publishers and printers went out of business completely. Printing supplies were low, costs were high, and the poor quality of the cards produced ended the public’s fascination with them. The postcards that continued to be produced seemed to reach out to two different audiences. Many of the underlying social and political problems of the times were ignored by those of the war weary public that could, and the Roaring Twenties were marked by much frivolity and disregard for traditional values and authority. Postcard subjects reflected this attitude by becoming generally light in nature. While the San Francisco earthquake caused a multitude of postcard images to be produced, the more widespread disaster of the great 1927 Mississippi flood just nineteen years later barely had any effect on card production. Ordinary view-cards for tourists had become the dominant trend leaving news events to be covered by other media.

This was also a time when the modernist attitudes of the prewar years were just starting to be felt. The anxiety this created greatly limited its inclusion in postcard imagery while social fears were more explicitly expressed in the form of racism. There was little in this time too outlandish to keep it from being made into a postcard. While most postcards in general were turning into nothing more that pretty pictures they were also being used to express political and social agendas in ever increasing numbers. Just as the postcard industry was seeing new growth it was suddenly faced with the onset of a great economic depression. Desperate people sought out radical solutions and the ranks of the Communists and Fascists grew. Postcards issued for the purposes of propaganda grew with them but America’s isolationist tendencies would largely keep postcard production focused on tourism.

Three types of cards would dominate this period, all influenced by hard economic realities if not political ones; white border cards, hand colored cards, and those printed in monochromes. Both linen and photochrome cards would have their introduction in these years, but as with the First World War, the Second World War would again usher in austerities, and delay the production photochrome cards in any significant numbers.




When the First World War opened in 1914 it created a great disruption in postcard production and distribution. Some of the world’s best printing houses were located in Germany and Austria-Hungary, and while they continued to print large quantities of high quality cards during the war years, nations that relied heavily on these foreign printers could not make up this entire loss through their own production. Nations that may have had the industrial capacity for printing, often lacked vital supplies to carry it out. Most resources as was transport were now diverted toward the military; and eventually men working in the printing trades were called up for military service at the battlefront. Despite the difficulties of producing cards in wartime, printers also found new opportunities as new needs arose.


On top of already declining postcard sales spurred by high tariffs, the flow of cards from Germany and Austria-Hungary were cut off from the American market by the war. While the neutrality of the United States should have allowed it to continue trade, the British naval blockade insured that no merchant ships would leave Germany for any destination. Overconfident American publishes tried to make up the difference, but while they increased volume, they lacked the trained craftsmen to capture the same quality of European cards. Even the lack of printing ink normally imported from Germany hampered production. The postcards that were manufactured largely focused on prewar themes, with little attention given to the growing conflict in Europe. Those that addressed the topic focused more on political divisions at home than raging battles overseas. Some cards called for peace, some criticized American arms shipments, and still others emphasized the need for military preparedness for a conflict that looked as if it would eventually consume the world.


American neutrality did not stop President Wilson from propping up the Allied war effort with loans and a steady supply of ammunition. Although Germany bitterly complained and tried to stop this trade with their U-boats, they were always fearful of bringing America into the War. When the passenger liner Lusitania was sunk in May 1915, it caused outrage in the United States, which then caused Germany to alter its policies at sea. Eventually Germany calculated that an unlimited U-boat war against Britain would force it out of the war before the United States could make a substantial difference, and the resulting loss of American lives finally pushed Wilson towards war. Congress would pass a declaration of war against the Central Powers on April 6, 1917. This would have a dramatic affect on postcard production.


As the war disrupted international trade, the insular qualities of each nations printing industry became more apparent. Differences in postcard production were not only caused by differing resources and production capacity; each nation had its own cultural foundation and varying outlooks to how postcards should be used. While Germany had a more matter of fact approach that allowed for a wide variety of subjects to be reproduced, French cards tend to stir up hatred for the enemy. With many civilians anxious for war news. European publishers captured every furious battle scene they could, significant or not. After 1916, when everyone realized the end of the War was nowhere in sight, these types of depictions began to decrease. American cards not dealing with propaganda tended to focus on the everyday life of soldiers that captured the many minute details of a regimented life. Most of these cards depicted generic scenes of training and military camps. The great expansion of the army created a greater need for such cards so recruits could communicate with family.


Although the American Expeditionary Force was not expected to be properly trained and equipped until 1919, the need for proof of commitment to boost French morale was so great that troops began arriving in the summer of 1917. They were paraded down the streets of Paris past exuberant crowds, soon finding themselves the subject of many French postcards. As the presence of American troops in France surpassed a million, the ability to supply them all with postcards to write home became precarious. While such a need might seen superfluous when considering the resources needed to keep an army supplied, it was realized how important correspondence was to keeping up a soldiers morale as well as support for the war at home. Many cards came to be supplied by service organizations such as the Red Cross, Salvation Army, and the YMCA. French publishers also did their part producing many cards depicting American soldiers. At first these were captioned in English with French backs, but as supplies became short, many cards oriented toward Americans were printed solely in French.


Not all postcards related to the War carried warlike images. The most popular exceptions were sentimental cards that fed on the anxiety caused by the separation of loved ones in times of danger. It did not matter whether the card was reminding a soldier that he had loved ones at home who cared about him, or from a soldier telling his family or girlfriend that he missed them, they all revolved around acknowledging social bonds. Some of these cards even had religious overtones implying that the serviceman was being watched over by a higher power that supported his cause. While these types of cards dealing with basic human emotions were popular in the United States, similar cards were produced in all other nations as well.

Real Photo Postcard

The crisis created by Germany’s 1918 spring offensive brought American troops into combat much sooner than expected. Although they took part in heavy fighting along the Marne, St. Mihiel, the Meuse and Argonne Forest, little of this combat was depicted on printed postcards. Censorship meant that only official images could be printed, and these were largely supplied by the U.S. Signal Corp who assigned a photographer and a motion-picture operator to each division. While tens of thousands of photographs were taken, the Army severely restricted their distribution. Unlike their European counterparts, these images tended to shy away from the more gruesome aspects of battle. More candid shots, taken unofficially by officers who brought personal cameras with them to the front lines also found their way onto postcards; but since such activity was unsanctioned, most were probably not produced until after the War ended.


Unity postcards, promoting the alliances between nations, was a very popular genre during the First World War. This was no doubt attributable to the fact that many countries united in war were traditional enemies, and an effort needed to be made to turn long standing hatreds around. Although their was some animosity toward France due to their support of the Confederacy during the American Civil War, this new conflict resurrected memories of cooperation in helping win American independence from Britain during the Revolution. The French in particular produced most of these types of cards, many of which include depictions of the Statue of Liberty. By this time the colossus in New York Harbor had come to represent more than Franco-American friendship; it had become a symbol of the United States. The Great War expanded it meaning internationally, and it came to be seen as liberty personified all over the world. The Statue of Liberty became the most commonly used icon on foreign cards to represent the Allied cause.



Even though a War Tax of one cent was added to postage between 1917-1919 further discouraging the use of postcards, there were also added incentives for their use. Americans of German ancestry were our largest single ethnic group, and many who emigrated here were of a pacifist nature. The draft in the American Civil War abused their community badly, and this wrong was still in many minds. All this added up into a great resistance to enter the War in Europe against their cousins, and they added great political weight to an already divided nation. To help propel the country’s march toward war and encourage enlistments, the Committee on Public Information was formed by executive order under the journalist George Creel, an enthusiastic Wilson supporter. Through censorship, propaganda and a keen understanding of human psychology, Creel would turn the public’s lukewarm acceptance of the War into a passionate anti-German frenzy. Tens of thousands of community leaders across the country were specially selected to promote the War, and a team of artists headed by Charles Dana Gibson were assembled to create work for billboards, posters, and postcards. Soon patriotic rhetoric and anti-German propaganda abounded.


Despite the need to spread propaganda, there was also a great desire to control the message as can be seen in the orders given to the Postmaster General by President Wilson. The Espionage Act of 1917 allowed cards deemed suspicious, like any written in a foreign hand, to be confiscate and sent to the Solicitor of the Post Office Department for investigation. Cards found expressing pro-Irish or anti-British sentiments were also seized and destroyed. Dissenters from government policy were officially denied mail delivery, and at least one post office was closed because the community it served vocally opposed America’s entry into the War. The American Protective League was formed to turn in their fellow citizens thought to be subversive anarchists, antiwar activists, labor organizers or just too sympathetic toward Germany. Many wound up being arrested without due process and others deported without any formal charges. Imprisonment was a possibility for anyone who interfered with the military’s prosecution of the War. More rights were suppressed by the Sedition Act of May 16, 1918, which prohibited alternative viewpoints to be aired, as all criticism of the U.S. Government was now considered a criminal offense. Sending messages on open postcards became a risky business.

Silk Embroidered Card


In wartime the flow of cash is usually tight but British and American troops serving overseas often had more pay than they had opportunities to spend it. They quickly became a tempting target for French entrepreneurs who saw these soldiers as the perfect audience for postcards. A unique industry sprang up where local women and refugees would sew belts of silk embroideries in their homes and then send them out to a shop to be cut apart and folded into embossed cards. These colorful handmade designs had quite an appeal and were sold in droves. Most had floral themes with simple messages in English that mimicked traditional greeting cards, but many also had patriotic and military themes. Although most of these expensive cards were mailed home to family and sweethearts under cover, many others were purchased for souvenirs at the War’s end. Production of these cards dwindled then ended as American occupation forces were brought home.



While there was no major fighting in German cities, the War wound up destroying the German printing industry all the same through postwar reparations of industrial equipment and trade secrets. Germany would never regain its former glory to figure as substantially in American postcards again. Printers in the United States and Great Britain stepped in to fill this void but the poor quality of many of these cards only helped finished off the postcard craze. Americans quickly turned their interests away from war motifs but troubled times persisted. While an Armistice was signed in 1918 fighting continued as World War turned to Civil War in Russia and revolution came to Germany and Ireland. Great influenza outbreaks killed tens of millions. Dramatic policy changes to keep out immigrants were introduced, The Federal Constitution would be amended twice as prohibitionists attempted to stop the consumption of alcohol, and woman suffragists demanded the vote. Eugenics and Fascism were on the rise, and the Ku Klux Clan was approaching its height. As the old order collapsed the battle lines did not as world began a slow march toward another great war.


The first case of this particular flu appeared in March of 1918 but it wasn’t until that Fall that everyone realized that a crisis was at hand. It quickly began infecting young adults not only at an alarming rate but killing them as well. With a world at war the large bodies of men that were concentrated together then shipped overseas helped contribute to its spread until no country was untouched. Hospitals that may have treated the ill were already overburdened with the wounded from many battlefronts. Estimates of its effects continue to grow upwards but it is probably impossible to truly know the all devastation it caused especially in more remote places. Perhaps a third of the world was infected, which in turn led to the death of three percent of the world’s population. Over two years about 675,000 died in the United States from the flu. More than half of American casualties in the Great War were flu related and as it spread through the trenches it may have rendered the end of the War inevitable.

Postcard Back Detail

Despite efforts by public health services to slow the flu’s spread by limiting or banning public gatherings, requiring masks to be worn in public, and setting up quarantines, there were simultaneous efforts by most governments to suppress panic. With other nations enforcing censorship laws, the newspaper’s of Spain were the first to give the epidemic extensive coverage. Soon most people began to think it originated there, a notion that was officially encouraged to cast out blame, and it became widely known as the Spanish Flu. Even without government censorship postcard publishers had little interest in covering this subject. Except for a few real photo cards of people in masks or patients in bed, independent photographers who had been historically important in decimating news also largely left this subject alone. With everyone susceptible to this widespread disease of which no one seemed immune, there was no market for mementoes. Depictions of disaster are only popular when they are the misfortune of others but are not sellable in a climate of fear. The images placed on postcards are chosen carefully to maximize sales and profit, and in turn they do not always adequately represent the times they were made in. The senders of postcards however were not under such constraints and even with the limited capacity of a card personal messages often gave insights into the times. Much knowledge of this pandemic faded with peoples memories over the years as little physical evidence was left behind. Postcards were not only capturing part of our history but distorting it as well if only by omission.

Real Photo Postcard


At the end of the Great War in 1918 not all Americans found themselves on the way home. President Wilson, who had campaigned on a peace platform would take the United States into more foreign military incursions than any other president. For a few more years we would be battling the Reds on two fronts in Siberia. This action was actually a bit of an anomaly as the Wilson Administration had largely involved our military with interventions to our south. In 1912 there were military landings in Cuba and Nicaragua, Haiti in 1915, and the Dominican Republic and Cuba once again in 1916. Although some of these occupations went on for many years, there is little recognition of any of these small wars on postcards. Because all these conflicts were very unpopular with the American public and highly criticized abroad there was little market for postcards depicting them and few were published. Those that do exist tend to be be made in real photo postcard form by individual photographers looking to make some money. Our actions against Mexico proved to be more of an exception to this rule. The Tampico Affair led to an American attack on Veracruz in 1914, almost causing an all out war, but our Marines had left after six months of occupation. For a relatively brief action a good number of real photo postcards were produced, some even capturing the sporadic fighting in the city’s streets. Many real photos also captured scenes from the punitive expedition against Pancho Villa from 1916 to 1917. As General Pershing was consumed with chasing phantoms for most of his time spent in Mexico, many of the cards depicting his army and Texas border posts are rather mundane, though interspersed with occasional gruesome scenes. While many printed postcards were produced as well they tend to lack the immediacy of those images made by front line photographers.

INBETWEEN    1923-1936



Because the water-based inks of the 15th century would bead up on Gutenberg’s metal type, he designed one based on oil paint to print the very first book. Little had changed in the next 400 years until the field of Organic Chemistry evolved in the 19th century when much of this new found knowledge was applied to the manufacture of colorants. Many of the new colors acquired were popular but proved to be unstable, fading or changing hue over time. As fierce competition grew between England and Germany to invent and patent new synthetics, more careful research was applied to insure color stability. When six of Germany’s largest companies merged into IG Farben, this cartel became the world’s largest manufacturer of chemicals including inks and dyes. These cartel agreements almost created a complete German monopoly as they now controlled 88 percent of all colorant production. They were known to purchase chemical patents from other Countries then refused to grant licenses back to them. Although American printing ink began being manufactured in 1816, and its manufacture picked up with chromolithographic production in the 1880’s, the great majority of inks were still imported from Germany despite protectionist tariffs. The Great War created a worldwide crisis in printing as ink supplies dwindled. At one point the United States did not have enough ink to print money let alone color postcards. At War’s end the German ink industry was devastated along with their printing houses. Many of their industrial patents were seized as war prizes and new manufacturing centers grew elsewhere. This crisis also inspired more research into synthetic pigments and dyes but it took years to catch up and postcard quality suffered for it. Laissez faire economic policies eventually allowed the German chemical industry to reestablish itself causing America’s fledgling industry to become codependent with it. It would take another World War for the United States to appropriate more trade secrets as spoils and eventually lead the world in ink production.

Most postcards were printed with inks consisting of dry pigments ground into oils or resins. Dyes however were another source of color, and their greater density created much stronger effects than pigment could. They are also receptive to additives such as optical brighteners. We understand today that light excites electrons as they passes through dyes making the colors more intense. For dyes color emerges as a function of light energy, not reflected light. Unfortunately when used for printing their more watery consistency allows them to soak into a paper’s fibers instead of lying on the surface like traditional pasty inks. This in turn led to dull soft looking images. Combined with their slow drying time, dyes were impracticable for commercial printing until further advances were made in technology in the 1930’s.


WHITE BORDER CARDS   1913 - 1930’s

There had been a steady trend of increasing image size on postcards since the early vignettes of private mailing cards to the full bleeds that became common after the divided back was introduced. Most postcards were printed on large sheets to save on cost, and the paper was cut down to size afterwards. To produce cards with bleeds the printing image must actually be larger than the card and the narrow bands of excess image between them carefully trimmed off. In 1913 as German cards began to grow more expensive then impossible to import, American printers began manufacturing postcards in greater numbers followed by a noticeable increase in white borders. Since this type of card only needed to be cut apart they could be printed utilizing a workforce with fewer skills than were typically found in German printing houses. A white border was more forgiving for small mis-cuts would only affect the blank border and not the image itself. The use of these borders became very common on postcards produced in the 1920’s and into the 1930’s. Not all companies used white borders but with less competition in the printing trades the handful of major firms that did employ them produced such a high percentage of cards to turn them into a noticeable style. The ink shortages at the end of the World War further encouraged this trend. Even when ink supplies were revived the cost saving aspect of this procedure in materials and labor ensured its popularity among printers. Though White Border cards usually did not have the same quality as those produced just a decade earlier, some companies managed to publish outstanding images. The pictures on them often tended to become more stylized and less detail oriented. White Border Cards are defined by the period they were most popular in and should not be confused with postcards that have a white border. White borders were used on postcards throughout the 20th century.

Real Photo Postcard


Between the two World Wars there were a number of technological developments that would change the face of photography and the way it was incorporated into postcards. In 1914 Kodak introduced their Autographic camera that had a special door in the back allowing photographs to be easily labeled by writing directly on a negative with a scribe. 1914 was also the year that Germany’s Ur-Leica readapted motion picture film to create a 35mm still camera. It was not to be mass marketed until the 1920’s, and this format only became popular in the 1930’s. The smaller negatives now required postcard sized prints to be enlarged, often with an easel to hold the paper in place, and white borders became more common. The increasing number of small sized negatives from a growing variety of amateur cameras now available also continued to be contact printed adding some unusually broad borders on to cards. With the invention of the PACO high-speed photo printer in 1910, up to 1,200 real-photo cards could be contact printed in an hour. It was not until 1937 with the new Velox rapid projection printer that photo cards could be mass produced by enlarging. In the 1940’s when continuous paper processors, based on motion picture technology were introduced, the rate of production doubled. A whole new generation of faster photo papers was also created in these years to accommodate the growing interest in the enlarging process.


During the years of the First World War interest in real-photo postcards did not decline as fast as those in print because their supply and quality was not dependent on imports and they remained readily available. As the ability to produce photo cards became cheaper and faster some firms reprinted images shot decades earlier. Though brighter, glossier, and containing more contrast, they often lack the more homemade charm of handmade cards. While the Kodak Girls appeared around the Country to encourage the public to take up photography, real-photos postcards started loosing their popularity in the 1930’s as other sources of photographic imagery became more widespread. Real photo postcards have all but disappeared in the years following the introduction of the full natural color photo-like photochrome card.



Racism like the risqu&eaqute; is often hard to pin down when looking at it from a distant retrospect. While many real photo postcards may have depicted horrific racial crimes such as lynching and the burning of Black communities, their message is somewhat dependent on the perspective they are viewed from and not from content alone. Traditionally most ethnic people were depicted without showing overt racial intent, but the images were carefully chosen to make sure their inhabitants did not look too autonomous or equal in stature to the purchaser of the card. It is this setting apart as a type that creates interest and makes the sale. When viewing images depicting Blacks on cards one would think there was little more to their lives than picking cotton or eating watermelon. By focusing only on specific stereotypes these cards reinforced the notions of keeping people in their proper place through expressions of a natural order even when it may not have been the intentions of the publisher to do so. Racism is often disguised by neutral perceptions of self.


By WWI there were fewer attempts to disguise racist content largely because of its general acceptance and even promotion by authorities. President Wilson began to segregate the Federal government and instigate policies so that people of color could not hold government jobs. While an exposed ankle of a woman was enough to get a postcard seized by postal authorities, there was no limit placed on the amount of racial slurs that could be sent through the mail. Racial stereotypes in the United States most often presented themselves under the ruse of humor, theoretically diffusing their degrading intent to provide cover for the sender. Like there predecessors these cards also reinforced stereotypes but of a much harsher nature. Cards of this type became very popular and were sold in great numbers. They seem to be a fearful reaction against the liberalizing changes that were growing in the 1920’s, when there was more interracial mingling, and Black communities started defining themselves on their own terms.


While many groups were targeted to become seen as the other, Blacks were the main focus of such humor in the United States while Jews drew the most attention in Europe. Since Jews often attained higher positions in society than their Black counterparts, humor alone did not suffice as an effective tool against them and they were more often portrayed in threatening terms. Racism grew in an atmosphere of social uncertainty poisoned by the growing pseudo-science of Eugenics. Little was done to curb racial imagery on cards as racism itself became official government policy in the forms of greater segregation and the ending of our open door immigration policy to all but northern Europeans.


Many seemingly innocent postcards were imbued with racist undertones. Depictions of large Black families were common, often represented in impoverished conditions. Despite their usual ordinary to humorous captions they were designed to support the ideas of the Eugenics movement representing Blacks as a people out of control generating an endless stream of poverty. As laws were passed in efforts to create a master race in the United States tens of thousands were forcibly sterilized. Our efforts, greatly admired by the Nazis, were encouraged and supported in Europe by various American foundations. Only after these concepts eventually cumulated in death camps did it become more difficult to publicly espouse racial ideals. Only then did postcard publishers fearing loss of sales began to shy away from topics that were now more open to criticism.



Women who had traditionally been depicted on cards as objects of innocence or beauty also increasingly got caught up in the momentum of degrading humor as the proliferation of racial postcards gained public acceptance. While earlier depictions of women may have reinforced the limited stereotypes a woman could play, their attempts to break free of these confines created a pictorial backlash, especially as the suffragists gained momentum. Humor was seen as an effective and acceptable means to attack women for it could trivialize their ambitions and accomplishments while its mean spirit could be disguised. While women had become an integral part of the urban workforce their presence was usually portrayed as insignificnt; they only existed at and for the pleasure of men.

Postcard Folder


Before the Great War, a common tourist commodity was the small souvenir album that depicted a variety of views of a popular attraction printed in black & white. They were a direct outcome of the sudden ability to print images cheaply through the use of halftone reproduction. Its apparent successor began to appear in number during the 1920’s as pages of double-sided postcards sized images were attached in accordion fashion, and then folded into a colorfully printed cover. The entire folder is designed so it can be sealed and mailed as one piece. This format allowed customers to get more images for their money while providing greater profits to the publisher. The large amount of images included in these folders forced them to be printed on thin paper rather than card stock to cut down on weight. Only their protective covers were on heavier paper. Even though most these folders tended to be very poorly printed, their bargain price kept them popular with the public well into the 1960’s. They still continue to be printed today.

A variation of the folder is the post card booklet. Cards were sold bound together under a cover, but were made so they could be torn out and mailed. A postcard with only one perforated edge is a sign that it came from one of these booklets. Theses cards were often hand colored and of better quality than those found in folders. Booklets were not very common and many no longer exist intact. The booklet style was revived in the 1990’s, but usually filled with reproductions of older images.

Etched Postcard


Though seen for a number of years, it was only in the 1920’s that original etchings were more commonly used for postcards. Not to be confused with reproductions of etchings, these cards were hand printed, either in black & white or using colored inks a la poupé. Some of these cards were even hand colored and employed chin collé techniques. Even the edges of many cards were given false deckles to imitate the traditional hand made papers of fine art prints. Most etched cards were printed by artist cooperatives or small publishers not normally in the postcard business. Some even have blank backs, which may indicate they were published by the individual artists who created them. Some postcards printed in lithographic halftones were made to imitate etched cards often incorporating a false plate mark.


Hand printed postcards from woodcut blocks were also sometimes made in both black & white and in color but they are fare less common than etchings. They can easily be confused with continuous toned lithographic cards that often reproduce woodcut imagery. Actual wood block postcards are quite rare among commercial printers with the exception of those made in Japan where a long tradition of working in this medium exists. In the West wood block postcards were more often American made and are more likely to be found printed by individual artists, especially in New England, while etched cards most often originate in Europe.



As America caught up with the material shortages imposed by the First World War, its economy began to boom and soon the United Stated found itself the richest nation in a world. For the first time most Americans were now living in cities, and with modern consumer goods readily available, optimism in technology grew. It was also a time when the tragedy of the Great War led many to break with the Victorian traditions of the past. The imposition of prohibition in 1920 caused not only much contempt for these unevenly enforced laws but towards all authority in general. Out of this a more open minded decadent culture was born, well exemplified in the growing popularity in Jazz that came to define the time. Postcards for the most part ignored many of these new trends to concentrate on the staple tourist oriented view-card, which looked little different from prewar cards except for its poorer quality. These cultural shifts made more inroads on illustrated postcards as seen in the public’s fascination with the Flapper. She was a continuation of the ideals expresses by the New Woman, at the turn of the century but now dressed more practically for inclusion in the increasingly female workforce. Many writers of this period became disillusioned with our emphasis on materialism and outdated values that still held sway. Some left America for the more Cosmopolitan life to be found in Europe but the United States was redefining itself and would prove fertile ground for their modern outlook. The more conservative 1930’s however would usher in a cultural backlash and many progressive trends would come to an end or be reversed.



With the exception of view-cards there has been not other topic that has preoccupied the production of postcards as much as images of women. This obsession has taken on many forms from simple generic portraits on greetings to the full blown nude. Portrayals of women on postcards found their largest audience not among men but among women. While the activities they engaged on cards provided social clues to govern behavior, their styles of dress were not overlooked. Fashion’s importance had grown in proportion to the number of those in society that had enough discretionary income to act on it. The same proportions hold true for the growing printing industry that was increasingly able to disseminate information on far off styles. When postcards arrived they just continued to act on this trend. While postcards had always followed women’s fashion this noticeably picked up after the First World War. Many artist signed cards of these years, especially those from Europe focused in specifically on fashion trends both real and fanciful.



The many modern art movements that were born before WWI had little to no influence on the graphics of postcards, but by War’s end many felt they had ushered in to a new period in history, one that required new aesthetic values. Many new art movements would emerge out of the chaos in Europe but they wound up playing a insignificant role in American graphic arts. Protectionist tariffs kept many goods out of the U.S. market but it also helped to isolate us from the influence of new postcards from a revitalized overseas printing industry. Ideas however are impossible to contain and three new interrelated design styles did arise here to gain the public’s attention between the two World Wars. These styles would reflect a rejection of the past and the yearning for a better future. While all three would have an affect on the way postcards were designed and on what subjects they held, these changes only went so far as very little social comment would wind up on cards.


Art Nouveau, which had been extremely popular since the 1890’s, had become associated with the upper class and stagnant elements that brought the world to war. When a new modern design style was showcased at the Paris Worlds Fair of 1925, since coined Art Deco, it was presented in direct opposition to these old values. It emphasized cleaner forms and harder angles while drawing inspiration from ancient and non-Western art. Though it proved to be very influential on architecture, it is also known for introducing a new range of household items made from plastics in unforeseen colors and shapes. It had a more limiting affect on postcards with those generated in Europe displaying the most influence. After extensive mass production the style lost its aura of exclusivity and elegance and then its popularity by WWII.


The Staatliches Bauhaus operated in Germany between the years 1919-1933 for the purpose of finding ways to improve people’s lives through the unification of art with technology. Material shortages in the post war years were to be made up for with superior design that ignored precedent. They had an egalitarian approach believing everyone was entitled to live with finely crafted goods and they sought a way to design them cheaply to make this a reality. Unlike many earlier art movements that merely espoused change, the Bauhaus embraced technology and mass production. Because of their emphasis on improving the well being of the common man they were seen as communist sympathizers by the incoming Nazi regime, and these artists either fled or were forced into exile to the Soviet Union and the United States. Here their teachings continued to grow into an influential movement and led to the creation of the International Style.


Though often associated with Art Deco, Streamline design was a style that came into its own right during the 1930’s under a very different social climate. Streamlining derives from the scientific principal that curves of certain proportions will provide the least resistance to currents of air or water. Though it proved of some use on cars and planes, it did not seem improve the aerodynamics of such items as refrigerators or radios that it was often attached to. More than a science it came to represent faith in progress and in the future. Its diversified use was a reflection of modernist attitudes now found within the general population. In many instances this style was used to such a extreme manner to suggest something beyond the modern and into the realm of science fiction. It continued to be used long after its popularity faded, incorporated into visions of the future. Streamlining did not change the graphic design of postcards, but its influence can be found on the design of everything from buildings to trains that were depicted by cards.



The Surrealist art movement originating in postwar Paris had spread globally by the 1930’s. While their work became widely known little of it filtered down to affect the imagery placed on postcards. The real influence however was the other way around. Many Surrealist artists were avid postcard collectors. Some were attracted to the way in which postcards gained popular appeal by leveling class, culture, and gender differences, a goal that many of them shared. Others were attracted to the underlying symbolism found in postcards that was often placed there unconsciously, but were once highly potent when created in a far less visually stimulated society than we have today. Postcards in these artist’s collections not only provided inspiration but were also physically used to create new works of art in both collage and film.

Real Photo Postcard

While the surrealists had an abundance of manifestos and theories it is only the clarification of their ideals that may be original. Though rare to find, artists had always dealt with issues relating to the unconscious mind long before anyone had any exacting knowledge of its existence. Portraits created by the montage of non related objects had been painted centuries earlier and could be found in 19th century illustration. This tradition of montage was carried over onto artist signed cards as soon as they began being published. These evolved into compositions containing unexpected juxtapositions, often by photomontage, in an effort to create humor. We now refer to many of these cards as exaggerations.

There are also postcards that were not produced with any surreal or even humorous intentions that have gained surreal status just through the passage of time. On cards where once common associations have now disappeared we find ourselves unable to read them, and must delve into our own unconscious to find meaning. A card depicting a simple household product that needed no explanation it its own day may now be impossible to relate to, conjuring up the wildest associations. Meaning does not always follow intent.



There is a good reason for the lack of roadside cards from the Golden Age; there were no roads, or at least not as we’ve come to know them. It was an era of large Victorian hotels, where you would more than likely arrive by train, steamboat, or stagecoach over a dusty dirt path. Prior to 1925 it was private road clubs that maintained America’s highways. Many of these were highways in name only being little more than an accepted route over a hodgepodge of broken roads and trails. An early trip by auto from New York to San Francisco on the Lincoln Highway took two months that is if you actually got there. The initial impedes to improve our nations roads did not originate with the invention of the automobile, but with the Good Roads Movement which began in 1880 at the instigation of cyclists. The rapidly growing popularity of bicycles added momentum to their political clout and municipalities large and small began the extensive work of paving at least some of their streets. Eventually automobile manufactures added their support when they realized the limited marketability of their product in a nation of poor roads. There was much debate within the organization of whether money should go to build local networks to improve commerce or a nationwide system to aid transcontinental touring. They later helped form automobile clubs that sponsored the building of cross-country roads as the Lincoln Highway in 1913, and the Dixie Highway in 1915.


In 1911 the National Highways Association formed to encourage the Government to fund a system of national highways. Federal Aid Highway Acts eventually started to improve conditions and standardize signs. All this encouraged more and more Americans to take to the road. Improvised auto-camps sprang up where a tent hanging from the side of a car would provide the nights accommodations. By the 1930’s cabins and other amenities sprang up intermittently to take advantage of the increasing traffic. After many functional U.S. Routes were established in the 1940’s, an entire roadside culture began to flourish. As America became consumed with the automobile, postcards refocused their attention away from small town themes and on to tourist attractions big and small.

Two Cent Stamp

THE GREAT MISTAKE   1925 - 1928

On April 15, 1925 the postage rate for picture postcards was raised up to two cents, though the government issued postal card remained a penny to send. This action proved so unpopular with the public that postcard sales fell dramatically. The government was forced to repeal the rate hike on June 30th, 1928.



While most monochromatic postcards were printed in black & white, they can be found in many shades of blue, green or brown. Being the easiest to print, postcards of one color have been used since their inception. Some publishers would even offer the same color image in black & white at a reduced price. Because of the lower density of ink, the details on the black & white versions were often sharper. In the Golden Age monochrome cards were just another minor variation to what was then available, but by the 1930’s they became extremely common in efforts to drive down cost. Most of the newer cards were printed as cheap halftone lithographs of varying quality. There were a few exceptions of high quality sets printed in photogravure, which were the best cards of their time but their higher price prevented them from ever becoming as popular here in the States as they were in Europe. After the introduction of color photochromes interest in monochrome postcards quickly dwindled and they disappeared in relevant numbers.

Arcade Card


Arcade cards were dispensed by machines usually found at arcades or fairs for a penny. Pictures of movie stars, sports figures, suggestive cartoons, and pin-up girls were the most common subjects. They were poorly printed usually in black & white or monochrome tints and were almost all blank on the back. Though meant for collecting not mailing, they were the same size as postcards and stamps often found a way to their backs an off they went. Around since the turn of the Century, they became most common in the 1930’s and faded away by the 1960’s. As all mechanical dispensing devices eventually became associated with vice, arcade and gum dispensers were sometimes destroyed along with slot machines in anti gambling frenzies.

Arcade Card

The Pin-up is most often associated with arcade cards even though this genre has a long evolution dating back to early card photos. Though similar to risqué cards in that there was generally no nudity, the pin-up presented a single female as the object of our attention rather than an erotic narrative. In this regard they relate more to the many early postcards depicting the lone woman, especially those of fallen women such as actresses who led lives outside of expected social norms. These images tend to be problematic in that they portray women as objects of sexual desire, yet at the same time the woman themselves often possess a strength and sexual dimension beyond the traditional expectations of them. These images were designed to be socially acceptable expressions of sexuality but they always pressed the limits of public taste. Their duality and contradictory nature has always made these types of images semi-acceptable, causing their production to rise, fall, and rise again as social values change. Their popularity peaked during the Second World War, not just among the many men that were sent overseas, but because images of strong women were not just acceptable but necessary role models when everyone was called upon. President Roosevelt declared that discrimination against women would not be tolerated as they left their domestic lives for the workforce. The pinup would be an idol for men and women alike until the end of the War.

Real Photo Postcard


In 1933, at the height of the great depression, 25 percent of all Americans found themselves out of work and 50 percent of our industrial capacity was no longer up and running. Campgrounds that were created for motor tourists now became the impoverished Hoovervilles of farmers fleeing the Dustbowl. This time proved to be a double edge sword for postcards. Well known and once popular publishers disappeared and printing quality declined. Demand was so low that some firms were reduced to burning their large stocks of postcard inventory along with company records to fuel their furnaces. Labor was so plentiful that hand coloring became cheaper than printing in color and the practice was widely revived. Many more cards were only printed in black & white to reduce costs.


Few postcards of this period dealt with adverse social issues as the public was more in need of distractions from them in these hard times. Amusement areas like Coney Island continued to do a brisk business in postcards as crowds flocked there for cheep thrills. The Worlds Fair in New York and the Golden Gate International Exposition in San Francisco were long running events that released a tremendous amount of postcards. At Chicago’s A Century of Progress a new type of postcard that would be coined the linen received its first major public exposure.


The growth of the movie industry had initially hurt postcard production when the public’s fickle attention shifted towards this new exciting medium. Postcards depicting movie stars however became all the rage in these depression years as film became an extremely popular distraction from economic woes. The movies of this time shared a similar duality with that of the pin-up card, in that they both tended to depicted women’s behavior at the very borderline of public acceptability. While these types of movies drew the biggest crowds to the box office, these portrayals of independence and strength in women were not expressed as virtues. The unusual times had caused both men and women to flirt with unconventional lives.


Even though Baseball had been America’s most important pastime prior to the Great Depression it was the subject of very few postcards. By the 1920’s the game had undergone many changes that made it ever more popular with the public. As great hitters like Babe Ruth were now able to achieve stardom it fed into the public’s need to find heroes. Not only did baseball stadiums remain an important subject for postcards but interest in its players now greatly expanded and they were displayed on arcade and trade cards as well. The game’s importance in maintaining safe and recognizable social structures was not lost on President Roosevelt. He felt it was as important as any New Deal policies in keeping up the Nation’s spirit and encouraged its play throughout the Depression and into the war years.



While the United States has a long history of isolationist tendencies it may largely be a symptom of geography rather than official policy. Americans in general have always been internationalists in outlook but the First World War had soured many who felt our involvement in it had led to nothing more than a great waste of money and lives. President Wilson’s inability to ratify the Treaty of Versailles or even involve us in the League of Nations weakened our ties to Europe. Protectionist tariffs and selective immigration policies further helped to isolate us. By the time the Great Depression took hold uncertainty and fear had brought about a true isolationist attitude among Americans. Our postcards basically ignored international events and were directed toward National Tourism.

Postcard Campaign Logo

When most Americans had thought of vacations their first thoughts went instinctively to booking passage to Europe. This manner of travel was greatly curtailed by the outbreak of the First World War, from which some businessmen realized there were profits to be made outside of arms profiteering. In 1916 the Great Northern Railroad who had already been shaping national events to aid its tourist market began the See America First campaign. While their goal may have only been to seize an opportunity to make money, they and those like them reinforced the trend toward National Tourism that promoted isolationist tendencies if only inadvertently.


Though many festering problems were simply ignored during the 1920’s, almost everything had become politicized by the 1930’s. Political content and propaganda were once again influencing postcard production but in very small numbers within the United States. It was in the European market, where the rhetoric between Communists and Fascists was the most heated, that politics found its way onto cards in the form of propaganda, satire, or insulting cartoons. By 1936 when civil war erupted in Spain the sides had become clearly drawn. Though Americans began volunteering in other nations to fight Fascism well before our entry into World War Two our isolationist period would not truly end until our hand was forced after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Real Photo Postcard


The romantic transformation of the American West had begun early in the 19th century in those areas on the safer side of the frontier line and it was soon incorporated into the general culture. Postcards had carried Western themes throughout their history but by the 1930’s first hand knowledge of the true dangers and hardships of life on the frontier had largely passed and our perceptions of it were firmly in the grasp of image makers and pulp story writers. As true history was sidelined images of the West grew more cliché and were relegated for use as entertainment. As the Nation’s Isolationist mood increased all that which was foreign became suspect and the public refocused on American themes. Costumed Indians were often put on display at our National Parks and rodeos, especially those featuring cowgirls attracted much public attention. Not only did the Western grow into an important genre of movie making but dressing up as Cowboys & Indians became a common form of escapist play among children and among those adults attending dude ranches. This trend would not fade out until the 1960’s when a more realistic accounting of events began to be demanded. While fewer children play Cowboys & Indians these days the romantic notions that it is based upon are solidly intrenched in American culture and continue to supply subject matter for postcards.


LINEN CARDS   1931-1959

By the late 1920’s new colorants had been developed that were very enticing to the printing industry. Though they were best used as dyes to show off their high color and brightness, this proved to be problematic. Where traditional pigment based inks would lie on a paper’s surface, these thinner watery dyes had a tendency to be absorbed into a paper’s fibers where it left behind a dull blurry finish. To experience the rich colors of dyes light must be able to pass through them to excite their electrons. Combining these dyes with petroleum distillates led to faster drying heatset inks but this was only half the solution. It was Curt Teich who finally solved the problem by embossing his paper with a linen texture before printing. The embossing created more surface area, which in turn allowed the new heatset inks to be exposed to more air and dry even faster. The quicker drying time allowed these dyes to remain on the paper’s surface thus retaining their superior strength, which give linen cards their telltale bright colors. In addition to printing with the usual CYMK colors, a lighter blue was sometimes used to give the images extra punch. While new colors and texture could create public interest, the real impedes behind this technique was to be able to print postcards on higher speed presses. Faster production speed would cut down on cost, which became an important point of consideration in this economically stressed time.

Even though the images on linen cards were based on photographs, they contained much handwork of the retouching artists who brought them into production. The paper’s texture made the rendering of sharp details difficult so the image was often simplified. Growing abstract and expressionist tendencies in the fine arts made this practice more permissible. While some cards retain a photo like appearance, other cards look as if they have been almost entirely drawn. There is of course nothing new in this; what it notable is that they were to be the last postcards produced to show any touch of the human hand on them. Although first introduced in 1931, their growing popularity was interrupted by the onset of war. They were not to be printed in numbers again until the later 1940’s when the conflict that consumed most of the country’s resources ceased.

Although a printing revolution was inspired by Curt Teich’s understanding of the advantage embossed paper had in speeding the drying time of dye based inks, he was far from the first to use embossed paper. Textured papers for postcards had been manufactured ever since the turn of the century but since this procedure was not then a necessary step in aiding card production, its added cost kept the process limited to a handful of publishers. Its original use most likely came from attempts to increase status by simulating the texture of canvas, thus relating the image on the postcard to that of a painted work of fine art.

Maximum Card


In 1896 a postcard was mailed from Greece where the sender defied postal regulations and applied a postage stamp to the image side of the card. It was a natural response for someone who was interested in stamp collecting as well as the newer hobby of postcard collecting. In this way both stamp and image were visible when the postcard was placed into an album. As this became a more common practice the term Timbre Cote Vue or just Verso were written into the stampbox to inform the postal clerk that the stamp was on the other side. From this they became known as TCV Cards. Eventually more elaberate practices developed as collectors would continue to mail these cards to see how many different stamps from different countries could be affixed. By 1932 the term Maximum Card was first used, where the similarities of image, stamp, and cancel were in maximum relationship to one another. Placing stamps on the image side of a card was always more popular among stamp collectors than postcard collectors who tend to prefer their cards in mint condition. In 1980 the realizing of maximum cards had become an independent branch of Philately.



The many attempts made at producing color film in the early decades of the 20th century were not without success. These years saw the invention of Autochromes, Dufaycolor, Agfacolor, Finlay Color, and Vivexcolor, but all these processes provided less than adequate results. When measured against black & white film they were a marvel but the massive internal structure needed to hold their dyes in place created a very noticeable grain and often required excessive light to use. The invention of the three color reversal film Kodachrome was revolutionary, not only in its unusual chemistry but in its applications. Its bright and distinct hues would be achieved though coloring agents added during development, not in the film itself. This allowed for sharper, clearer, and more accurate and subtle colors to be captured. It also became easy to extract mechanical color separations from Kodachrome, from which most color postcards would eventually be made. It was first used in motion picture film in 1935 and released as slide film a year later. While the Union Oil Company wasn't the first to make use of Kodachrome for postcards, they began producing them in numbers by 1939 after improvements were made until the demands of a looming then actual war curtail its commercial progress. This film took highly trained technicians to process and their limited numbers were often engaged by the military in creating enhanced recognizance photos.



Relations between Japan and China had been tense ever since their first conflict in 1894. During the 1930’s Japan launched a number of military incursions into China conveniently labeled Incidents but by 1937 a full scale invasion against this week Republic had begun to finalize their imperialist ambitions. Japan wasn’t alone in such endeavors at this time for Italy had been carving an empire out of Africa since 1936 and Germany was expanding its borders in Europe through a process of intimidation. By 1939 a war had broken out in Europe ignited by the German invasion of Poland that would grow to global scale. Many postcards were made that captured all these events but they were almost all published outside of the United States. Not until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor did the American postcard industry begin producing military related cards in large numbers.


Many propaganda and battle related cards were printed during these war years but in the United States postcards tended to avoid scenes of combat in favor of motifs more patriotic in nature or anti-Axis. The great losses of World War One were still too vivid a memory for many, resulting in few attempts to romanticize the bloody battlefield. While images of dead and broken bodies eventually found their way into pictorial magazines if only reluctantly, American postcards shied away from this type of imagery. The postcards of these war years most often took the form of comics poking fun at the recruit’s newly acquired way of life away at military camps or of the hardships at the front line. Confused attitudes toward women in military service also became the subject of many cards. Many more were generic depictions of fighting equipment or military camps so no sensitive information could be revealed. It wasn’t unusual for cards from this period to have parts of their written messages blackened out by government censors.


Wars are expensive to conduct, and years of financial depression did little to fill our Treasury’s coffers. In 1941 the Savings Bonds of the government’s six year old security program were renamed Defense Bonds in an attempt to attract more buyers. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor their name was quickly changed again to War Bonds to appeal to patriotic values. The War Finance Committee organized eight drives utilizing all forms of available media. The ads often stressed a spirit of sacrifice encouraging ordinary American’s at home to do their part for the war by purchasing bonds. Despite efforts to unite everyone in a common cause sales slackened as the war dragged on. To reinvigorate sales a promotional campaign was initiated that utilizing soldiers fresh from the front. They were sent on tours around the country, often putting on demonstrations of weapons or mock combat. Many images taken from these shows were placed on posters and later postcards. By the War’s end 185.7 billion dollars of bonds had been sold at 75 percent face value.


By the First World War, warships had reached great size and were glorified on many postcards from many nations if not in battle. The importance of these ships in maintaining empires caused relatively few naval engagements for fear of loosing them. These ships continued to be very popular after the war among collectors as well as Navies who kept on building them. The HMS Prince of Wales was one of the last great warships to be built but the British admiralty was astonished when this modern craft went down so quickly after being attacked by Japanese bombers in 1941. Near the end of the Second World War the Japanese battleship Yamato, the most powerful in the world and which the Japanese had placed so much faith in was also sunk solely by American aircraft. Too many military thinkers had refused to see their obsolescence as they were caught up in the same romantic notions held by the general public only to disastrous effect. While these types of warships remain in use this war sealed their fate as dominance in combat and the romance that once surrounded them has passed to aircraft. The public’s desire to collect this once very popular subject on postcards has subsequently shifted with technology and is currently limited to a niche audience.



Whenever troops are stationed overseas a large amount of mail between family members tends to be generated. While writing home had long been encouraged as a way to keep up an Army’s moral, this policy was not completely beneficial to postcards during these years. When the United States entered the Second World War in December of 1941, the War Production Board began to immediately restrict the amount of materials that could go into the production of non-essential items such as postcards. V-Mail was introduced as a partial solution on June 15th, 1942; just after the first American troops landed in North Africa. Correspondence was written on special forms made available to servicemen or sold at Five & Dimes and Post Offices that would save valuable cargo space on oversees shipments. Once written on they were microfilmed and then reprinted at a reduced size at their destination. A seven-ounce roll of film could contain as many as 1500 letters. Their compact size allowed them to be transported along with other priority items that greatly increasing their delivery speed. By 1944 they were at their peak use. Even though over a billion V-mails were sent, they were still outnumbered by real letters and postcards. V-mail service was ended in April of 1945.



During the American Civil War the Federal Government realized that soldiers on the march had no way of obtaining postage stamps for their correspondence. An official system was then devised where they could write their name, rank, and unit on a letter, and it would be mailed for them postage due.

Postcard back detail

By World War Two, the same general system was being used but in a more generous manner. A letter or postcard could now be sent for free (Franking) if the words Free or Soldier’s Mail were written where the stamp should go and the soldier’s outfit and camp were listed. Besides the privately printed cards that were used this way many postcards were also issued by the military for servicemen. These cards were non pictorial but they incorporated bold graphic designs. These V-Post Cards should not be confused with V-mail as they were not microfilmed but sent out as regular postcards.


Various state commissions also printed special picture postcards exclusively for the use of soldiers. While this trend may have risen out of true patriotism, many of these cards were also designed to influence soldiers stationed in that State to return as tourists once the War was over. The front usually contained images of scenery from that State and the back was pre-printed with the required identification lines and a Soldier’s Mail Free stamp box.

Correspondence Card

Many cards printed during the War years did not display pictures at all as they were designed for simple practicality and cost efficiency. The USO produced pictureless correspondence cards for soldiers’ use though some of these had small patriotic designs printed on them. The Red Cross of different nations published cards for soldiers but unlike those picture cards printed to help raise funds in the First World War, these cards were usually more austere. A commonly seen card were those supplied to prisoners of war to write home on. Some had pre-printed multiple choice messages on their backs where the non applicable passages could be crossed out. The written messages they held tended to be rather nondescript since they were heavily censored at both ends.


Starting in May of 1943 a two-digit zone number was required to be added to addresses. It was the beginning of what we now refer to as Zip Code. That same year the postcard hobby received an important boost when Bob Hendricks began publishing Post Card Collectors News. It was the first magazine to specifically tackle this subject and it treated postcards as elements of history rather than mere trinkets. The term Deltiology was coined to describe the study of postcards and present their collecting in a more serious light. Older postcards soon began to attain a value previously not possessed. Cards that had been traded on a one to one basis now had criteria attached that varied their desirability and worth. Hendricks work not only inspired others to follow with newsletters and books, it would eventually lead to the formation of a new generation of collectors clubs.

1907-1913  UP  1946-1976