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Modern ’Chrome Postcards


Fast changing times have often inspired the development of radical new styles or genres, but in the years following the Second World War there would be a marked exception, at least in regard to postcards. As America grew into a dominant cultural force over the ruins of Europe, improving economic conditions actually worked to diminish the long standing variety of postcards that were traditionally available. Other than the new trends found in architecture, the idealism and optimism found in early modernism largely faded away during the Great Depression. Abstract Expressionism would be used to project AmericaŐs forward looking vision in the postwar years, but for the most part graphic design on postcards would only incorporate modernist concepts in superficial ways, and we would never be as modern as we once were.

A number of factors led to making America more homogeneous in the three decades following the World War. As corporations grew in a booming economy, fewer but larger printers took over the production of postcards. Offset lithography then came to dominate the industry at the expense of other beautiful printing techniques that fell to the wayside due to cost. When Americans took to the road in increasing numbers, the cards publishers produced were almost exclusively made with the tourist in mind. As the growth of the banal steadily replaced the unique in our landscape, our postcards followed suit. Many government sponsored campaigns would be launched to help further unite the nation in the face of Cold War dangers, but attempts to revive prewar nationalist ideals would fail as America’s social climate continued to shift toward more individualistic pursuits. Many of these unifying efforts were backward looking, and they inspired a strong backlash. The postcard industry had however changed, and social unrest that was once explored through postcards vanished. Political content on cards was often curtailed or self-censored in fear of red baiting or litigation by offended parties. As the Civil Rights Movement forced America to confront many of its social prejudices, it did not inspire additional postcard content but only hastened the removal of racial imagery from them. The pinup, which had often been viewed as a sexualized ideal of an independent woman began to be redrawn in more sexist terms as woman were once again encouraged to confine themselves to domestic life. As hardcore pornography became more readily available through film and magazines, interest in the traditional postcard pinup declined. Images depicting the social concerns of the day largely left the venue of postcards and became the domain of newspapers, pictorial magazines, and eventually television. Postcards would be relegated to promote escapism and the idea that the American narrative was all on one page.

At the same time that postcards were becoming more uniform, the end of the Second World War marked a renewed interest in postcard collecting. New postcard clubs were formed that were no longer just focused on just exchanging contemporary cards; they began studying vintage cards with the benefit of some perspective. This information first began being shared through club bulletins, which eventually led to the publication of the first postcard histories. Postcards would again rise to become one of the most favored of all collectable items.

The linen postcard that dominated the beginning of this period proved in the end to only be a transitional product. Though it made use of modern colorant technology and the newly developed high-speed presses, its production was still rooted in the procedures used at the turn of the 20th century. Advances in offset lithography and color film would turn the public’s eye toward the modern photochrome, popularly referred to as chromes, which continues to dominate the postcard market. While its origins were rooted in the 1930’s, it did not begin to play a significant role until the postwar years. This new type of postcard based on natural color principals had no need for the labor intensive work of artists. It would give most postcards produced from this point on a uniform look, which was perhaps the most revolutionary turn they had taken since inception.




The term Beat Generation was coined by the author Jack Kerouac in 1948 to characterize the new anti-conformist upbeat attitudes growing amidst the youth culture of New York City. It was focused around writers of a gritty emotional style that expressed deep spiritual yearnings. Ten years later Herb Caen of the San Francisco Chronicle would coin the word beatnik as a not so flattering way to describe those who embraced this same hedonistic Bohemian lifestyle as it spread across the country. There were now two Americas; one represented by beatniks that rejected conventionality but was only part of a larger restlessness that grew out from the chaos of the Second World War. This was also a time when most people were looking for comfort in a safe and prosperous world, and sought out traditional values. While the Beat Generation would push and help extend the limits of free speech, a number of repressive steps to limit self-expression would be enacted at the same time. The effort to keep the lid on things was so strong that we still generally think of the 1950’s as a quiet peaceful time when it was anything but that. There is little evidence of these conflicting views on postcards or even acknowledgment of the Beat Generation’s existence except by those few cards that were critical of them. Beatniks were often poked fun of on a comic cards but sometimes Bohemian culture would be presented as a real danger to American youth who might succumb to its enticements. Postcards depicting more romanticized views of the poets and writers of this time are far more prevalent today than they were back then. After these tensions finally boil over to help create the counter culture of the 1960’s, this previous decade seemed tame by comparison.



As GIs returned home from war they were faced with a looming housing shortage. To help meet this need, cheap production line Cape Cod style houses would soon spring up in the old potato fields of Hempstead, Long Island. This planned community of 17,000 homes became known as Levittown, and it was the model for the suburban sprawl that is still overtaking us. Rather than a luxury, cars were now a necessity needed to commute to far away jobs and stores. As they were bought in droves, our romance with the automobile grew ever larger. These houses were marketed as closed off from the street, to provide a peaceful environment for our war weary veterans. Instead of addressing the problems emerging from war related stress, a climate of denial was created. This helped foster the same type of restless spirit that arose in the postwar years of the American Civil War, when veterans headed for the Western frontier. As a new generation of veterans took to the road, a whole new culture grew up around them.


This new restless migration of the postwar years did not often extend beyond a familyŐs paid vacation time, which about half of the nation’s workers had recently acquired. The vastly improved U.S. highway system now allowed Americans to explore the country according to their inclinations rather than following the carefully prescribed tours of years past. As curio shops, drive-ins, diners, gas stations, and motor courts began to dominate our landscape, they became the staple of Roadside America postcards. Nearly every establishment vying for the attention of motorists produced give away cards for advertising; and picking up cards would become a way of the road. Motoring would have more influence on the postcards of this age than any other activity. By 1950 there were 40 million cars on America’s roads, about one for every three people and growing.


Art movements that largely produced goods for the upper class also influenced the graphic arts that appeared on the design of early postcards. Ironically modernism, which had been more concerned with infusing art into the lives of ordinary people, had much less effect on the graphics of postcards. While the wealthy were not traditional consumers of postcards, it had not been uncommon to see old postcards depicting romanticized snippets of upper class life. Over the years these images of high society faded as the preoccupation with movie stars and celebrities grew stronger. Even though much printed matter now focused on tabloid news, the growing ability of the average American to take to the road opened up many new opportunities to market cards to motorists. Where natural or historic monuments did not exist, attractions were built in their place to encourage visitors. Dinosaur parks, giant teepees, and Paul Bunions lined our roads begging the tourist to stop. All these places would add to the growing number of postcards available to motorists.



Although commercial aviation began making its presence felt in the years following World War One, it was only with the construction of many new airports in the 1930Ős under President Roosevelt’s New Deal Program that the industry was able to grow. By World War Two, four major airlines, the Big Four, were established and they were making a profit. They were already producing give away postcards at this time, just like those found at roadside establishment. These cards however did not publicize places but the mystique of flying. The industry quickly expanded with Pan Am making the first transatlantic jet flight in1958. Airplanes were now surpassing the train as the second-most preferred method of long distance travel after the automobile. Steamship lines that produced many advertising postcards for decades would fade away.


Flight had long been romanticized. World War One aces were treated like celebrities, and those setting records like Charles Lindbergh became superstars. An air of glamour came to surround commercial airline pilots as well as the public became fascinated with the idea that they too could fly. Admen quickly exploited this appeal when promoting its chief competitor, the automobile. With new cars that could speed you along like a jet, the driver can be or at least feel as glamorous as an airline pilot. As air travel evolved from a fantasy-like novelty into a common place routine, much of the glamour surrounding flight faded. Postcards that once romanticized air travel would eventually decline with this change in attitude. As the promotion of flight became more destination oriented, the advertising of more luxuriant cars began focusing in on the driving experience.



A great deal of propaganda was expended during the Second World War to both entice women to fill jobs left open by men going off to war and to make the American public more accepting of this essential change in social values. The Rosie the Riveter stereotype that was so praised during the war quickly fell into disrepute in the postwar years. Working women were seen as hurting returning veterans who had trouble finding jobs. A woman’s place and her patriotic duty was now being strictly promoted as being in the home. As homemaker became the new and only ideal for women to strive for, there was a dramatic shift in the way women were represented on postcards. The awakening sexuality found on many early postcards not only appealed to men but to women attempting to break free of traditional roles. This model was now discarded in favor of a sexuality aimed directed to the pleasure of men. Erotism now became one dimensional and the pinup reigned supreme.

Most of the artist drawn cards depicting women were now replaced by photo-based images. As the types of images once considered suggestive and risqué were appropriated by mainstream advertising, postcards began displaying women in more revealing poses. While these types of cards always existed, they were largely confined to underground distribution and now they were being produced by major publishers. Postcards depicting nudes faced a lot more competition from the plethora of girlie magazines that began to be published in the 1950’s, but they never completely disappeared. The increasing volume of pornography being made available to the general public in these years led to a suppressive backlash that postcards seemed to have escaped. This is a sign of just how much its importance as a visual media had declined.



Many beautiful postcards have been created since their inception, but they have always been accompanied many cards that have been poorly printed or designed. These are the cards manufactured by printers who used as little color ink as possible, applied it in broad swatches to avoid time consuming retouching, and took little care to properly register printing plates. While occasionally such a card can still hold a simple charm, more often than not they are just plain ugly. Many of these cards also exhibit characteristically bland subject matter that is so uninteresting it was a wonder that it was chosen at all. The preponderance of such cards in postwar America seems a direct consequence of changing attitudes towards postcards in general rather than a direct reflection on their publishers. After WWI there was a drop in printing standards due to a lack of skilled labor, and those who tried to revive quality work often faced failure with a public now unwilling to pay for it. As in our own time there is a market for almost anything if the price is low enough regardless of its quality. Even so, not all publishers were good businessmen, and poor decisions often forced them to end their postcard endeavors.

While it is usually the postcard with the overtly political or patriotic message that is given the label of propaganda, the truth is that most commercially successful cards are propagandistic. These are cards that present only very narrow selection of subjects or scenes that rely on sentimental or romanticized tropes to immediately get their message across without the need of analytical ability. Customers who were comfortable with these traditional constructs found these types of cards most attractive regardless of whether they represented reality or not. Some publishers just did not understand this and they created cards that were truly a slice of life that interested no one except those personally attached to the content. Today both types of cards have historical importance for where one captures a physical reality, the other reflects a state of mind.



In 1875 a lithography press was fitted with an extra cardboard wrapped cylinder so that an image drawn on a litho-stone could be first transferred to the cardboard and then offset onto a piece of sheet metal that was more resistant to accepting ink than paper. Though this was technically the first offset print, the process was quickly abandoned because cut rubber plates made for use on the faster letterpress rotary presses proved more efficient. This new process was called Flexography, and it became the most common way to print on fabric, metal, and cardboard. It had very limited use on postcards, largely restricted to printing novelties made of unusual materials.

While a method to transfer photographs to litho-stones had been available since 1857, stones could not be stereotyped around the cylinders of rotary presses that dominated commercial printing at the end of the 19th century. Thin flexible lithography plates made of zinc were adapted to the rotary press in 1868, but their more delicate surface caused them to wear out too quickly for most commercial uses. The solution to this problem was discovered by accident around 1904 when Ira A. Rubel was using a lithography press equipped with the type of rubber covered impression cylinder used in flexography in place of the scrapper bar suspension that normally passes over paper during printing. When this press ran out of paper, the rubber cylinder received the impression from the stone instead, and when printing resumed before the cylinder was cleaned, the paper took an impression on each side. When Rubel noticed that the side printed on accidentally by the soft rubber was sharper and richer than the intended side by the hard stone, he was inspired to design an offset press.

Unfortunately Rubel died soon after his discovery and it was left to Charles Harris to invent the first Rotary Offset Press. Here the image is transferred from a metal plate to soft roller and then on to paper giving the plate a much longer working life by reducing abrasion. It was not an immediate success for the chemistry involved was temperamental and plates covered with photo emulsion had little shelf-life. Letterpress men despised the water jockeys that ran offset presses but this method gained popularity in the 1950’s after the 3M Company developed an easy to use, storable metal litho-plate. By the late 1960’s offset had replaced letterpress almost entirely and it has become the primary method of printing. Almost all postcards are now printed in offset lithography. Halftone gravure remains it only competitor but it is rarely used outside the magazine or the packaging trades.


PHOTOCHROMES (Chromes)   1939 - Present

After the invention of new inks in 1934 that more closely resembled subtractive primary colors, and the introduction of Kodachrome, a multi layered color reversal film in 1936, the foundation for printing high quality natural color images was laid. These products were not refined until 1939 when the technique saw its first large scale application with the production of giveaway cards for the Union Oil Company. Competing with Union Oil was the Berkley based photographer Mike Roberts who was the first printer of photochrome postcards based on the new Kodachrome color film. These postcards were issued by Color Card, of which he became a partner, and were issued under various brand names. Material restrictions imposed by World War Two put an end to production, and the technique would not gain momentum until the late 1940’s. Publishers of popular linen postcards thought this new printing method represented by chromes was nothing but a fad. Attempts to produce images in natural color dated all the way back to the 19th century, but the publicŐs interest in them had always been limited. Cards produced with heightened colors had always prevailed. Improved color quality however was finally making a difference. Public taste had also been altered by an increased interest in science, no doubt brought about by the introduction of advanced weaponry during World War Two.


As the production of chromes became fully integrated with process printing methods, it success was secured when offset presses they were made on came to dominate the printing industry. As this shift became apparent, a number of linen publishers tried to capitalize on this trend without dramatically changing their own method of production. With better quality color photographs to base their images on, linen cards needed less retouching. After a while, linens became indistinguishable from chromes except for their telltale texture. Many of these linen cards even carry a notice proudly declaring that the card was derived from a Kodachrome.


Even when the photographs that chrome cards were based on were good, the printed results did not always match. It would take some time for all the materials and practices used to make process prints to work well and become standardized. Although the basics of process printing remain the same, the color quality of photochromes has continually improved since the first dull grainy cards, largely due to advances in digital technology. Though all chrome cards are generally considered modern, there are often substitutive differences in appearance due to nuanced changes in their printing. Many of the scenes that older cards portray are now over 75 years old, which means they might have changed as much or more than on those considered antiques.

NOTE: There is some debate over the use of the popular term chrome to describe a natural color postcard created through process printing. Most accounts attribute this nickname to Kodachrome film from which many of the earliest chrome cards were derived. My problem with this argument is that many other early chrome cards are based on other types of film, most notably Agfachrome. The term photochrome was coined back in the 1870’s to describe new tricolor printing methods being used to create natural color images. While the term photochrome has often been corrupted into brand names, the basic principles of tricolor printing still apply to modern process printed cards. While no one can say where the abbreviated term chrome comes from with any certainty, I believe it is derived from photochome, and I use these two names interchangeably. This is a good example of how difficult it is to accurately write about postcard history when there is little to no documentation on relatively recent facts.



Scholarly writings on postcards during the Second World War helped inspire the formation of new postcard clubs at the War’s end. One of the first to arrive was the Metropolitan Post Card Collectors Club in 1946. The clubs that formed in the Golden Age revolved around acquiring contemporary cards, which was largely done through even exchange by way of the mail or at meetings. The exchange of cards remained a priority for the new clubs as well, but as club members came into possession of large inventories of cards from old collectors, stores, or attics, they began to sell these cards off rather than slowly trade them away. From this activity the modern postcard dealer was born. As the number of clubs and dealers grew, clubs began to organize shows where they could all meet; and this became an important activity that helped promote the hobby. More importantly these modern clubs now had some history to draw on, which allowed postcards to be viewed in a more serious fashion. Historical perspective and rarity now began to give postcards individual value.

Postal Postage

END OF AN ERA   1952

On the First of January 1952, postage for mailing a postcard in the United States was raised up from a penny to two cents, permanently ending the era of the Penny Post Card. The postcard rate would be raised sixteen more times in the next fifty years and it is still heading upwards.



Since the late 1940’s, anxiety had been increasing over the growth of juvenile delinquency in an America that many wanted painted as nothing but prosperous and serene. Comic books that were always suspect were now quickly becoming one of the more prominent scapegoats for behavioral problems. Fearing direct legislation from Congress, the Comic Magazine Association of America created the Comic Code Authority in 1954 that would self-censor comic books. They produced a long list of topics and words that would be limited or prohibited out right. Figures of authority could no longer be criticized and the good guys always had to triumph over evil. While publishers were not bound by law to follow these rules, only those who did received the Authority’s seal of approval that was required by most distributors. Sales of comic books would quickly plummet after these rules took effect. While these rules were not directly applicable to postcard production, it still sent a cautionary message to card publishers. The types of subjects that card publishers typically took risks with began to diminish, and postcards grew more generic.

Baseball Card


The earliest cards depicting baseball players and their teams began appearing in the United States during the 1880Ős as chromolithographic trade and reward cards. Tobacco companies soon followed making these players a mainstay of their cigarette cards. Japan began printing cards with baseball images as early as 1898, followed by Cuba in 1909 and Canada in 1912. As postcards became popular all sorts of baseball related material were printed onto them. Between the two World Wars sports figures were mostly associated with reward cards though they began appearing on arcade cards as well. As sugar interests began to overtake tobacco, baseball reward cards were added to the sales of chewing gum in 1933. Reward cards being nonessential items disappeared during World War Two when material shortages placed restrictions on the printing industry, and they never regained their former popularity. When the Topps Gum Company began packaging cards of baseball players along with their Bazooka Bubble Gum in 1952, they initiated the birth of the modern Baseball Card. While they were initially sold in the traditional manner as a reward for the purchase of gum, these cards took on a new life as they began to be purchased for collecting and trading with the gum relegated to an afterthought. By the 1980’s as general interest in collecting grew, baseball cards began to be created and marketed in more sophisticated ways with the more investment oriented collector in mind.

Trading Card

In the wake of baseball cardŐs popularity, many other types of non-sports related trading cards were produced. While cards dating back to the 1930’s were tied to the reward card tradition, the newer post war trading cards were now sold for their own sake. Most trade cards adopted a standard size of 2 1/2 by 3 1/2 inches, which was the same as baseball cards. This allowed them to be easily sold from existing vending machines as well as over the counter. The earliest of these cards carried many of the same subjects as postcards depicting planes, trains, and historic events and comics. Eventually many card sets would adapt to the times to be based on television shows and blockbuster movies.

Trading Card

If postcards of these years went out of their way to avoid controversy or display anything that might upset people, the producers of trading cards began to take the opposite course during the 1950’s. Even though many of these card sets are quite ordinary, publishers seemed to go out of their way to produce extremely violent and gory imagery. The difference may be largely due to the difference in marketing as the primary audience for trading cards was children. Restrictions protecting children from comic book violence did not spill over onto trading cards, and they continued to remain popular. While some scenes of horror were based on science fiction, others represented actual historic events. While violence was largely used as a ploy to increase sales, some capitalized on this interest to promote Cold War propaganda, especially after the start of the Korean War.

Trading Card

Since trading cards were designed for trading, their backs were typically loaded with all sorts of information. This could be vital statistics of a ball player’s performance or similar data when it came to cards of cars or planes. Some card backs carried a small segment of a long running story that was completed by owning the entire set. Despite their small size some of these non-sports cards were printed with a postcard back so they could be mailed.



By the 1950’s the nationŐs clogged roads sparked motorist demands for Federal intervention, but it was most likely Cold War fears that eventually tipped the balance of the debate. President Eisenhower who admired the efficiency of the German autobahn system saw the need for such roads in American in order to evacuate cities and quickly supply aid to casualties in the event of a nuclear attack. Using this argument, he persuaded Congress to appropriate Federal money for construction of the first U.S. Interstate Highway System. Ironically while most wars have inspired the creation of new postcards, it was these new highways allowing for faster travel from place to place that put an end to many now bypassed roadside attractions and the postcards that accompanied them. At the same time the first fast food eateries began to pop up in number, which was soon followed by chain motels. As the American landscape grew ever more generic, so did the roadside postcards that continued to be published.

Arcade Card

Nuclear war would not break out between the United States and the Soviet Union but the Cold War did not remain cold for long. Battles began erupting in the late 1940Ős between the armies of a Korea left divided as a result of duel World War Two occupation. After communist forces in the northern half invaded the south, all out war broke out in 1950. Americans soldiers soon found themselves embroiled in a bitter struggle on the Korean Peninsula as part of a United Nation’s police action. Geopolitical politics had turned a civil war into an international conflict as more powerful nations intervened on both sides. Even though an armistice would not be signed for three years the postcard industry took little notice of these events. Considering the scale of this conflict, the great amount of propaganda produced, its lack of representation on postcards was a marked break from previous wars that always inspired high production. Visual representations are more likely to be found on arcade and trading cards.


The Korean War is often referred to as the Forgotten War for it was not popular among a public still weary from World War Two despite widespread anti-Communist feelings. World War Two had also touched so many lives that it took on mythic proportions that still dominates the public consciousness. Without an entire nation mobilized to fight, American postcard publishers concentrated on only producing cards that would act as distractions. Ignoring any form of unpleasantness became the general model for postcard production going forward. With the number of cars on the nationŐs roads increasing, postcard production became fixated on the tourist and all the roadside attractions built for them.


The treat of the Cold War turning into a nuclear war may have been real, but it seems to have inspired limited public concern. Even though searchlights on the lookout for Russian bombers once filled the night sky over cities, and school children drilled for an impending attack, anxieties over this threat were largely defused through popular culture. This is typical in most societies that have to learn to cope with dangers they have no control over. Postcards began depicting women scantily clad in swimsuits called bikinis, named after an atoll where the hydrogen bomb was tested. After 1951, above ground tests of atom bombs in Nevada became a tourist attraction that was promoted by the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce. Some even ventured out from Atomic City to get as close to the detonations as the government permitted. About a thousand bombs were detonated until a limited test ban was imposed in 1963. Postcards not only depict exploding bombs, many of these took on the style of ordinary roadside cards.



Even though the New York Armory show of 1912 introduced many Americans to the newest European trends in abstraction, modernist tendencies were slow to take. There was a general suspicion of anything coming out of Europe, a feeling only made stronger by the Great War and Russian Revolution that created a real backlash against outsiders. While many American artists took up abstraction and were acclaimed, their outlook never completely filtered down into public taste. Even as the number of modernists grew between the two World Wars, the public seemed more focused on the same type of social realism promoted in Germany and the Soviet Union but with a different message. Outside of Art Deco influences, most postcard publishers remained cautious and would not risk sales by presenting the public with anything that wasn’t time tested for marketability. This became less of an issue when nearly all postcards became photo based after World War Two.


In the early days of the Soviet Union, artist also demanded change from the old order but their radical forms of modernism were not to last. Since publishing was seen as tool of State interests, the subjects chosen to be placed on postcards had more to do with propaganda than free market forces. Modernist tendencies would be tolerated to a degree, but they had to clearly promote the ideals of the Revolution. More realistic forms of social realism were more suited to this agenda, and they came to dominate. Even so, Soviet citizens would not buy postcards they did not like, so while many of these artist drawn cards depict battles and heroes of past wars, they were produced alongside cards depicting ordinary people engaged in the glories of labor but just as often just living everyday lives. In this way they were similar to American cards as both presented themselves as ordinary while managing to promote a subtle sense of nationalism.


With Europe still digging itself out of the chaos of World War Two, the center of the art world shifted to New York City where abstract expressionism was gaining attention. There were many artistic and economic factors that influenced the rise of this new style, but the growing Cold War would also play an important and largely unseen role. Similarities between competing nations are never good when generating propaganda and cold war politics soon integrated itself into the art world. The new abstract expressionists rising on the American scene were to be promoted as representatives of freedom as opposed to the backward looking communists that had rejected abstraction. What was once looked upon suspiciously as foreign was now promoted as representing America’s progressive values simply because it contrasted with what our enemies condemned. While these official policies had great influence on the art market, they had little effect on public taste. A dichotomy was created by forcing art to follow political will while bowing to the market place. That which served political ends was promoted to become a commodity of elites at the expense of all other forms of expression. Those marketing products like postcards however still had to bow to the market place where abstraction lacked general public appeal. The art of American realists was now marginalized, and if promoted at all, it had to be presented in ways that separated it from their Soviet counterparts even if it looked alike.



The advancement of rocketry technology for weaponry during the Second World War led to a postwar race between the United States and the Soviet Union to master outer space. Even though each side developed space programs based on the expertise of German scientists, it was largely seen as a Cold War competition to determine the superiority of capitalist or communist systems. Little attention was paid to this race until the Russians launched the first orbiting satellite, Sputnik 1, in 1957. The United States would launch their own satellite, Explorer 1, the following year, but the Russians had the momentum and surged ahead in the face of American failures. As these activities spurred great interest in outer space, they were incorporated onto postcards that could be used for propaganda. Most of these were produced in the Soviet Union where the space race was promoted as evidence of the superiority of Soviet technology.


Though dismayed by Soviet advances into space, both awe and Cold War fears only increased America’s efforts. The federal government began putting more money into advanced scientific research as well as encouraging engineering and mathematic programs in schools. With a focus on putting the first man on the moon, the United States now outpaced the Soviets who suffered a series of disastrous setbacks. The space race was already being represented on an increasing number of postcards, but when the American, Neil Armstrong of the Apollo 11 mission place the first human footprint on the Moon, interest soared and many commemorative cards were produced. The space race had opened up a whole new genre for postcards to tackle and images relating to the entire history of space flight were captured by many nations. While most of these cards surpass ordinary representation to become highly propagandistic, they all capture the spirit of the venture in the publicŐs eye, who perceived it as something quite beyond the ordinary.



The 100th anniversary of the American Civil War was marked very differently than the 75th. With the last veterans having died off in the previous decade, the battlefields now devoid of GAR encampments would be a quieter place. While a flurry of new postcards were created to supply the tourists that were encouraged to visit Civil War battlefields they were for the most part little different from any other view-cards that had permeated the market for years. New attempts to help unite the Country by promoting national tourism in the face of a changing society that included growing women’s and civil rights movements was no longer having the same effect. While postcards publishers did their best to make 1961 a memorable but quiet year, there were the lingering aspects of southern revisionism to contend with that were so prevalent at the beginning of the century. Even though there were no longer any reputations to make or redeem, and no more personal ambitions to further by arguing the facts, revisionism to vindicate the noble cause continued. This intensification as not so much a reaction to the centennial as a backlash against the growing civil rights movement. Myths were always the prime mover of tourism and now some publishers disguised uncomfortable truths while others promoted these falsehoods without even knowing it. Even the National Park Service became complicit in distorting the truth through the many postcards disseminated at historic sites.


Americans had been in Vietnam as advisors to the French since 1950 but in 1961 with their defeat and withdrawal, the United States suddenly tripled its military presence. As AmericaŐs involvement in this conflict grew ever larger and the War ever hotter, it became a point of great contention between those at home to whether the military should stay or leave. Even many with strong anti-Communist leanings who felt we needed to win this War silently wished it would go away. Unlike the Korean War when news was severely censored, many iconic images would come out of this conflict but they did not find their way onto postcards. This war for hearts and minds at home and abroad would be fought through other media. Postcard publishers generally went out of their way to avoid controversy and those images placed on Vietnam War postcards tend to look little different from those of the Civil War Centennial. Soldiers, helicopters, battle gear, and sometimes even destruction were depicted but these cards tended not to glorify or vilify, they just became something to write home on. Even as the draft and protests in the streets divided the county further, both hawks and doves continued to just be presented with variations of the standard view-card. While American postcards still promoted mythologies, they had for the most part lost their political relevance since the Korean War.


The Vietnamese did not have the luxury to look the other way as the War ravaged their homeland. In the North the armed struggle against the Japanese, the French, and now the Americans was portrayed in solidly heroic terms. With severe material shortages hampering printing, the North Vietnamese could not afford to produce cards on their own, but nearly all other Communist nations became involved in publishing anti U.S. propaganda cards that criticized America’s involvement in Southeast Asia. Since there was little travel within these nations, their postcards were not oriented towards tourism, and many still carried propaganda. These cards stand in stark contrast to those produced in the United States in both number and purpose. Postcards were no longer playing a universal role.


Some in the United States were not content with the noncommittal attitude of postcard publishers toward the War in Vietnam or communism in general. As in decades past both individuals and groups took it upon themselves to publish cards that espoused ideas that would otherwise be absent from mainstream coverage. This was not as easy of a task as it once was since most small publishers that might take such an order had long disappeared. While the era of small printshops was waning, many were still up and running all over the country so opportunities did exist. The low numbers of independently produced political cards may just be attributable to the cost of small scale production. Postcards were also no longer on the forefront of people’s minds when it came to choosing a media outlet for their message.



Postcards throughout their history were largely produced to make money by providing a large mainstream audience with what they wanted to see. They reinforced national ideals either by design or by simply meeting public expectations. In doing so, publishers often created stereotypes that also worked to limit our scope in the understanding of life’s complexities. Every postcard era tends to be described as the years of great optimism, and the cards themselves seem out of tune with the harsh realities of their time. Even in the Golden Age of postcards, where many cards were used to express social or political concerns, the growing clouds of war that led to the cataclysm of the First World War were largely overlooked. Few images depicting the hardships of the Great Depression exist on postcards. The same can be said of the turmoil created by the Civil Rights Movement and the war in Vietnam. The emphasis in postcard production is in escapism, depicting the world, as we would like it to be.

While many see the 1960Ős as the years of counter cultural movements, it is only because many postwar trends finally gained enough momentum to become impossible to overlook. Just as social norms were thrown off in the wake of WWI with the Lost Generation, so were they too after WWII with the Beat Generation, and then peaking in the face of war resistance to the Vietnam conflict. Postcards, which were now produced by only a handful of industrial giants, were often seen as instruments of a culture asleep to reality. The counter cultural trends of the 60Ős however did not work to stimulate more varied content on postcards, but rather separated itself from the establishment that produced them. Even for the more mainstream Americans that continued to buy postcards things had changed. As the public became more focused on individual concerns, they lost interest in cards that tried to perform as a learning mechanism. As we became a less singular nation, postcards lost much of their power to reinforce national identity.

Continental Postcard

Though the counterculture generated few cards of protest, there were postcards published decrying its excesses and lack of respect for traditional values. While many of these were comic cards poking fun of Hippies, many ironically were published in the Soviet Union or other allied communist nations that supposedly idealized their own revolutionary past. Youth in the West fell victim to Cold War propaganda from all sides as they tended to be portrayed as symbols of decadence. Their antiwar and anti-consumerist attitudes were decried by capitalists while their left leaning activism was conveniently ignored by communists.



By the mid-1960’s a new style of design was emerging out of California inspired in part by concert posters and the growing drug culture. This psychedelic style of swirling shapes in bright intense colors that often incorporated flowers and rainbows was meant to evoke a hallucinatory experience. Psychedelia had a very powerful influence on fashion, music, and all forms of graphic design. Its effects on postcards were minimal as most publishers by this time came to rely on photo-based materials. The style was sometimes used to great effect to promote music and countercultural events, but its characteristics proved so strong and difficult to integrate with other material that it fell out of vogue before the decade’s end.


Though the counterculture generated few cards of protest, there were postcards published decrying its excesses and lack of respect for traditional values. While many of these were comic cards poking fun of Hippies, many ironically were published in the Soviet Union or other allied communist nations that supposedly idealized their own revolutionary past. Youth in the West fell victim to Cold War propaganda from all sides as they tended to be portrayed as symbols of decadence. Their antiwar and anti-consumerist attitudes were decried by capitalists while their left leaning activism was conveniently ignored by communists.



In the late 1960’s the highly restrictive rules of the Comic Code Authority had led to an outright rebellion against it. While most mainstream publishers of comic books continued to play by the rules, a series of smaller presses began producing a new breed of comics that embraced everything that the Code stood against. While many of the earliest of these underground commix were pornographic in nature they eventually came to express the values of the counterculture in a largely satirical manner. Direct marketing by small presses made the Authority’s seal of approval irrelevant, but later with the crackdown on head shops in the mid-1970’s they lost many of their distribution outlets and began fading from public view. This however only inspired a good number of illustrators to become independent publishers of this material, which led to a real revival of comic books. As popularity grew the form expanded to include pictorial novels and standalone postcards.

Real Photo Postcard


Even though a tremendous amount of postcards survived the golden age, the finest among them grew scarce as the decades past. Many were squirreled away in attics or collections and others had simply been discarded. By the 1960’s some publishers began to reproduce these images to meet demand. Some of these were issued by historical societies and clubs to commemorate anniversaries, raise money, or just make images of interest available to members. On occasion these newly issued cards reproduced old photographs that were never originally on any postcard. These cards should not be equated with forgeries for they were made without any claims to be antique and if sold, they were done so at contemporary market prices. Some of these reproductions however may now possess an age and rarity that that gives them historical context in their own right. This can also make them difficult to date if the circumstances surrounding their production are not noted on the card or they are forgotten.

As the general public gained increasing access to reproductive means with greater fidelity, their ability to create forgeries increased. This practice has not been widespread because the time and effort needed to create a good forgery cannot easily be compensated for by the relatively low selling price of postcards. Still there are many strange cards out there that are not real postcards, or are not as old as they may seem to be. The reasons behind their creation often remain unknown, and they can be bought or sold for unacceptable amounts out of ignorance if nothing else. Only now with fast rising prices and accessible higher quality reproductive technology have forgeries become a worrying prospect to the unsuspecting. Caveat Emptor.

Xograph Postcard


Images that created the illusion of three dimensions from a two dimensional surface have existed long before the first picture postcard was ever made. Stereoscopy was the first 19th century technique to find a large audience and these cards became widely collected. Anaglyphs, a subject made up of two views taken from slightly different perspectives and each printed in a distinct but overlapping color followed in 1891. Although this method was used to make postcards it remained unpopular because the effect could not be actualized without wearing special filtered glasses. A new form of 3D image, the parallax panoramagram was developed in the 1920’s that required no external device to be viewed. Here it was the textured plastic surface in the form of a linear array sealed to the top of the photograph that created the 3D illusion. The plastic acted as a lens that fractured light differently from multiple perspectives. These images more commonly called Xographs first found their way into magazines in 1964 and later onto postcards. Wide public appeal was anticipated but the fad wore off by the early 1980’s. While the ability to create greater depth has increased, these cards still remain an acquired taste.



Though similar to advertising cards, gallery cards were derived from the tradition of a formal invitation that announced an upcoming art exhibition. They originally consisted only of text, for no illustration was need for an artist or gallery of acclaim. As the number of art galleries exploded in the 1960’s, increased competition forced these cards to be adorned with a reproduction from the show to entice collectors to drop by. To draw more attention in an increasing glut of cards, many took on shapes and sizes that deviated from the norm while others were designed as folding cards. As mailings grew larger in an effort to attract buyers in an increasingly competitive market, most galleries stopped using envelopes and began mailing out invitations as ordinary postcards. The recipient who might normally toss this mail aside would now be exposed to a hopefully alluring image. The excess cards produced were then given away at the gallery for further publicity. These cards tend to become rare for they are produced in relatively low numbers to advertise a one-time event for a limited audience. Leftover cards usually end up being discarded afterwards. The printed show announcement on their backs makes them useless for further personal mailings, so they are mostly saved as mementoes or used for reference by other artists. Gallery cards currently have little to no demand as collectables though they do occasionally show up for sale alongside postcards displaying art reproductions. While these cards can be posted, they are usually classified as ephemera.



The reproduction of famous artworks rose with the fortunes of popular prints. While these prints were relatively inexpensive when compared to paintings, they were still beyond the means of most people. The introduction of postcards changed all that, and art reproductions were one of the earliest subjects to be placed on them. While museum cards always proved a reliable source of income, many institutions began to undergo a change in attitude toward them during the late 1950’s. As the celebrity of the Abstract Expressionists brought about increasing interest in this new form of American art, many museums took it upon themselves to direct public taste. As museums grew in size to house newly acquired works and offer an expanded range of programs to attract more visitors, an ever increasing spiral to obtain additional works and expand in size eventually took over. The ability to fundraise has often surpassed any knowledge of art in importance, and this ability is paramount for any director interested in career climbing. To further increase their influence and revenue, museum gift shops have grown into a full fledge industry. Museums have become major publishers of books, exhibition catalogs, and art postcards in numbers previously unseen.



As the printing industry downsized its products during the 1970’s to save on the rising cost of paper, postcards headed in the opposite direction. Many were enlarged from the standard 3 1/2 by 5 1/2 inches to 4 by 6 inches, which is the largest size the Postal Service allows to go through the mail at a postcard rate. Though mostly printed as bleeds, black borders became fashionable in the early 1980’s. Continentals were a forerunner of the Supersize trend that became a widespread ploy in marketing. Venders were able to charge larger sums while customers got more postcard for their money whether they actually needed it or not. Today continentals are in strong competition with standard sized cards and are the only sized card that many printers produce. More recently even larger sized cards were introduced, but they stretch the definition of a postcard as they can only be mailed at a letter rate.

While this larger size format is new to the United States, it had been regularly used back on the continent of Europe, hence its name, since the 1890’s and in large numbers from the late 1920Ős onwards. Continental sized cards from Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union are the most common though they were also produced in other nations. Today many old images, especially posters, are reproduced on Continental sized cards, which can cause some confusion. While some of these images once appeared on older postcards, most did not and they are now produced to meet current taste. Since most modern Continentals are produced through offset printing, they can be differentiated from cards made before World War Two.

Mail Art Card


Chester Carlson invented the first photocopy machine in 1937 where an image could be scanned onto an electrically charge roller which would attract pigment through variances in static, then transfer it again to a sheet of paper without any need to create a film transparency. With electrostatic printing even very small quantities of prints can be made economically because there is no need for minimum press runs to match cost when there is no set up time for presses. Since the pigment in this process is adhered to the paper through the application of heat to its back, its effectiveness is limited proportionally to the thickness of the paper used. While this technology has been appropriated to create postcards, it has largely been confined to cheap advertising and artist made cards as traditional card stock is too thick for proper heat transfer.

This idea was carried further when in 1968 when Electromechanical Engraving was invented. Here an image could be transferred to a printing plate through electric impulses. This filmless method of reproduction was naturally suited for the digital revolution to follow. By 1981 Electronic Page Makeup Systems were developed where an image can be moved directly from a computer onto a sheet of paper. Electronic scanning has also replaced process cameras for color separation because of its greater accuracy.

Mail Art Card


Mail Art has been around since the turn of the 20th century as many tried to expand upon the meaning of Art. The antiestablishment ideals of such early movements as DADA were pick up in the early 1960’s by Fluxus, a group concerned with intermedia art forms. As the fine art establishment of the late 1960’s did its best to stifle all competition to solidify their hold on the marketplace, it soon became stale and moribund while still claiming to be cutting edge. Many artists left out of the system found ways to rebel by using experimental art forms. One of the more creative methods inspired by Fluxus was Mail-Art which grew into its own movement by the 1970’s. Original works of art were made that could be sent through the mail without any container, only postage attached. A common form taken was that of the postcard but all sorts of media were used, many incorporating rubber stamps and the emerging technology of photocopiers. Much of this work was used for networking within the artistic community.

Exhibitions were also held to which art work would be mailed without a cover, shown, and then discarded afterwards. It was a poke in the eye to the over seriousness and commercial emphasis of the gallery scene. In Eastern Europe mail-art had a different evolution with more political implications. This form of non-sanctioned art could easily be made in defiance of authoritarian restrictions. For the most part this innovation ended in the 1990Ős as more and more artists started to network on the Internet. Even so, the activities of the International Union of Mail Artists have steadily grown. This was a large international movement and there remains much debate on its definition, origins, and status.



Westerns were a staple of movie theaters before World War Two, and when they moved to television during the 1950’s they became the most popular form of entertainment. Their story lines followed the basic myth of the American West, its pioneering and individualistic spirit shaped in moral tones. Since the 19th century such stories helped shape the national character and unite the nation. It had also helped promote American tourism with the aid of large railroads and in the postwar years by automobile companies. Facts were only used sparingly to add color to a story, and always overlooked when they contradicted the central myth. This began to change when the 1960’s ushered in a more cynical outlook. As the truth behind story lines was questioned, the tradition Western was disparaged as overly romantic, blindly patriotic and insulting to native peoples. By the 1970’s there was a noticeable drop in vacations spent at dude ranches and attractions with Western themes. This changeover can be closely followed by the subjects and the frequency that they are found on advertising and roadside postcards.


Some of the earliest postcards made were oriented toward tourists. They captured the necessary sites to be seen on grand tours to roadside curiosities set up to attract the first motor travelers. Most of these cards followed one simple formula; they presented views and sites that the traveler was encouraged to see, and could then buy as a souvenir to return home with. There were also cards that captured the many outdoor activities that tourists engaged in, but these were always secondary to view-cards. After World War Two there was growing change in the way people spent their vacations. Visiting historic sites was no longer as important as having a good time. Amusement parks grew in popularity alongside many outdoor sporting activities. More generic postcards began to appear that just showed people enjoying themselves. This marked a paradigm shift in the way people perceived postcards. They were no longer an important record of something that exists as much as a conveyance of a trite message. From this change, the Wish you were here postcard stereotype was born.


Although official tourist agencies were still trying to shape American culture through tourism in the 1970’s, these See America campaigns were having little effect. People were still taking vacations, perhaps even in larger numbers, but they were now focused on self interests, not getting an education. Postcards that were once a prime force in promoting national tourism were no longer a potent force. Many remained manipulative, but the audience for these images was shrinking fast. Myths however do not dissipate easily, and even as the power of postcards diminished, the stories they once told have remained a part of this nationŐs character. Despite that much of this fiction was replaced by good historical accounts, we have come to live with both because we need both.



Marking and measuring time is one of mankind’s oldest endeavors. The accuracy at which it was recorded no doubt helped with the planting of crops that maximize harvest and assured survival. Numbers in themselves took on magical connotations that havenŐt quite left us despite our more scientific leanings. While yearly anniversaries often marked stages along a planting cycle, those that reference longer periods are rather arbitrary; it is the symbolism placed on the tradition that creates meaning and value for these far off honored dates. 1976 was such a year for on July 4th the 200th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence was celebrated. Nearly every community from large cities to small villages marked this event in some manner. Reenactments of historical events from the American Revolution were a common occurrence. Travel to historic sites was again popularized, only this time people took to the road.

Postcard publishers began producing many more postcards to accommodate the increasing numbers of tourists that the Bicentennial inspired, and they also captured any number of specially planned events. As always, postcards made a time honored memento. Many extended this anniversary by scheduling activities over the entire year, which gave longer shelf life to postcards and it ensured that even more would be produced. In many ways the ending of the Vietnam war just a year earlier allowed Americans to put aside some of the divisiveness it had created and reassert patriotic values. Postcards followed suit, at least for a year.

In many ways the Bicentennial was a last ditch effort to hold together a fracturing nation. While there had always been a rich diversity of beliefs in America, the idea of a singular nation had been tirelessly promoted since World War Two. Those left out from this vision were ignored as much as possible, but that did not make them go away. The usual method of promoting a more singular identity through national tourism was not longer working, and even patriotic appeals were having a limited effect because the very definition of a patriot no longer held universal meaning. Efforts to maintain a status quo under the illusion of unity only built up underlying social, racial, and political tensions. The lid was about to blow.

1914-1945  UP  1977-2017