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Modern ’Chrome Postcards


Changing times have often inspired the development of new styles or genres, but in the years following the Second World War there would be a marked difference in regard to postcards as outside forces actually worked to diminish variety. Other than the trends found in architecture the idealism and optimism found in early modernism largely faded away in during the Great Depression and in the war years that followed. For the most part graphic design would now only incorporate modernist concepts in superficial ways, and we would never be as modern again. The rising costs of printing would give the photochrome card dominance at the expense of other beautiful printing techniques. Political content 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 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 drawn 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 pinup declined. Images depicting the social concerns of the day largely left the surface of postcards and became the domain of newspapers, pictorial magazines, and eventually television, leaving postcards as a tool of escapism. As Americans took to the road in ever increasing numbers, postcards were almost exclusively being manufactured with the tourist in mind. But even here the growth of the banal steadily replaced the unique in our landscape and then on our postcards. Attempts to revive prewar nationalist ideals would fail as America’s social climate continued to shift toward more individualistic pursuits. Interest in postcard collecting began to make a comeback following the War rising to become one of the most favored of all collectable items. The cards that were now collected however largely focused on those created in earlier decades rather than on contemporary cards that were lacked the same appeal.

In many ways the linen postcard that dominated the beginning of this period was 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 Century. Advances in offset lithography and color film would turn the public’s eye toward the modern photochrome, which continues to dominate the current postcard market. This new type of postcard would be produced on scientific principals without the need for artists. It would also 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 focused itself 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. The beatniks rejection of conventionality was only part of a larger restlessness that grew out from the chaos of the Second World War, but this was also a time when most people were looking for comfort in a safe and prosperous world. 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 general think of the 1950’s as a quiet peaceful time when it was anything but. 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. These tensions would finally boil over to help create the counter culture of the 1960’s.



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 L.I. 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. Cars were needed to live here to commute to jobs and stores, and they were purchased in droves adding to our romance with them. These houses were marketed as closed off from the street, to provide a peaceful environment for our war weary veterans. Instead of addressing war related stress, a climate of denial was created. As in the post war years of the American Civil War, when veterans headed for the Western frontier, the same restless spirit arose as these new veterans took to the road. A whole new culture would grow up around them.


This new migration did not often extend past a family’s paid vacation time, which about half of our nation’s workers had now acquired. The vastly improved highway system allowed Americans to explore as their inclinations dictated rather than follow the carefully prescribed tours of years past. 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. They along with curio shops, drive-ins, diners, gas stations, and motor courts became the staple of Roadside America postcards. No other single activity would have as much influence on the postcards of this age. 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. Modernism on the other hand, 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. Even though much printed matter now focused on tabloid news the growing ability for the general public to take to the road opened up many new opportunities to market cards to motorists. Roadside imagery and places of interest to ordinary Americans would now begin to dominate postcards. At the same time less care would be given over to their design.



Many beautiful postcards were created over the years but there have also been many cards that have been poorly printed since their inception. 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 subjects so uninteresting one wonders today why they were chosen at all. The preponderance of such cards may give us pause to think we do not fully comprehend the environment they were created in. While many such cards do not seem to contain any desirable qualities, it might not be the difference of perspective between time periods, as much as the lack of taste or bad decision making on the part of the original creators. Not all publishers were good businessmen, and poor decisions often forced them to end their postcard endeavors. After WWI there was a general drop in printing standards 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.

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 selective subjects or scenes in an artistic, sentimental, or romanticized manner and were made to be attractive to customers who were comfortable with these same accepted notions they promoted 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 but were rarely attractive to anyone not personally attached to the content. Today both types of cards can have historical importance for one represents an accurate pictorial view into a past physical environment, while the other captures a state of mind.



In 1875 a lithography press was fitted with an extra cylinder to transfer an image off a stone to a piece of sheet metal. The original roller was wrapped with cardboard but it would be replaced with a rubber cover a few years latter. Though technically the first offset print, this process was abandoned as cut rubber plates made for the faster letterpress rotary presses replaced it. 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, restricted for used on only certain novelties made of unusual materials.

A method to transfer photographs to lithography stones had been available since 1857. Stones however could not be stereotyped around the cylinders of rotary presses that dominated commercial printing at the end of the Century. Zinc lithography plates were adapted to the rotary press in 1868 but they wore out too quickly with their delicate surface for most commercial use. The solution to this problem was discovered about 1904. Certain lithography presses used a rubber covered impression cylinder, as used in flexography, in place of the scrapper bar suspension that passed over the paper during printing. If the press ran out of paper, the rubber cylinder would receive the impression from the stone instead. If printing resumed before the cylinder was cleaned, an impression would be made on both sides of the next sheet of paper. When Ira A. 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. 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 used today. Almost all postcards are now printed in offset lithography. Halftone gravure remains it only competitor but it is rarely used outside the magazine or packaging trades.


PHOTOCHROMES (Chromes)   1939 - Present

Up until 1939 almost all color postcards were manufactured by retouching images taken from black & white photographs. The first color film was invented in 1907 with others to follow but they were often complicated to use and all yielded less than adequate results. It wasn’t until 1936 that the first high quality, multi layered color reversal film was invented, Kodachrome. When used in conjunction with a process camera, color separations for litho-plates could be made. These four negatives broken down into CMYK colors, (cyan, magenta, yellow, black) were overlaid with halftone screens, each rotated differently to create a rosette pattern that would enhancing the method’s subtractive color properties when pieced back into a single image. These printed photochrome cards, or chromes as they are more commonly known, resemble color photographs even though made through halftone offset lithography. The Union Oil Company was the first to use photochromes in 1939 on the giveaway postcards available at their service stations, but with gas rationing enacted during the World War, they soon had little need to advertise and the technique was not significantly revived until after 1945.


Some publishers thought this process was nothing but a fad and continued to print linen cards. The public’s eye had changed however and since the mid 1950’s almost all postcards have been printed as photochromes. Many of the publishers who first printed these cards took advantage of the public’s fascination with Kodachrome by giving printed credit to it right on the postcard. Others went so far as to incorporate the term Kodachrome right into there own brand name. In this early transitional period there were even crossovers as linen cards incorporated Kodachromes into their production. Though the photochrome process has basically remained the same it has not been static as color quality has continually improved since the early dull grainy cards. Though these cards are generally considered modern, many of the scenes that they portray are now over fifty years old and they might have changed more than those on some cards of a hundred years.



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. While the clubs that formed in the Golden Age revolved around acquiring contemporary cards through even exchange, 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. 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 their numbers grew, clubs began to organize shows where collectors and dealers could meet. Since many collectors were no longer buying contemporary cards at face value, the ability to access these old cards is what allowed the hobby to grow. Club shows have remained the major source for obtaining postcards for most collectors to this day.

Postal Postage

END OF AN ERA   1952

On January 1st, 1952 postcard postage 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.

Baseball Card


The earliest cards depicting baseball players and their teams began appearing in the United States during the 1880’s as chromolithographs on trade and reward cards. Tobacco companies soon made 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 non essential items disappeared during the material shortages of World War Two and they never regained their former popularity. By 1952 however the Topps Gum Company began including cards of baseball players along with their Bazooka Bubble Gum initiating 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 form 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

Many other types of non-sports related trading cards followed in the wake of baseball card popularity. While the 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. As with baseball cards, most adopted a standard size of 2 1/2 by 3 1/2 inches. 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 scenes, but science fiction and Cold War themes would be added in the 1950’s. Eventually many card sets would be based on television shows and blockbuster movies.

Trading Card

The backs of baseball cards contained statistics on the player’s record and illustrated cards would have similar data on many subjects. Some cards followed long narratives with their backs used to tell the running story. Despite their small size some of these non-sports cards were printed with a postcard back so they could be mailed.



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. The use of a long list of topics and words would be limited or outrightly prohibited. 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 not directly applicable to postcard production it did limit the type of imagery that card publishers would be willing to take risks with.



By the 1950’s the nation’s 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 that he observed in WWII saw the need for such roads here in order to evacuate American cities and quickly supply aid to casualties in the event of a nuclear attack. He convinced Congress to appropriate Federal money for the construction of the 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 and 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 soon followed by chain motels. As the American landscape grew ever more generic, so did those roadside postcards that continued to be published.


Nuclear war would not break out between the United States and the Soviet Union but the Cold War did not remain cold for long. In 1950 Americans soldiers found themselves embroiled in a bitter struggle on the Korean Peninsular as part of a United Nation’s police action. Geopolitical politics had turned a civil war into a Cold War 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. The Korean War is often referred to as the Forgotten War for it was not popular among the war weary public despite widespread anti-communist feelings. Postcard publishers took note of this trend and concentrated on producing cards that would act as distractions. A similar attitude would be extended to the proxy wars that were yet to be fought.


While a fair amount of anti-Communist propaganda was created in the United States, the postcards that were produced here almost exclusively dealt with themes revolving around tourism. In the Soviet Union where supply and demand economics did control production a very different type of postcard could be found. Since publishing was seen as tool of State interests the subjects chosen to be placed on cards had more to do with propaganda than market forces, but even so Soviet citizens would not purchase postcards they did not like. While many of these artist drawn cards depicting battles and heros of past wars were made along side those demonstrating modern military might, most cards depicted ordinary people sometimes engaged in the glories of labor but just as often 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.



The advancement of weapons technology during the Second World War led to a race between the United States and the Soviet Union to master outer space and even to reach the moon. While often promoted under the guise of scientific advancement the real driving force was Cold War fears. Regardless of the inspiration it opened up a whole new genre for postcards to tackle and images relating to the entire history of space flight were captured on them in both nations. While many of these cards surpass ordinary representation to become highly propagandistic, they all capture the spirit of the venture in the public’s eye, who perceived it as something quite beyond the ordinary.

Real Photo Postcard


As cards of the early 20th century grew old the availability of the finest among them grew scarce. By the 1960’s some publishers began to reproduce these images to meet demand. Many 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 postcards at all. 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 may now possess an age and rarity that that places them in historical context in their own right, but it can also make them difficult to date as the circumstances surrounding their production are forgotten.

As various reproductive means have become more available to the general public, their ability to create forgeries has increased. This practice has not been widespread as the time and effort needed to create a good forgery cannot often 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 purchased or sold for unacceptable amounts out of ignorance if nothing else. Only now with fast rising prices and accessible high quality reproductive technology have forgeries become a worrying prospect to the unsuspecting. Caveat Emptor.



The 100th anniversary of the American Civil War was marked very differently than the 50th. The last of its veterans had died in the previous decade leaving behind no more reputations to make or redeem, no more personal ambitions to further by arguing the facts. 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. Attempts to unite the Country once again by promoting national tourism in the face of changing attitudes was no longer having the same effect and postcard publishers took note. No one wanted to raise the issues this centennial might inspire in the face of growing unrest by civil rights activists. Speeches were made, statues unveiled, and postcards publishers did their best to make 1961 a memorable but quiet year.


Americans had been in Viet-Nam as advisors to the French since 1950 but in 1961 with the French defeated and gone the United States suddenly tripled its military presence. As our involvement in this conflict grew ever larger and the War ever hotter it became a point of great divide at home as to whether we should stay or go. Even many anti-communists who felt we needed to win this War just wished it would go away. Postcard production followed suit and those images placed on Viet-Nam War postcards tend to look little different than those of the Civil War Centennial. Soldiers, battle gear, and some 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 made the situation more contentious, publishers just continued to produce variations of the standard view-card. This war for hearts and minds at home and abroad would be fought through other media.


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 they could not afford to produce cards of their own that did not commit to their cause. Other Communist led nations also became involved in publishing anti U.S. propaganda cards that criticized America’s involvement in Southeast Asia. Many of these cards were based on posters created for the same purpose.



Postcards throughout their history were largely produced for a mainstream audience and this was probably the most true in these post war years. They reinforced national ideals either by design or by simply providing the public with nothing more than what it expected. 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 reality of the 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 1960’s as the years of the counter cultural movements, it is only because they were the years many post war 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 60’s 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 as a learning mechanism. Postcards still continue to loose much of their power to reinforce a now very unsingular 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. The youth in the West fell victim to Cold War propaganda as they tended to be portrayed as symbols of decadence while their anti war, anti consumerism, left leaning activism was conveniently ignored.



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 graphic design. The characteristics of this style however were so strong and difficult to integrate with other material that it fell out of vogue before the decade’s end.



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 comix 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 latter 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 the artists now involved to become independent publishers of this material, not only as magazines but in postcard form.

Xograph Postcard


Images that created the illusion of three dimensions from a two dimensional surface have existed long before the first picture postcard. Stereoscopy was the first 19th century technique used to find a large audience and these cards became widely collected. Anaglyphs, which are made from overprinting a view taken from slightly different perspectives in two distinct colors followed in 1891. Although this method was used to make postcards it remained unpopular for the effect could not bee seen 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 then onto postcards. Wide public appeal was anticipated but the fad wore off by the early 1980’s and they still remain an acquired taste. Xographs were the only type of 3D postcards to be printed in large numbers.



Though similar to advertising cards, gallery cards were derived from the tradition of a formal invitation that announced an up coming 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 these cards began being adorned with a reproduction from the show, as an added measure to entice collectors to drop by. To attract even greater attention many took on shapes and sizes beyond 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 them out as ordinary postcards. 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 and then usually end up being discarded afterwards. The printed show announcement on their backs makes them useless for further personal mailings. Mostly saved by other artists, gallery cards currently have little to no demand as collectables though they do occasionally show up for sale.



While reproductions of art works on postcards have long been sold, the availability of these cards began to increase as many museums began to undergo changes in attitude during the late 1950’s. The fame of the Abstract Expressionism as an American art form had brought about an increasing interest in art among the general public and many museums now 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. At most institutions the ability to fundraise has become a more important attribute than any knowledge of art, and is paramount for any director interested in career climbing. To increase their influence and revenue further, 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 widespread 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 are being produced, but they stretch the definition of postcard as they can only be mailed at letter rate.

While this larger size format is new to the United States, it had been regularly used back on the continent of Europe since at least the late 1920’s, hence its name. Continental sized cards from Germany and the Soviet Union are the most common though they were also produced in many other nations. These cards are not to be confused with modern reproductions of older cards or images, which are abundant.

Mail Art Card


Chester Carlson invented the first photocopy machine in 1937. An image could be scanned onto an electrically charge roller which would attract pigment through variances in static, then transfer it to paper all without any need for a film transparency. This idea was carried further when in 1968 Electromechanical Engraving was invented where an image could be transferred to a printing plate through electric impulses. This filmless method 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. With electrostatic printing even very small quantities of prints can be made economically for without set up time for presses there is no need for minimum press runs to match cost. 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 cardstock is too thick for proper heat transfer.

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 anti-establishment 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 60’s did its best to stifle all competition in order to solidify their hold on the marketplace, it soon became stale and moribund while 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 though 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 as networking within the artistic community. Exhibitions were also held to which work would be mailed, 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 authority. For the most part this innovation ended in the 1990’s as more and more artists started to network on the Internet. Even so at the same time the activities of the International Union of Mail Artists have steadily grown. This was a large and international movement and there remains much debate on its definition, origins, and current status.



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 to maximize harvest and assure survival. Numbers in themselves took on magical connotations that haven’t quite left us despite our more scientific leanings. While yearly anniversaries often marked the stages along the 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 and also cover 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 life to postcards and ensured even more would be produced. In many ways the ending of the Viet-Nam 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.



By the mid 1970’s the seeds of Punk Rock began to grow in New York’s downtown neighborhoods in rebellion to the comfortable mainstreaming of Rock & Roll. The subculture that emerged was aggressive, anti-establishment, and most of all about fun. A very distinctive style emerged that was both inventive and offensive, valuing raw honesty over slick production skills. Its major influence was on music and fashion but a new raw graphic style soon followed. While this new style had little impact on the overall production of postcards, much crude cut and paste high contrast graphics were used on cards that promoted nightclubs and bands. While Punk began as a true popular movement, conscripting simple production means available to anyone and clearly individualistic and anti-commercial, by the early 1980’s it was already commercialized and parts of it mainstreamed. Post Punk apocalyptic visions became the backdrops to movies and fashion layouts. Though tamed its original spirit continues to inspire new artists.


As Punk Rock faded the Goth element within it began to grow. While it has remained a subculture and lacks a singular message, it has assumed some recognizable if not mainstream forms. Its look tends to embrace the darker side of the human condition that harkens back to the morbid gothic romanticism of the 19th century as in the likes of Poe and Shelly. While a long standing component within Western culture, Punk gave these elements a new face. It has managed to resist being assimilated into popular culture largely do to our current emphasis on seeing the world in lighter one dimensional forms. Even so Goth subjects have found its way onto postcards produced by small presses as its adherents seem to be very visually oriented.


While some of these modern limited edition cards are printed for the benefit of postcard club members, they are mostly produced with the collector in mind. They are an offshoot of the limited edition collectables market for such items as painted plates and figurines that grew popular in the 1980’s, but have little to do with the tradition of postcards. They are not created to be mailed but carefully saved as investments. Normally such paper items would be marketed as prints except these are made postcard size to target the specific audience of postcard collectors. The term Limited Edition is mostly used today as a marketing ploy to denote an objects rarity and implied value. In reality the term in this context has little meaning as no collectable can be produced in infinite numbers though some seem to try. In the Fine Art print market, editions of more than one hundred copies are usually considered to be an abuse of the term.


The works of many artists have been reproduced on either gallery cards or museum cards over the decades but as conceptualism began changing the face of art it created a strange paradox. Much of this work based on concept as art rather than physical presence no less used real objects or images to manifest its existence before the viewing public. While not necessarily sellable it became tangible and then the subject for postcards. While the artwork itself was radically different from that of years past, publishing public sculptures on view-cards was an old tradition and the work was presented on cards in this same manner. In the modern climate of collectors seeking a hot new item many of these otherwise ordinary postcards were autographed. It is difficult to say if this adds much appeal for today’s postcard collector or if it finds a larger audience with those who collect autographs. It has however added a very commercial side to conceptualism that was initially envisioned as an anti-commercial art form.



Television, movies, and music did not just become major influences on public taste by the 1980’s, they were in the hands of fewer companies leading to the cross promotion of products on a scale never before seen. A popular TV series could suddenly generate interest in a subject that few had ever paid attention to and generate a whole series of spin off products. While many of these products were ultimately controlled by one single conglomerate there was usually plenty of room for others looking for a quick profit to jump onto the band wagon. Even though a good deal of trash was promoted in this manner, it also allowed for works of artistic, literary, and historical merit to reach the broader public and further open up the world of ideas. This process sometimes even filtered down to postcard publishing where a specific genre of cards would suddenly be produced for a newfound audience. Often the audience for such cards was over estimated as the public’s attention could be quickly refocused.



There has been a growing trend in recent times for the Congress to assign days, weeks, and even whole months to commemorate various special interests. So many have petitioned for legislation to have their own particular passions recognized that we have run out of dates on the calendar and many honored occasions now overlap. Since 1984 National Postcard Week has been added to this endless list and is celebrated the first full week in May in both the United States and the United Kingdom. During this time collectors and postcard clubs often release their own published postcards to mark the event. Although created to bring attention to postcard collecting and promoted by many energized people, it has largely remained an insular event lost among the many other such weeks.

Real Photo Postcard


For all of postcard history, cards have been largely used to reinforce mainstream values. Some publishers may have had specific agendas, but most just went along blindly doing nothing that might threaten their sales. While the ways in which women were depicted changed often over the years, these presentations rarely captured a true sense of reality. For the most part depictions of women were limited to being objects of desire from portrayals of pure innocence to erotic nudes. There was always the odd exception such as the preponderance of cowgirls on Western cards, well out of proportion to their true numbers. Cowgirls became an acceptable female role because it was an aberration, and it reinforced the American ideal of rugged individualism. The millions of women who labored in factories would barely receive notice for they were the reality that did not fit into the American mindset. As women received the right to vote and made ever increasing demands on society, they were depicted less and less in a romanticized manner and took the form of pinups and the butt of dumb blond jokes. This type of imagery dramatically decreased as the Women’s Movement gained momentum and by the 1980’s it was rarely seen. Socially unacceptable ideas do not sell postcards, though sex still does and it continues to be widely used.


Gays were one of the few non-socially accepted groups not traditionally targeted for degradation by postcards. For the most part they were invisible within society and postcards clearly defining them are rare. Where they do appear is usually through some coded form that would not be decipherable to all in the time they were made. Depictions of lesbians are far more common for they form part of a classical tradition found in the arts and they were also employed to engage male fantasies on risqué cards. Encouraged by the civil rights movement many gays began fighting for equality in numbers and their presence among us has become clearer. Since the 1980’s gay content began to be openly shown on postcards but as their lifestyle remains controversial within mainstream society, the number of cards depicting gay themes is very limited. Since such subjects can engender hostel response if displayed in the wrong environment the distribution of these cards is sporadic and tend to sell only from niche outlets.

Real Photo Postcard

Many old postcards showing men or women intimately engaged are now characterized as having gay content but these claims make more assumptions than can be proven. In the age when proper behavior between different sexes was of paramount importance and carefully controlled, members of the same gender acted more freely with one another for they were largely ignorant that anything could be implied. The turn of the 20th century was also a time when gender roles were being redefined and many images pressed definitions in ways that are now difficult to interpret. It is common to find cross dressers on early cards but this seems to be more a playful rebellion against strict societal expectations than anything concerning sexual preference. Being gay did not always have great stigma attached to it. While never wholly considered acceptable its existence was often just quietly acknowledged but not discussed preventing it from becoming a socially consuming issue. At other times the slightest innuendo could end careers and family relationships. Many Pansy Clubs that operated openly in the 1920’s would have feared to do so in the decade before and after. Without knowing the mindset of the publisher it is impossible to tell if certain cards are portraying a subtle subversiveness to the prevalent values of the day or a simple playful naivety.

Real Photo Postcard


In the 1930’s the production of postcards containing overt sexual innuendoes like those saucy seaside comic cards from England, were widely distributed. While some backlash against their sexual content arose by the 1950’s, they regained their popularity in the decade that followed. With the end of the 1960’s however social attitudes began to change again and interest in this type of imagery began to dwindle. Previous outcries had always been directed against the sexual nature of these cards but now the criticism largely came from those in the women’s movement who characterized them as degrading. As other underrepresented groups began to speak up regarding the same degrading ways in which they were commonly represented a larger questioning of the use of stereotypes followed. While many real abuses came to be seen for what they were and public’s attitude began to change toward them, the concept of limiting all language that may be offensive to help implement positive social change took hold in political correctness. In the 1980’s many publishers became self censoring in reaction to zealots pushing this agenda forward and began to remove any sort of imagery or language from their postcards that might inspire litigation, boycotts, or public protest. As efforts were made to turn what should pass for good manners into actual law the concept came under fierce criticism by free speech advocates. Now largely seen as an effort to protect narrow self interests the term political correctness is most often used pejoratively.

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