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1848-1872  1873-1897  1898-1906  1907-1913  1914-1945  1946-1976  1977-2017

A not so Concise History
of the Evolution of Postcards
in the United States



The evolution of postcards did not take place in a vacuum as some histories might suggest if only by omission. Events do not unfold as a series of pivotal moments strung together, but rather as part of a great dance where all things are interconnected. There were many divergent influences that affected the design and output of postcards. At times our government changed postal rules to aid this fledgling industry, while at others it passed regulations without any regard to possible negative consequences. Many different art movements and advertising trends affected its imagery. Changing economic climates steered its successes and failures. Worldwide events often brought about sudden and unexpected changes. Every technological adjustment to printing methods altered their appearance. Advancements in photography moved forward hand in hand with the way that postcards were produced. It is impossible to properly discuss any one of these individual points without having to refer to another.

It is widely preached in capitlist societies that compotition leads to the production of better products. This is a half truth at best well illustrated in the history of postcards where over time new developments in technology continued to make businesses more cost efficient, but mostly at the expense of ever diminishing returns in quality. Labor is usually the most costly part of a products production and as more and more photo technology was able to be incorporated into postcards, labor costs were reduced but the end product became less personal as a result. The plethora of beautiful styles and techniques employed, all jockeying for market share in postcard’s Golden Age would eventually be replaced by a single uniform type. To really understand picture postcards it must be remembered that they were not produced for collectors, nor were they made for correspondence, cards are commodities manufactured for profit. Despite this postcards often take on a life of their own apart from the intentions of those who produced them.

Understanding changing social concerns and attitudes are also key to understanding postcards. Even the most innocuous card that seems devoid of any cultural input is a sign of its times and the choice of any particular image is done so within a defined range of accepted values. If postcards do not always represent a true slice of life as it has been lived, they do represent a true state of mind as to what type of images should be produced. While new ideas were often slow to circulate and artistic styles fell behind current trends, the pictures found on cards could press the limits of socially accepted values and were sometimes ahead of their times. Postcards were ushered in during a turbulent age when many no longer would accept the status quo while fearing the uncertainty of their desires at the same time.

When reading the history presented here it is advisable that one proceed baring some things in mind. In the early years of postcard production there was usually a substantial time lag between a technological discovery and its first practical use. Because of this some of the printing processes listed on the following pages do not follow the linear order of a historical timeline, which can be somewhat confusing. Postcards were also very often out of date with current social and artistic movements. Events very often bypassed production before the publishing industry was able or in the mindset to catch up. The traditional manner of dating Postcard Eras are also troublesome; those shown here will most likely disagree with those posted elsewhere as there is much room in this field to interpret the meaning of events. It must be remembered that history is not written in stone but is a fluid state of affairs whose complex interconnectivitys care little of our desires to classify them. We must applaud the early researchers of postcards and their attempts to impart significance on them for they have built us a foundation; but we should not be kept prisoner by notions that can be corrected or expanded upon. Please remember that only a summary is presented here. Much of what is discussed on these pages is not explained beyond its effect on postcards. Many brilliant men who worked simultaneously toward creating the inventions mentioned here could not all be included. When a decade of history is compressed into four or five lines of print something will inevitably be left out. There are good books out there detailing many of the issues surrounding the subjects presented on these pages that one can follow up with.

The history of postcards presented on the linked pages is broken into seven periods; each representing a time influenced by a very particular set of surrounding circumstances that enabled it to produce its own distinguishable type of cards. The Golden Age of Postcards as defined here actually spans two sections dating from 1898 to 1913. This portion of the website mainly focuses on postcards and their surrounding influences within the United States. Some of the subjects covered may be explained in more detail in our Glossary section. Just below is a simple timeline for quick reference with links to the most common types of postcards.

A Brief Postcard Timeline

A year after the United States issues its first postage stamp, cards begin being mailed. There are no official regulations regarding cards at this time and they are treated as letters. These are basically aberrations and are referred to as mailed cards. or forerunners

Postage was traditionally paid to cover the cost of transporting mail from post office to post office. Home delivery was only available through private companies for an additional fee. in 1863 the Post Office Department begins city free delivery to individuals in locations with over 10,000 inhabitants. This represented less than a quarter of the nationís population.

The world’s first official postal correspondence card is issued by Austria. Its main impetus is to provide a cheap way for soldiers to write home. It is an immediate success. The next year Prussia, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Baden, Bavaria, and Great Britain issue cards. Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Canada issued cards in 1871, followed by Russia, Chile, France, and Algeria in 1872. France, Serbia, Romania, Spain, and Japan issued cards in 1873 along with the United States. Serbia, Romania, and Italy arrived late with a their cards in 1874. Many of these early postals included small images printed on the same side with the postage.

Debated for years, President Grant finally signs a postal card law into effect but Congress does not authorize funding for its printing. Hymen L. Lipman helps fill the gap with his Lipman’s Postal Card, the first privately authorized postal card to be used in the United States.

On May 12th, 1873, the United States Government releases its first official postal card. The words Postal Card were printed on its back along with a one-cent denomination. Only government issued cards were allowed to use in the words Postal Card by law. The side with postage was designated exclusively for the address, the other side for the message. Many of these blank cards were purchased in sheets by private firms who printed on their fronts. Privately printed cards were still allowed but they required two cents postage if they carried anything but advertising. This was the same as letter rate making these cards unpopular with the general public. Prier to 1893 these cards were primarily used for advertising with a rare few used as greeting cards.

The Universal Postal Union was formed to replace individual treaties between nations with an accepted set of consistent regulations governing international mail. A standard postcard size of 3 1/2 by 5 1/2 inches was established. Many American publishers begin placing the words Universal Postal Union on the back of their cards to ensure they will be accepted overseas. Sometimes these are labeled in French because it was the official language of the Union.

When an image of the Eiffel Tower was printed on a souvenir card from the Paris Exposition of 1889, it became the first true picture postcard and its popularity inspired other publishers to follow. The first known color postcard was also printed this year in Austria.

The 1873 Interstate Industrial Exposition in Chicago, held after the great fire, was the first to issue exposition cards to promote commerce, but little attention was given to them. By 1893 souvenir cards were issued on a large scale for the first time at Chicago’s Columbian Exposition. Their success inspired similar cards to be made for the many expositions that followed. The image usually took up a relatively small portion of the front to leave plenty or room to write a message. Montages of multiple scenes surrounded with decorative flourishes were very fashionable on both cards and illustrations of this period.

A boom in the private printing of pictorial cards followed the 1893 Columbian Exposition. While they often contained the words Correspondence Card, Mail Card, or Souvenir Card on their backs, they are all generally referred to as pioneer cards. There were no size requirements at this time so they appeared in many forms. Although these new cards showed much potential, their production was largely held back by a seven year depression. Adding to these troubles were postal regulations that set the standard mailing rate at one cent for both government and privately printed cards but added a penny surcharge on private cards alone if a message was written on them. This created much confusion and outrage as the rate for a more private letter was also two cents. The government was continuously lobbied to make reforms but no changes would come until the depression ended in 1898.

While the use of cards in the United States progressed slowly through the 1890ís, a postcard craze had begun in Europe during these same years. So many of these early vignetted views were printed in Germany that they became generally known as Gruss aus cards.

As the U.S. Government was tiring of the costs to produce postals, the popularity of exposition and souvenir cards enticed more publishers into the business. Eager to transfer the burden of card production, the government issued new postal regulations that ended its monopoly on the printing of postals, but the words Private Mailing Card - Authorized by the Act of Congress on May 19th, 1898 were required to be printed on the back of all cards not issued by the government. Starting on July 1st, 1898 postcards could be sent through the mail for only one cent regardless of whether they contained a message or not, but publishers had to contend with many size, color, and printing requirements. These restrictions forced many publishers out of the market, but the lower rates made these cards very popular, and many others began to publish them.

Photographs were occasionally sent through the mail as handmade cards in the 19th century, but the first real photo postcard was sent through the U.S. mail in 1899. They did not begin to be made in number until Eastman Kodak bought the rights to Velox photo paper that came with a pre-printed postcard back, and began to seriously market it in 1902. A year later Kodak issued an inexpensive folding camera that produced negatives the same size as postcards allowing for simple sharp contact printing. With many people now able to create their own cards with a simple camera, studio photographers were feeling the loss of revenue from their portraiture work and most began publishing their own cards to make ends meet. All but the most important photographs would be shot in the postcard format.

With the new postal regulations of December 24th, 1901, the words Post Card replaced Private Mailing Card on the backs of privately made cards. Government issued cards would retain the title of Postal though the public would soon use both interchangeably. Previous size and color restrictions were also relaxed. As the images gracing the front of cards grew larger and increased in quality, they began to be purchased largely for their pictorial value. Only a small border tab, usually along the bottom or side, remained next to the image to write a message. Many of the names that would rise to importance in postcard publishing were in business by 1903.

Rural free delivery becomes a standard service throughout the United States. Up until this point those living in rural areas had to travel to large towns to pick up their mail or pay a private company to deliver it for an additional fee. This policy greatly increased the market for postcards.

The world’s first divided back postcard is issued in Great Britain, who is soon followed by France and Germany. This led to a sharp increase in card sales overseas.

To keep in step with Europe, the United States released new postal regulations on March 3, 1907 that divided the back of postcards in half, the left side for a message, the right for postage and address. This date is often referred to as the birth of the modern postcard for it created the same format we use today. The most obvious affect of this new measure is that it allowed an image to take up the entire front of a card.

The sale of postcards becomes a craze as they are sold in record amounts. Perhaps up to half their number are being purchased by collectors, and many clubs are formed for the sole purpose of exchanging cards. Many different types of businesses also begin publishing cards to cash in on this phenomena, which result in a wide variety of results from many different printing techniques. This marks the height of what is often referred to as the Golden Age of Postcards. A severe slump in the economy following the San Francisco Earthquake forces many publishers to shut their doors. While the economy quickly recovers, the scare removes many speculators from postcard publishing.

Congress authorizes tariffs on imported postcards at the bequest of American printers. Since most cards sold in the U.S. were manufactured in Germany, many jobbers stocked up on as many cards as they could before the tariff went into effect. This produced a glut of cards that greatly depressed prices.

The invention of high-speed photo printers allowed real-photo postcards to be mass produced. Emphasis on their production would shift away from unique hand made cards to large scale commercial printing. Real-photos postcards would start loosing their popularity by the 1930’s as other sources of photo imagery became more readily available.

As tariffs effectively cut off the supply of most postcards from Germany, American printers failed to match their quality and quantity and demand quickly diminished. The postcard craze was further diminished as postcards were dumped on the market. Prices fell to an all time low forcing 25 percent of publishers out of business.

The U.S. Post Office Department issued new regulations that further expanded its censorship abilities. All postcards depicting lynching were now banned from the mail, and individual postmasters were given the discretion to confiscate cards they personally deemed indecent.

The French fold greeting card is introduced and begins to replace postcards in popularity. Going forward postcard publishers will place more focus on providing tourists with view-cards.

While horse and buggy delivery of the U.S. mail was finally replaced with motorized service, the outbreak of World War One would have dire consequences on postcard production. Britain’s naval blockade not only cut off supplies of the last imported postcards, but created a worldwide shortage of printing ink as most was manufactured in Germany.

Further restrictions on the use of raw materials would curtail postcard production after the United States entered the war in 1917. A penny war tax placed on postcard postage helped to drive down its use. While postcards were still produced to keep up morale and to serve as instruments of propaganda, many printers closed due to shortages and lack of manpower. Quality cards were still being produced in Europe long after they began to decline in the United States, but the Golden Age of Postcards had come to an end before the war was over.

The printed content of postcards and their written message is restricted by the Espionage Act of 1917 that gave postmasters the discretion over what opinions would be allowed on materials sent through the mail. More rights were suppressed by the Sedition Act of 1918, which prohibited speech deemed disloyal or criticized government policies.

The postage for postcards in the United States is raised to two cents. It dramatically cuts down on their use but the rate is repealed in 1928 due to its unpopularity.

Curt Teich begins printing postcards on linen textured stock, which allows them to be printed with brighter dye based inks on high speed presses. Many other publishers follow his lead and soon these brightly colored, highly retouched linen cards came to dominate the American market. Even though the images on linen cards were based on photographs, they contained much handwork of the artists who brought them into production. There is of course nothing new in this; what it notable is that they were to be the last type of postcard to show any touch of the human hand on them.

Postcards began being printed in natural color in 1906 after Panchromatic film was made available to the public. While accurate color separations could now be made, the color inks needed to properly print these images did not yet exist. New inks are finally introduced in 1934 that render CYMK colors for the first time. As they begin to be used in commercial work, tricolor printing evolves into process printing. This sets the stage for the production of modern photochrome postcards.

Kodachrome, the first practical color transparency film was refined from from the version first released two years earlier. Color separation could now be easily made to reproduce natural color, and modern photochrome (Chrome) cards begin to be published a year later. The invention of Agfacolor film in Germany has a similar effect in Europe. Since photochromes were made solely though mechanical means without the need of retouchers, it gave them all a uniform look. They are initially seen as a fad and only produced in limited numbers.

Material restrictions are imposed once again on postcard production as the United States enters the Second World War. As before, postcards were still produced to keep up moral and for propaganda purposes, but all color film is reserved for war use temporarily slowing the production of photochromes.

As early postcards begin to turn into antiques, a historical perspective develops, which inspires scholarly writings on the subject. This in turn inspires a new generation of clubs to form in order to exchange cards. The first of these new organizations is the Metropolitan Post Card Collectors Club in New York City.

The age of the Penny Postcard reached its end as the mailing rate was raised to two cents once again. This time the price would continually go up.

Up until 1939 almost all color postcards including linens were manufactured by heavily retouching images taken from black & white photographs. Since no serious retouching was needed in the production of photochromes from color film, they became much cheaper to manufacture. The two traditions, based more on a competition between the appeal of natural color versus the artists hand, came to a head around 1956. When an easy to use metal litho-plate was developed, offset printing began to replace line block (letterpress) as the dominant method of printing postcards. The early dull grainy appearance of photochomes improved to the point where they replaced linens and monopolized postcard production.

The large variety of printing techniques that postcards were once manufactured in had already vastly decreased by this time Much of production was also moving away from small local publishers to large multi-national corporations who produced more generic looking cards in ever larger numbers. While the overall number of cards increased, the number of small town scenes being depicted dropped dramatically.

Large sized cards had been printed in Europe since the 1890’s, and when they became popular after World War One, they began being called continental cards. Continentals began to be published in the United States in the 1970’s as a forerunner of the supersize trend in marketing. Venders were able to charge more while customers got more card for their money. These cards are enlarged to 4 by 6 inches, which is the largest size the Postal Service allows to go through the mail at the postcard rate. After stiff competition with standard sized cards, they now dominate the market.

The first full week of May in the United States and United Kingdom was officially declared National Postcard Week by their respective legislatures.

The digital revolution creates serious competition with postcards when email becomes more widely available to the public and eCards begin to replace more traditional methods of correspondence. Even the growing use of cell phones replace the postcard as a quick means of communication and a method of reinforcing social bonds. At the same time digital technology makes printing cheaper and more convenient by bypassing the need to work with film. As it becomes easier to produce cards in smaller numbers, new and unique uses are found for them.

While the use of postcards for correspondence declines, the slack is taken up by an increase in advertising and promotion. Rack cards, usually continental sized photochromes, started to be given away as free advertising in the mid-1990’s. They are a carryover of the giveaway postcards once freely available from service stations and motels in the 1950’s and 60’s.

For a more comprehensive history of postcards go to the links at the top of this page.