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
1847 The United States issues its first postage stamp.
1848-1860 The first known postcard in the United States is mailed. There are no official regulations regarding cards and they are treated as letters. Cards in mailed these years are basically aberrations.
1861 Congress allows privately printed cards under one once to be sent through the mail. Postage rates varied by distance. John P. Charlton copyrights the first postcard but none are known to be sent.
1869 The world’s first official postal correspondence card is issued by Austria.
1870 Hymen L. Lipman reissues Charlton’s card and it becomes the first privately authorized card to be used in the United States.
1873-1897 The United States issued its first official Postal Card. One side was reserved exclusively for the address, the other for a message, and it cost a penny to mail regardless of distance. 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.
1874 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.
1889 The first known color postcard is printed in Austria.
1893 Exposition Cards are issued on a large scale for the first time at Chicago’s Columbian Exposition. Their success prompts many others to begin publishing cards.
1893-1897 While a number of publishers begin to print exposition, souvenir, and mail cards, an economic depression hits the U.S. forcing many printers out of business. Most cards are imported from Europe instead where a postcard craze has begun.
1897-1900 Postal regulations allow for a large size Businessman’s Card to be used for advertising. Many are die cut into shapes or are made with moving parts. These are forerunners to the novelty postcard.
1898-1901 Congress authorized the use of the Private Mailing Card. It reduced the postage rate for all messages to a penny, but it had 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.
1899 The first Real Photo Postcard is sent through the U.S. mail.
1901 New regulations ended many of the restrictions required by Private Mailing Cards. In its place the privately printed Post Card was authorized. This brought more publishers into the postcard business. The images on postcards tended to become larger with only a small writing tab left to provided for a message. The first photo paper with a preprinted postcard back is put on the market enabling real photo postcards to be easily made.
1902 Rural Free Delivery service is introduced bringing the convenience of mail to the majority of Americans who live outside of cities. This greatly increased the market for postcards. The world’s first divided back postcard is issued in Great Britain.
1905-1909 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. With a large number of publishers and printers in the postcard business, cards are produced in a wide variety of forms using many different printing techniques. This time is often referred to a postcard’s Golden Age.
1907 The United States issues its first Divided Back Postcard. This allows for the address and message to be placed on the same side of a card, leaving the other side entirely available for an image.
1909 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 depressing prices.
1912 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 ending the craze. As postcards were dumped on the market, prices fell to an all time low forcing 25 percent of publishers out of business.
1913 The French fold greeting card is introduced replacing postcards in popularity.
1914-1918 The First World War restricts the use of materials for postcards curtailing production in Europe and further limiting imports to the United States. Cards are still produced to keep up morale and as instruments of propaganda, but many printers close due to shortages or war damage. The war also creates a worldwide shortage of printing ink as most is manufactured in Germany.
1917-1919 Restrictions are placed on materials for postcard production in the United States as it enters the war in Europe. A penny war tax is placed on postcard postage driving down its use.
1920-1928 Post war material shortages initially plague the printing industry but postcard production picks up as the economy booms. Publishers producing cards with a White Border are most common but not inclusive to these years.
1925-1928 The postage for postcards is raised to two cents. It dramatically cuts down on their use but is repealed due to its unpopularity.
1928-1941 The Great Depression hits slowing postcard production and sales. This time was dominated by cards that were cheaper to produce such as monochromes, hand colored cards, and the new linens.
1931 Curt Teich begins printing postcards on Linen textured stock allowing cards to be printed with brighter dye based inks on high speed presses. Many other publishers follow his lead.
1934 New inks are introduced 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.
1938 Kodachrome, the first practical color transparency film was refined from from the version first released two years earlier. Color separation can now be easily made to reproduce natural color and modern Photochrome (Chrome) cards begin to be published a year later. It is initially seen as a fad and only produced in limited numbers.
1941-1945 Material restrictions are imposed once again on postcard production as the United States entered the Second World War. Postcards were still produced to keep up moral and for propaganda.
1946 Interest in old postcards began to rise as scholarly writings on them began to appear. A new generation of clubs began to form, the first of which was the Metropolitan Post Card Collectors Club in New York City.
1952 The Penny Postcard reached its end as the mailing rate was raised to two cents once again. Only this time the price would continually go up.
1956 Photochromes, which had steadily grown in number in the post war years, had completely replace linen postcards by this time to become the dominant format. Postcards would now be produced by offset lithography wholly by mechanical means without the need for retouchers, giving all cards a uniform look.
1970 While 4 by 6 inch Continental sized cards could be found in Europe before WWII, they began to become popular in the United States at this time and are now in stiff competition with standard sized postcards.
1984 The first full week of May in the United States and United Kingdom was declared National Postcard Week.
1993 Digital offset printing is introduced bypassing the need to work with film. Email becomes available to the public and eCards begin to replace the traditional printed card. Coupled with growing cell phone use, printed postcards are now purchased largely as souvenirs.
1995 Although based on earlier forms of giveaway cards, the free Rack Card becomes popular and they begin to be acquired by collectors.
For a more comprehensive history of postcards go to the links at the top of this page.