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Postcards may have the names of a number of different people or entities printed on them or sometimes none at all. They are most often found on the card’s back, though they may appear on a front tab or even across the image itself. In place of a name a logo is often substituted. Who are all these people? Many times it comes down to nothing more than guesswork. The most common name on a postcard is that of the publisher who commissions the postcard and often supplies the image. The next most likely name is that of the printer who manufactures the card. Then there may be the name of the distributor who places the cards in retail outlets. The photographer who supplied the initial image may also have his name on the card, usually next to or even on the picture. If the card reproduces artwork; the artist’s name or even the lending institution may appear on it instead. It is not always easy to assign a role to the name especially when a single company very often played more than one of these roles.
A number of factors can lead to confusion when trying to glean information off a postcard. Because of their inexpensive cost, few went through the expense of copyrighting early cards. When a copyright does appear it is usually only for the photograph used and not for the card itself. This could mean that the copyright date displayed and the actual printing date could be decades apart. Large publishers in their constant search for new imagery often bought out the stock of photographers without giving any credit to them. Even photographers who bought out the inventory of another studio would then typically publish those images with their own name on them. In this way two different cards of the same image may be credited to two or more different photographers. More often than not, no one even knew at the time of publication where an image had come from because records were rarely kept.
There are many additional factors hampering identification. Sometimes a card may have a distinct look of a well known publisher but his name will not appear on the card. These types of cards were often privately contracted by individuals, but it could have been through the recognized publisher or directly with the same printer used by that publisher. While some publishers also printed their own cards, others contracted this work out with a variety of printers. This often caused their cards to have many different looks even if based on the exact same photograph. Because of the way postcards were manufactured, any five and dime store, druggist, or stationer could become a publisher. Sometimes a small local printer may have only produced a few different cards for a single local store. While the facts concerning some companies are well known, others even of great size often remain a mystery as all records were discarded when they closed. Much information on European publishers were destroyed during wartime. A vast amount of cards were also published with no information on them at all.
Postcards were created by tens of thousands of publishers, many of them small local firms who have been omitted from the list below in favor of those with a wider regional or national market. There are some exceptions for the publishers of unique or exceptional postcards, and those who help demonstrate variety. This list also tends to favor publishers in proximity to New York City, the center of our Club activities. While it is not our intention to list every publisher, information and images deemed worthy will be continually added to these pages. This list is meant to provide an overall view of the scope of the postcard market as well as provide specific information on individuals.
NOTE: Where no definitive dates of operation are known, a range of observed postmarks are shown instead in brackets. While this will give some idea of when the company was functioning, one must be aware that the cards could have been sold and mailed years after the manufacturer was out of business. Improbable postmarks have been weeded out. Many of the companies that are listed here were not primarily postcard publishers and they may only have published cards during the height of the postcard craze while the full range of the firms dates of operation are listed. There were publishers that produced only one type of postcard and others who issued cards in a wide variety of techniques. While every attempt is made to list all types of cards from each publisher it is also constrained by personal observation, which can make the list incomplete. Although primary company addresses are listed, they may have had additional showrooms or moved to or from other locations over the years.
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How Post Cards were Made
Postcards were manufactured in a variety of ways, which differed over time. Listed below are the major players in postcard production and their typical roles during the Golden Age of Postcards. The process of creating a postcard took anywhere between two weeks and four months to complete.
Salesman - Printers and distributors both had salesmen working for them who would search out retail outlets for their cards; but in addition there were also independents that played a different role. Independent salesmen would often contact the same retail outlets, discuss an image they might want, and then make arrangements with a printer to have a card made. Not tied to any company, independent salesmen could search out the highest quality or lowest bid, depending on their clients needs. Salesmen basically acted as middleman, employed to facilitate card production between a would be publisher and the potential printer.
Publisher - All cards start with a publisherís intent to produce a postcard. First an image must be chosen, which usually took the form of a photograph, though sometimes artwork would be used. The next step was to send the photo to a printer and sign a contract to print a given number of cards for a set price. Printers required a minimum order to create an economically feasible press run, but this could vary widely from 500 to 8000 cards. This number was often determined by the type of press that would be used. When high-speed presses arrived, 25,000 cards would sometimes be printed at a time, but this was not applicable to all techniques. Since almost all early postcards were made from black & white photos the publisher would have to specify the colors desired on the card. Many times the printer was left to just make them up.
So who were the publishers? They can be classified into four main categories. While individuals sometimes printed cards this was rare and was usually done only for personal use like for note paper rather than to generate sales. Photographers tended to be the only individuals who printed cards in number, but this was for business use. As postcards gained in popularity at the turn of the 20th century the postcard format supplanted previous forms of popular photography. It was almost necessary for any commercial photographer to produce real photo postcards to stay in business. Many published their images as printed cards as well.
Small stores were the mainstay of postcard publishing. Tens of thousands of these establishments would either send their own photographs off to be printed or bought cards directly from catalogs and salesmen. A few businesses such as stationers were sometimes capable of printing small quantities of cards on their own. These publishers are responsible for the vast amount of view-cards that capture small town America. A typical store in a town of a thousand residents might have sold 15,000 cards per year during the golden age.
Large businesses associated with the tourist industry were also major publishers of postcards. These included the Grand Hotels as well as the many steamship lines and railroads that brought people from one place to another. These cards were usually contracted out and became a form of self promotion. Some of these businesses printed their own cards as they were already producing a large amount of printed material.
There were also large publishing houses with some being little more than middlemen moving cards from printers to stores while others were totally self sufficient from the printing of cards to their distribution. It must be noted that even some small companies produced large quantities of postcards for that was the main focus of their business. Some of the worlds largest publishing houses as well as other companies not normally associated with postcards moved into the postcard business at the beginning of the craze. Despite their size they did not always produce cards in quantity for they were riding the wave of opportunity and postcards were but a sideline.
Photographer - While early postcards made through chromolithography did not require the use of photography, the vast amount of postcards manufactured were photo based. Even the artwork for most art cards would be photographed, unless printed directly from an artistís etching or woodblock but this is rare. For view-cards a regular 5 by 7 inch photograph was usually required. Anyone with a camera could make a contract with a printer to have a photograph turned into a postcard. Small stores would sometimes hire a local photographer to take pictures for them.
Many professional photographers also supplemented their studio work with postcard sales. In addition to producing their own real photo cards, they would sell cheaper printed cards that they contracted out. In this manner they became publishers of their own work. Itinerant photographers also roamed the country searching for subjects they could sell to publishers of for customers they could directly market their cards to. Larger publishers had their own staff photographers that would travel the country capturing scenes of small towns and attractions. Sometimes publishers would acquire images from photo supply houses. There was little copyright protection and different publishers would buy and use the same photograph. Some publishers bought real photo cards out of store racks, then went on to publish them as printed images under their own name.
Production Manager - Once a black & white photograph was received it would go on to the printerís production manager who would then make decisions on how to alter it for postcard production. Notes regarding colors may have been provided by the photographer or the customer ordering the card. Many production managers were artists in their own right so in the absence of any instructions they could make these decisions alone. They might paint over image areas most open to interpretation to denote desired colors. Instructions may also be written directly on the photo to indicate other needed changes. Sometimes cut and paste techniques were utilized to alter the composition, or add or subtract various features. The photo would then be passed on to the retoucher to carry out the instructions.
Retoucher - Though some means of optical color separation was available through filtering since the 19th century it was rarely used. Most postcards only used a photograph to produce a black & white key plate that would capture details, while color would be added in through the eyer and hand of the retoucher. The substrate for each color would be made from the same black & white photo but it was the retoucher’s job to remove all parts of the image on each negative not designated for that specific color. This could be based on the production managers instructions, or in their absence on his own creativity. Production managers usually worked out the general color schemes and important details but for the more mundane parts of an image such as sky or trees the retoucher made the decisions alone.
Because skies were often washed out of the photograph it was the retoucher who would draw them back in according to whim. It was during this process that any feature deemed unattractive within the composition could also be removed. Sometimes objects showing specific fashion or other such tell tale details were eliminated so not to date the card thus giving it la longer shelf life. Features such as people, cars, and boats could also be added. Many of these subjects were kept in stock as decals that could be pressure applied to the printing plate, eliminating the time consuming task of drawing them in by hand. If they were added to the picture plain at the wrong eye level, which happened all too often, they would fall out of scale with the rest of the image. Shading mediums such as ben day dots could also be transferred onto a negative or a printing plate by applying pressure in order to create additional tone or color where needed. This was a common practice in postcard production.
Printer - After the printer received the retouched negative from the production manager it would be copied onto a photo sensitive tissue. Depending on the process by which the postcard was to be printed a halftone screen might be used to impart tonal gradations. This tissue would then be adhered to a plate or litho-stone and the image chemically transferred. This process would be repeated with a new plate for every color that was to be printed. Most printers would only use four basic colors while others might employ over twenty plates to produce a more natural look. Much additional retouching work was done at this point directly on the printing surface. Paper would be fed over each plate on the press printing one color at a time in perfect registration. Many small images could be printed at one time on a single sheet if a large press was available. The large printed sheets or webs would then be cut down to size after drying. The cost for monochrome printing obviously required less labor and thus the cards printed this way could be sold more cheaply.
Distributor - While small publishers may have had cards printed to sell in their own store, larger publishers may not always have had specific customers in mind for the cards they printed. These cards would be handed over to distributors and clearing houses who already had business arrangements set up with jobbers on a national or regional basis. Many large distributors also published cards on their own, often using various printers as quality or price dictated. Some, like news agencies distributed postcards among their own newsstands or subsidiaries. Distribution was highly competitive and unfair practices often led to battles in court.
Some postcard companies functioned as the distributor for postcards from other publishers as well as their own. Advertisements would be aimed directly to the collector offering assortments of cards on different subjects. These cards were often priced below the retail price available to most consumers. Most companies however did not advertise their products, nor did they have catalogs of their inventory; they were completely dependent on jobbers armed with samples for distribution.
Jobber (Drummer) - Postcards were often purchased by jobbers from distributors, clearing houses, or publishers directly, who in turn would sell them to various retail stores or newsstands that they had created ties with. Some publishers also sought out these middlemen who sometimes advertised their services. This was especially true of European publishers who did not maintain offices in the United States. Many small businesses also needed to carry a variety of cards but couldn’t afford to publish them in quantity. They bought their cards from jobbers who would divide up large quantities of the same card and sell them to many different stores. Jobbers could also work as salesmen taking requests for postcards from various retail establishments. Some jobbers had a habit of stuffing, which is shortchanging retailers of the cards they had ordered and replacing the difference with poorer selling images. Jobbers were also often in conflict with publishers and printers who also sold postcards directly to retailers causing them to organize boycotts.