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Postcard Types, Topics,
and Popular Subject Matter


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When postcards are sold they are usually broken down into just two major categories. There are view-cards representing scenes of various locations, which form the bulk of cards produced. And then there are topicals that represent everything else. Topicals can be distinguished by their physical appearance, the purpose the card was used for, the method of printing, and most often the subject matter depicted. While only certain categories that were printed in significant numbers are usually described as topicals you will find a broader range of subjects here for postcards captured a full spectrum of human interests and endeavors. The definition of view-cards and topicals sometime overlap. A railroad station is a highly collectable topical, but it is also a view-card. Even among topical cards there can be quite a range of cross-over. On this page we wish to show the vast variety of postcards that were manufactured. Do not accept this list as definitive for the considerable number of creative ways that cards can be categorized will always exceed our ability to continually post them.

In order to broaden the understanding of postcards some cards not normally considered topicals by those who sell cards have been posted here. Though they may fit under the general definition, they are either too scarce to be widely collected, or the subject has never been popular with most collectors. Some subjects that are generally not collected may appear on cards so often that they are worth mentioning to understand postcard history. Other cards may be so unique that their rareness makes them a topic for educational purposes. Still other cards have been included because they illustrate subjects once common in society that have since disappeared.

The topics that are popular with collectors constantly shift over time. While there has been interest in certain cards for decades, the desirability of others come and go in a matter of years. No attempt is made here to direct interest in any one direction. Likewise these pages are not meant to act as price guides. An very rare card can be worthless if no one wants it.



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There are many different ways to categorize cards for they were not produced to fall into neatly defined groupings. If we consider why postcards were made and who they were made for they can be divided up into several major types.

Postcard

One of the largest categories of postcards are those produced for tourist consumption, and they mostly consist of views. These cards were often published by institutions such as hotels, railroad and steamship lines, expositions and amusement parks. Many of these businesses had a captive audience for an extended period of time and could monopolize postcard sales. It is also obvious that people away from friends and family are the perfect audience to market postcards to. Small local attractions, and newsstand distributors also produced a large share of these cards as well. While these images tend to represent the most outstanding features of a place many mundane views were also often captured in attempts to create more cards.

Postcard

Another type of view-card were those that were produced almost exclusively for a more local audience. These were usually small town scenes of places that received little or no tourism. Ordinary streets, local stores, a nearby lake or mountain may be captured on these, each with special appeal or meaning to members of that community. While large publishers would sometimes send out photographers to capture small town views to sell though a local store, just as many postcards were produced from pictures taken by townsfolk themselves. Tens of thousands of small business owners became publishers this way. Even though the images for these cards remained highly selective they often capture a sense of ordinary life not found on cards directed at tourists.

Postcard

Cards were also created to address a specific consumer needs. The most obvious of these are the holiday and greeting cards that were sold in vast numbers. These types of cards had been popular well before the postcard came into existence, but as the postcard grew in popularity it became the primary format to send these messages. Postcards lost most of this market when the folding greeting card was introduced. Less glamourous cards such as those that announce a change in address also fall into this category.

Will Call Card

The primary purpose of postcards as conceived was to be for cheap correspondence. Despite the various other purposes they took on along the way this remained an important use. While all of the card types listed here were used for this purpose many low quality postcards were manufactured so they could be sold cheaply to those whose main interest was in sending a message. In a time when there were multiple mail deliveries within a single day the combination of price and speed made the use of postcards an effective method of quick communication. Blank government issued postals also fall into this category along with many other form-like business related cards.

Postcard

As postcard collecting grew into a great hobby publishers began producing cards with this market primarily in mind. Since about half of all cards were not mailed but saved this proved to be a large audience. While most of the cards in the different categories listed here could be collected, an extremely wide variety of cards were made to serve no specific purpose other than to catch the eye. Al sorts of fantasy, historic, comic, and romantic cards began to be made including many in the form of sets. Even though these cards were directed toward collectors many were used for ordinary correspondence anyway. Cards of high quality that sold at a premium were the exception as they were rarely mailed. These often included certain types of art reproductions and artist signed cards.

Real Photo Postcard

Most newspapers at the turn of the 20th century did not carry images whether they be photographed or drawn. The ability of a photographer to capture a news related image and quickly reproduce it in postcard form became a valuable tool in desalinating information. Many such cards were distributed on the same day of the event. While these cards could be highly sought out the demand for them could also decrease rapidly as they became old news. Some events however registered so deeply within the public psyche that even printed cards could be made that had an audience for many years.

Real Photo Postcard

Another highly sought out card but not always easy to find were those displaying erotic images. This was one of the earliest uses found for cards. These can range from the mere risqué to explicit pornography. Most of these were created as real photo cards, especially when dealing with full nudity. Though produced in postcard formats most of these cards were not meant to be mailed for they were often confiscated by postal authorities. Because so many of these cards were destroyed it is difficult to get a complete sense of their history. Erotism often found outlets in other more social permissible ways such as seaside views and art reproductions but these types of cards can be cross referenced into other categories as well.

Real Photo Postcard

Another type of more private oriented card were those that were home made. While some of these can be hand drawn or painted views and portraits, most take the form of real photo postcards. While some of these views are not distinguishable from commercially made cards there is no doubt to others because of their personal and intimate character. Some were taken while traveling but most are scenes of homes and yards often with posed family members in them. Since most were printed at home few copies of individual images were made. They were saved as family snapshots or used for personal correspondence. Studio portraits printed as postcards can also fall into this category.

Advertising Card

The advertising card was similar to the homemade card in that they were not created to be sold. These cards were published by businesses to promote products or services that they did sell. These cards were either sent out in mass mailings or given away directly by hand. They make up the bulk of the earliest known pioneer cards. While the use of advertising cards began to decrease as other forms of pictorial ads became more available they continue to be used today though they are now usually referred to as junk mail. Advertising cards evolved into the giveaway cards that make up the bulk of roadside Americana. The modern rack card also falls into this category.

Postcard

A hybrid type of card are those used for propaganda. Because they can take on various forms such as art, holiday, patriotic, and commemorative cards, they can fall into many crossover categories as well. What ties them all together is the desire of the publisher to convey a particular message and not just sell a card. Here they are selling an idea rather than a product. Propaganda cards are made by governments trying to sway public opinion and by individuals or businesses with their own strong opinions they wish to convey. Cards designed to represent the exotic or reenforce racial stereotypes can also be considered propaganda though not often thought of as such.

When postcards are sold they are usually broken down into just two major categories. There are view-cards representing scenes of various locations, which form the bulk of cards produced. And then there are topicals that represent everything else. Topicals can be distinguished by their physical appearance, the purpose the card was used for, the method of printing, and most often the subject matter depicted. Obviously any subject can be considered a topic but we use the term here only to describe those categories that were printed in significant numbers to be collectable. The definition of view-cards and topicals sometime overlap. A railroad station is a highly collectable topical, but it is also a view-card. Even among topical cards there can be quite a range of cross-over. On this page we wish to show the vast variety of postcards that were manufactured. Do not accept this list as definitive for the considerable number of creative ways that cards can be categorized will always exceed our ability to continually post them.




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