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A Guide to
Postcard Printing Techniques



Few who are familiar with the glossy all so similar postcards filling shop racks today realize there was once a time when they embodied a wide range of printing techniques beyond the singular photochrome process we’ve come to know. The Golden Age of Postcards ran concurrent with radical innovations and changes in the printing industry, and was no doubt fueled in large part by them. The printing methods used at the turn of the 20th century helped create millions upon millions of undistinguished images along with a multitude of cards containing such beauty they must be considered works of art by themselves. On these pages we will explore the evolution of this hidden hand that permitted the postcard craze to come into being, and why this plethora of outstanding techniques eventually disappeared from commercial printing.

It should come to no ones surprise that postcards are not slices of reality, they are made up of ink and paper. This however is too often forgotten as the primary goal of printing is not communication but creating illusion, one that takes advantage of our tendencies to seek out narrative, symbols, and meaning. Printed images are designed to fool the eye in many ways, distracting us from their true nature. Hermann von Helmholtz was one of the first to scientifically study visual perception and discovered that the human eye was not capable of capturing as much stimulus as previously thought. From this he theorized that vision must be the combination of incomplete data and previous personal experiences that create unconscious inferences. This is why birds are attracted to decoys, dogs bark at snowmen, and humans recognize faces and places on scraps of paper that are referred to as postcards. These same tendencies come into play when attempting to determine technique. The mind can also interpret nuances that are often difficult to articulate; with experience one can put the obvious clues aside and make judgments from how the card feels to the eye. On the other hand we must all be wary of our first impressions when looking at postcards for printers often made great efforts to fool the eye.

Before the turn of the 20th century, the race to exploit new technological breakthroughs led to a massive amount of experimentation that was often based more on trial and error rather than scientific principals. This resulted in many intriguing techniques of which only some are mentioned here. Not all advances in knowledge have commercial applications, and complex methods were reserved for artists and small niche printers. The techniques discussed on all the pages that follow are those used in the production of at least some postcards, though some methods are only mentioned because they add to a better understanding of how they evolved. Even so nearly every printing method has been used to produce postcards at one time or another, and at no time were more techniques in use simultaneously than during their early years of production. The study of postcards is the perfect way to study the history of commercial printing in general.

Each of the chapters below revolve around specific concepts and the influence they had on printing technology rather than concentrating on any particular medium alone. This means that while there is some sense of a time line progression this guide is not completely linear but presents itself in a more organic manner. At times this may be confusing as the specifics of some techniques referenced under each chapter may also be discussed in different sections, but it is with hope that this will ultimately bring about a more comprehensive understanding of the subject. This also means that this guide is more useful if read beginning to end rather than in encyclopedic fashion. Though explanations of technique are made in detail much minutia has been left out as this is not a how to do guide. More precise explanations of important techniques are readily available elsewhere for those who are interested.

The reader should be aware that the nomenclature used to label printmaking techniques is problematic and may vary between references. Names once given to old methods were sometimes changed, and the old name then applied to a newer technique. Other terms have both broad and specific meanings. The European printers that manufactured most postcards had their own terminology that differed from nation to nation, and the same process may even be referred to differently between England and America. Some terms have always been used informally, and with no set definition their meanings have often changed over time.

NOTE: The images representing details in this guide are not enlarged by any standard percentage, and the exact percentage has not been noted. Unlike illustrations on a printed page, the size you see here will vary with the settings on your viewing device so absolutes are meaningless. Also be aware that many of these images that attempt to illustrate the fine grain or line of a printing technique are somewhat distorted by having recorded them on a digital scanner and by now presenting them through a digital screen, all with their own structured patterns of rendition.


Click on the section titles below each chapter to open new pages.



Up until the early years of the 19th century there had been very little change in common printing methods. Minor improvements in familiar technique and mechanics were constant, but their basic principals remained stable long enough to establish set patterns and traditions. Letterpress had become the predominant method used for most commercial printing while intaglio was often employed for more limited higher end items. The versatile art of lithography, discovered in the last years of the 18th century was yet to see its full potential. When perfected, it would open up a whole new range of reproductive possibilities. An understanding of these three basic techniques is essential if one is to grasp the evolution of printing that led to the first postcard and beyond. Today these same techniques have been largely abandoned by commercial printers, but new methods are still set on their foundation.

Fundamentals of Printing - Paper, Ink, Presses

Relief Techniques 1 - Woodblock, Wood Engraving

Relief Techniques 2 - Letterpress, Xylography, Rubber Stamping

Intaglio Techniques - Etching, Engraving, Aquatint, Mezzotint

Planographic Techniques 1 - Stenciling, Lithography

Planographic Techniques 2 - Chromolithography



The camera obscura existed for centuries before photographs were ever made, providing artists and those inclined to cut silhouettes with a method of projecting images captured by its lens onto a glass plate. There was however no way to permanently save this image other than tracing a drawing from it. In 1802 Thomas Wedgwood found a way to photosensitize paper but he had no way to preserve his exposed images that quickly turned black. Growing advances in scientific knowledge led many to seek a solution to this problem, but secrecy caused the world’s first photograph to be discovered over and over again. It is however safe to say that photography has been around since at least 1825 when Joseph Nicéphore Niépce reproduced an image of an engraving at his country home by freezing its likeness onto a photosensitized pewter plate. This invention that he termed Heliography was truly nothing less than revolutionary, though at the time Niépce could find few interested in his discovery and he died largely unrecognized for this accomplishment. In time photography, a term coined in 1839 by Sir John Herschel, would not only increase our ability to capture and reproduce images but it would alter our notions of perception and the very meaning of art.

While photographs in various forms were produced in countless numbers during the 19th century, they still could not be made fast enough to fulfill the public’s great hunger for them. Even when duplicates of negatives were made allowing for simultaneous production, the output of photos still could not keep up with demand and the endeavor remained costly. It seemed obvious to many that if a way could be found to reproduce photographs as a printed image it would save both time and money. It did not take long for this quest to begin. Many of the advancements the printing trades were built upon were more in the line of improvements on long known methods than any real innovations. It was very different in regard to photography. While there was already some practical knowledge surrounded optics, much of what was known at the first half of the 19th century was nothing more than theory.

The remainder of the 19th century would be consumed by finding the most efficient way to reproduce photographs, a quest that has never really ended. Nearly everything conceivable was tried, resulting in techniques that were commercially impracticable to some that are still in use today. Most would be based on variations of the photo gelatin process, which became the foundation of all photo reproduction. While the basics principals are simple and well known, many nuances in practice produced unique results. Patents were taken out on many of these innovations but far too often the patent holder did not have the means to exploit the discovery and this held back advancements for years. Many printers did not let legalities hold them back when new methods were easy to decipher, and litigation became a common occurrence. In March of 1883 the International Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property convened in Paris to create intellectual property treaties. Standards for international patents were set the following year but few put their confidence in them preferring in house methods to keep their secrets safe. Industrial espionage was so prolific in these years due to the potential profits at stake that printers became very secretive, so much in fact that many of these photo gelatin processes have been lost to us over time. Labor was often segregated so that employees only understood one portion of any process. The few in the know took pride in taking their secret knowledge to the grave. There was so much mystery surrounding photography in general and so much secrecy in protecting discoveries that these almost magical techniques were sometimes referred to as The Black Arts, which of course is also a pun on the black inks used in printing.

The newness of photography made this medium difficult to define, especially when approached through old paradigms. The heated arguments over whether photography is an artistic or reproductive process have not yet been fully resolved. For most of the 19th century it was considered by most to be just another form of graphic art, but as printers began to protect their trade from this competitor, stronger lines of differentiation began to be drawn. With no clear consensus some printers tried to bring hand drawn work closer to the look of a photo while others imbued photography with as much retouching by hand as possible. The degree to which this was done all depended on immediate marketing interests and corporate rivalries. The mysterious nature of chemical printing had always made it difficult for artists to use lithography despite the ease of drawing on a stone. With a growing reliance on photography to produce inexpensive imagery, the printing trade’s dependence on artists shifted even faster to that of technicians, which in turn helped contributed to the obsolescence of draughtsman in commercial graphics. While the work of retouchers would continue to require high skills, these were aspects of the trade that could be more easily taught. Uniformity in knowledge and skill was the ultimate goal so that everyone was interchangeable.

Black Arts 1 - Photo-Mechanics, Collotype, Heliotype

Black Arts 2 - Transfer Processes, Shading Mediums

Black Arts 3 - Line Block, Chromotypography

Black Arts 4 - Photogravure, Rotogravure

Black Arts 5 - Photo-chromolithography



The adage, time is money was and still is a driving force behind the evolution of printing technology. The quest for new techniques was most often inspired by the simple desire to incur profit by finding ways to speed up printing and cutting cost. While the cost of materials are always of consequence in any form of manufacturing, the real cost of printing can be found in labor because many techniques required a wide variety of skills to produce even something as small as a postcard. Time was not only consumed in the act of printing but in the creation of plates, set up time for the presses, and the cleanup in preparation for the next job. The prepress work that goes into preparing an image so it could be printed from a plate has always been by far the most time consuming element of the equation, so increasing the efficiency of production methods would go a long way toward maximizing profit. This quest would not only revolutionize press construction in the 19th century, it would dramatically change the way illustrations were made and how we came to view them. The great corporate rivalries between those who made photographic prints and those who printed in ink would come to an end as technology and sometimes the lack of it forced both these elements to unite into new photomechanical processes. After the introduction of the halftone screen, traditional techniques would fade away until nearly all postcards were based on photography.

Even though photography had brought about an unmistakable revolution in printing during the 1900’s, it still had limits to what it could do. Its inability to capture and reproduce color was a huge drawback in an age when chromolithography was thrilling the public with multiple hued images. There were early attempts at reproducing natural color that met with some success, but these techniques all proved too difficult and expensive for most commercial printers to even consider. On the other hand the speed and accuracy by which photography could capture an image was just too important to overlook and printers world over sought out ways to reconcile these two processes. The science behind color printing from color photographs would not be truly worked out until the late 1930’s. With no reliable means of photographic color separation, the retouchers at each printing house would produce distinctly different looking postcards even when using nearly identical photo techniques. Many interesting and beautiful compromises were discovered by combining the traditional with the new. Compromise may be a poor choice of word for the results were often more beautiful and intriguing than anything printed today.

Halftone - Line Screens, Halftone, Dots

Mixed Techniques - Duotones, Blue Tint, Mezzographs

Hybrids 1 - Tinted Lithography, Line Block and Gravure

Hybrids 2 - Inserts, Tinted Collotype

Retouching - Retouch Work, Hand Coloring



Process printing evolved out of a long quest to produce a natural looking image in color, not from the multitudes of hue as used in chromolithography but from a more limited palette based on scientific theories of color and vision. The promise of natural color process printing had been speculated upon long before there was any practical way to make it a reality. Many early attempts at it failed or met with only partial success. The technological breakthroughs needed to make this work would not begin to match up with the concepts until the end of the 19th century. While some postcard publishers came to embrace the novelty of tricolor printing, its difficulties and expense prevented most from ever venturing in this direction. Other early publishers only seemed to embrace the process but did not fully understand its basic principals. As a consequence its methodology was sometimes applied it in novel ways that produced results far from natural color. While the theory behind process printing is a simple one, the inability to make it work well in practice resulted in the use of many alternative methods to print in color. This in turn created a wide variety of postcard types.

Over the centuries, many have investigated the nature of color, but the theories produced rarely had practical applications. A major stumbling block in attempts to apply theory to printing was an improper understanding between the differences of color as pure light and the behavior of pigmented inks. This confusion would hamper the advancement of this process for decades. Even when the balance between the way the eye sees color and the way color is printed was finally rectified, the impurities found in printing inks insured that the final tricolor product would never work as well as presented in theory. The lack of a good color film to base color separations on was another major hurdle to overcome. While there was slow progress, good color film was not available until the late 1930’s and then it was only truly perfected after the Second World War. Despite all these problems there was no shortage of publishers that attempted to use process printing in one way or another throughout the life of postcards.

Tricolor 1 - Tricolor printing

Tricolor 2 - Manipulated Tricolor, Color Film

Linens - Linen Cards

Color Film - Filtering Screens, Autochome, Kodachrome, Agfachrome

Photochromes - Transitional Photochromes, Chromes

Offset - Offset Lithography, Screenless Printing



As the printing trades grew during the 19th century, the cost of printing fell, which made all sorts of paper products more assessable to the public. The growing middle-class had a particular appetite for printed material, and they were offered a great plethora of items including all sorts of paper novelties. These often took the form of toys for children and amusements for adults for they could be produced less expensively on paper than out of wood or lead as was customary. Printed paper was also used for holiday decorations along with non-postal greetings made for Christmas and Valentines. Some novelties were simple and others complex but they were all curious and unique enough to attract customers. Postcards would eventually become just another way to help satiate this demand, but their popularity grew beyond expectations that were spurred on by the fierce competition between publishers. Finding ways to gain a competitive edge was of paramount importance to most publishers and so they sought out any novel idea. Many found inspiration in traditional paper novelties while others copied them outright. These types of cards proved popular and were produced in great number, but they still pale in comparison to the more commonly printed view-card.

Even though novelties can be produced through any printing method, not all techniques competed evenly in the marketplace due to their complexity or cost, which were often one in the same. There were however always some customers willing to pay a little more for something unique, and if the balance between cost and demand were right, then unusual printed postcards were made. Some types of novelty cards became immensely popular while others struggled for years to find an a niche audience. Many disappeared not only because of increasing costs but when the technologies they were produced through just died out. While novelty cards were produced in many ways, not all incorporated unusual printing techniques and they will not be discussed here.

Novelties 1 - Embossing, Die Cutting, Flexology, Silkscreen

Novelties 2 - Metallic Effects, Beading, Chine Collé, 3D Effects



As science advanced in the 19th century there was a great quest to apply this new found knowledge to practical endeavors. All sorts of new printing methods were developed to reproduce artwork and photography. Some of these technologies produced wonderful results but were much too complicated and costly to be used by commercial printers and they quickly faded from memory. Other methods of vast complexity and high cost were used for specialized printing needs, at least for a time when there was no other way to achieve these desired results. While high end postcards were usually able to absorb the extra cost of unique printing methods, they too fell to the wayside as more efficient means of production became available. As technologies faded into obsolescence, they often remained popular among artists who still keep them alive. When concept became more important than materiality, it was possible to produce art as a disposable product without any regard to normal commercial concerns. In this radically different environment from a century earlier, artists began looking into new technologies that made reproduction easy and cheap as quality became irrelevant. While all types of artist’s cards were never printed in great numbers they are still part of postcard’s rich printing history. Innovative artists were some of the first to make use dew digital technologies as they could adapt more easily to changes than an equipment heavy industry.

All reproductive printing processes involve the transmission of data. We are not presented with a replica of the original but an abbreviation of it. The shorter the abbreviation, the more efficient is its reproductive capacity but with the added risk of not being understood. The various forms of printing used to create postcards are a balancing act; they basically try to supply the most attractive and accurate image they can by the simplest means to keep cost down. There is no set ratio to follow as demonstrated in the extraordinary wide variety of cards that have been produced. This principal relies on the minds ability to interpret limited information captured optically by the eye. We all know how an image printed with solid black dots created from a halftone screen can read as a variety of grey tones. The halftone only captures visual information as black or white but it is arranged in a way that creates the illusion that more tonalities are being seen.

Digital technology works in much the same manner. It is a binary system that records in only two ways that turns switches on or off. As the ability to capture, store, process, and manipulate this electronic information has grown ever greater, so has its ability to reproduce images of higher quality. This technology can now transfer much more visual information to a printer than a traditional halftone. If there is still some question of digital images falling short of high quality photographs, the expedience that digital technology provides has more than made up for anything it lacks. Retouching has always played a crucial role in postcard production, and digital imagery can be manipulated faster and in many more ways than film never could.

In the 21st century the growth of digital technology has turned the printing industry on its head. Its invasive nature has permeated all strata of the methodologies used to create a printed image. Nearly all mediums have absorbed some form of digital technology, and some to the point that they are practically unrecognizable from the way they were practiced just a decade ago. The idea of transferring an image captured on a sheet of film to a printing substrate that consumed the printing industry for well over a century is now obsolete. The birth of the Internet and the proliferation of cell phones have also created entirely new possibilities for the production of postcards that bypass all printing methods. This fast pace of change however has generated its own problems. The longer any one technology can continue in operation, the more cost effective it becomes in relation to capital investments in expensive equipment. Greater efficiency cannot always compensate for this when obsolescence is always right around the corner. The need to stay competitive is more at odds with keeping costs down than ever before. While digital technology will continue to play an ever expanding role in the printing of postcards, the course of this progress remains uncertain.

Digital - Impact, Electrostatic, and Inkjet Printing, Digital Rotary



We live in a world full of fabrics printed with leopard skin, plastic wallets embossed to look like alligator, veneers on furniture that only look like wood or marble, and handbags covered with the imprints of phony designer labels. While some of these types of items are counterfeits, most are simply imitations designed to provide us with the look we cannot afford or cannot get. In the years postcards first came into production the printing industry was undergoing massive changes. The 19th century was an age that saw the production of beautifully printed material, some of it so finely done it could only afford to be delivered into very limited hands. It was also a time when photography was discovered, and by the end of the century its ability to capture images with fidelity had been well adapted to the printing trades. Some of the new techniques that came out of this innovation allowed for the reproduction of traditional printing methods at a much reduced cost. Other highly desired techniques unsuitable for large volume printing could now be easily imitated on large press runs. It was not a matter of deception as much as providing the look people wanted and the status that came with it without the cost. Artists have attempted to create the illusion of other materials in paint for centuries as a way to show off their skills. Printers and graphic artists no doubt followed the same model when creating postcards because any added prestige might translate into sales.

The business practice of reducing cost by imitating an expensive technique with a cheaper one often causes problems when trying to decipher old postcards today. At the turn of the 20th century there was already a plethora of printing methods commonly used as well as obscure techniques to confuse the eye. On top of this there were so many variations to some known techniques that it becomes difficult to fully describe all of them. The way printers actually practiced their craft was not necessarily the way in which it is described in manuals. Sometimes this was out of ignorance or carelessness, but it was also a way to achieve a unique look that might attract more customers. Though it is easy to immediately spot some postcards as imitations, others were produced so well that without the ability to highly magnify them the truth will remain hidden. Other factors inherent in the materials used can also render the technique used to print a postcard indecipherable. On this page we will first explore those postcards that imitate other mediums, and then we will turn to some common problems in analyzing what we see.

Facsimiles 1 - Facsimiles in Lithography and Collotype

Facsimiles 2 - Facsimiles in Gravure and Line Block

Photography - Real Photo Postcards

Similarities 1 - Confusion with Collotype

Similarities 2 - Confusion with Texture

A Timeline of Printing Trends and Inventions

Postcards were printed using many different types of techniques, but some were used in much greater proportions than others. While it is strongly suggested that the links above be used to gain a more comprehensive understanding of these methods within context, cursory explanations of the most common ways that postcards were produced can be found by clicking the links within the chronology below.

1440   The first printing press in Europe to use moveable type is invented and the Letterpress process begins.
1477  The first known printing of an intaglio plate is made for a book.
1764  Full Color woodblock prints begin to be made in Japan.
1797  A method of softening steel is discovered allowing it to be engraved upon for long press runs.
1798  Lithography is invented.
1818  The Jobbing Platen press is invented.
1820  Paper begins to be manufactured in webs for commercial printing.
1825  The first known photograph is made.
1830’  Tinting plates begin to be used in lithography.
1837  Commercial color lithography named Chromolithography begins in Europe.
1838  Stereoscopy is invented.
1839  The properties of photo sensitive gelatin are discovered, which will become the foundation for all photomechanical printing techniques.
1840’s  Wood engravings start to be widely used in Xylograpy.
1840  Lithotint, which allows artists to draw with brush or pen in lithography is invented. Electroplating is invented.
1844  The first viable commercial rotary press is patented.
1852  Photolithography is invented.
1854  Photogalvanography to harden casts for printing is patented.
1855  The collotype process is invented but only begins to be used commercially in 1868.
1858  Photogravure is invented.
1860’s  The rubber stamp is invented.
1864  Gelatin tissue is patented. The Woodburytype is invented.
1865  Printed decals begin to be used in the United States.
1870’s  Chromolithography, collotype, and line block begin to be widely used in commercial printing. Paper begins to be massed produced from wood pulp.
1870  The first commercial typewriter is introduced.
1874  Collotypes begin to be printed in color.
1875  The Photochromie process is invented.
1876  The rotary press is adapted for Flexography.
1877  The first tricolor image is printed.
1878  The Ives process for photomechanical transfer is invented
1879  Benday shading mediums are invented. A way of infusing gelatin tissue with a dot pattern is discovered. Rotogravure is invented but it is not widely used until 1904.
1880’s  Multiple tinted lithographs become popular.
1881  Panchromatic black & white film is invented, which will allow color separations to be made through the use of color filters.
1884  The method of using tinted halftones to produce color prints begins.
1886  Chromolithography evolves into photo-chromolithography with the development of the Photochrom process.
1887  The crossline screen for making halftones is perfected.
1890’s  Halftones replace Xylography in commercial printing. The tricolor camera is invented.
1891  Anaglyphs are invented.
1892  Linotype begins to replace typesetting. The four color rotary press is invented.
1896  The Collotype process is adapted for use on metal plates so it can be printed on rotary presses.
1899  Photographs begin to be made on heavy stock so they can be used as postcards.
1900  Color woodblocks are used to create illustrated postcards in Japan.
1902  Kodak buys Velox and and photo paper with a postcard back is introduced. The hand coloring of postcards becomes popular.
1903  The Parallax Stereogram is invented.
1904  The first press for Offset lithography is built but the process only becomes widely used after 1951.
1907  Autochrome, the first film to produce color transparencies is put on the market.
1910  The modern form of Rotogravure is developed.
1915  Screen Printing is first used in the United States but it only becomes popular in the late 1930’s.
1920’s  Metal plates begin replacing the use of stones in lithography. Stenciling is used as a method of creating postcards in France.
1931  Tricolor prints in the form of Linen postcards are introduced.
1934  Tricolor printing evolves into Process Printing.
1936  Kodachrome color transparency film is introduced and perfected in 1938. The invention of the rubber squeegee makes screen printing commercially viable.
1937  The photocopier is invented.
1951  A viable metal printing plate is developed for use in offset lithography and the process begins to replace letterset printing. The first inkjet printer is introduced.
1953  Finer halftones begin to be created through the invention of contact screens.
1960’s  A screenless method of offset lithography is developed.
1964  The Xograph is invented.
1969  The first laser photocopier is built, but not put on the market until 1975.
1970’s  Digital scanning begins to replace the line screen for reproducing images.
1971  Email is invented.
1976  The inkjet printer is adapted to digital technology.
1990’s  The practice of sending ecards via email becomes popular.
1993  Indigo printing is introduced.

The Printing of a Postcard

All sorts of techniques were used to make postcards, and of the many different types that exist, the most common was the tinted halftone, a combination of traditional chromolithography and halftone screen printing. In order to provide a better understanding into postcard production we will take you step by step through the methods by which such a postcard might have been made.


The postcard pictured above dating from around 1908 was published by a local business in Mt. Kisco, NY, and printed by the Rotograph Company. It depicts a typical small town street lined with shops. One of these shops may have belonged to the publisher or perhaps this is just one of a number of cards he produced depicting scenes of the town that he thought his customers might purchase. In either case production would begin with the shooting of a black & white photograph, taken by the publisher, a local studio photographer, an itinerant photographer passing through town, or by one sent there by the printer. Once this image was chosen for reproduction, it was mailed off to a printer with instructions and the fee. A set of instructions would have also accompanied the postcard order, not only in regard to the quantity to be printed but in regard to what would be written on the front and back, how the image was to be cropped, what if anything was to be visually removed, and possibly what colors should go where. While the printing here looks rather straightforward, it is impossible to differentiate the decisions made by the client from that of the production manager. Certain aspects of design an appearance are similar through all cards printed by Rotograph, which could be one of the reasons this firm was chosen for the job.

While negatives could be sent to a printer, an actual photograph was most often used because that is where the photomechanical process begins. The original photo was re-photographed through a crossline screen placed at a precise distance between it and the camera to in order to create a halftone negative the same size as the postcard. Photo emulsions were rather slow at this time so exposures to a sensitized plate needed to be made through contact printing. If the original photo was of a different proportion to that of a postcard, decisions would then have to be made as how to mask the image to create a good composition as per mailed in instructions or by the manager at hand. A second negative would also be needed to make a new photograph the same size of the halftone negative, from which the key drawing was copied.

The style of this postcard was determined by the printing house that produced many similar looking cards of different subjects for different people. Giving cards a consistent look improved the work flow of a shop as the production process became routine. This also created consistent results that would meet the expectations of cliental. Part of this cards style is its palette, which remains constant for all cards within this series. Three light tints of red, yellow and blue were drawn in as dots for general background color, with an additional medium red added for accents and a black for the detail printed off the halftone plate. Since a litho-stone could only print one value of the ink used, two stones were needed to print each value of red. Five stones would be used in total, which determined the way the key drawing was made. From the second photo the production manager would carefully trace a key drawing that indicates where the placement of each of the four color should go. Sometimes he had to follow specific instructions of a client but in this case the color placement seems fairly standard. The retoucher would then make a tracing off of the key drawing of just the one color that he was assigned to draw on his stone.

Before a litho-stone can be used its surface must first be polished down to a fine grain by grinding it with another stone or a heavy metal disk known as a levigator with metal grit suspended in water placed in between. A coarse grit is used first to remove the previous image, and then this grinding continues with increasingly finer grits until a surface that can accept a fine drawing is achieved. Special care must be taken through this entire process to keep the stone’s surface level and not put any scratches into it as they will print as white lines.

The four stones to receive color are now ready for drawing but the key-stone that will hold the halftone image must first be photosensitized. A dichromate gelatin solution is mixed and poured over the stone where it is buffed down into an even thin coating. Once dry the halftone negative is placed on top and covered with a sheet of glass to keep both surfaces firmly together. The stone would then be taken from the shop and placed outdoors to be exposed to the sun. At this time many printers simply exposed their negatives to photosensitive gelatin tissue, which was highly portable, and then this tissue was adhered to a bare stone with the aid of alcohol. As the choice is one of convenience rather than final look, the method used here is not determinable. In either case the parts of the gelatin exposed to light would harden and stick to the stone’s surface like a hand drawing while the remaining gelatin is washed away.

The retouchers with their tracings taken off the key drawing were now ready to work on their stones. Their tracings were first covered in red chalk and then the drawing was secured to the stone face down. As the lines of the drawing were retraced from the back side, the chalk underneath would transfer to the stone replicating the image in reverse. These were only guide lines as chalk has no effect on the stone and it can be easily wiped away once it served its purpose. The image needs to be transferred this way for the stone will print a mirror image of what is placed on it. The retoucher using a nib pen loaded with a dark greasy liquid tusche would then fill his assigned colors in dots and blots using the contrasting red chalk marks as a guide. Dots were the preferred method of application because they were the least likely to take on any individual characteristics of the retoucher’s hand. When a number of stones were drawn upon by different retouchers it was important that they did not impart conflicting personal styles onto the image.

Just because retouchers drew in dots, it did not mean that each worker was completely interchangeable. Some had specialized abilities like drawing in skies, so they were typically assigned the blue stone. At this time details such as clouds were rarely ever captured on film and they needed to be made up if desired. Sometimes shading mediums were employed to speed up this type of work but on this card all the marks that provide color were drawn in by hand. As the halftone would provide all the tonal balance within the composition, the drawn marks were used exclusively for color. The retoucher had to be highly aware of the areas that needed solid tones as well as those that would optically blend with the dots added onto a different stone. Since semitransparent ink was used in printing, the different color dots that overlapped would blend into new hues and this had to be carefully considered. All the greens on this card come from the overprinting of yellow with a light blue. The final part of each drawing was the addition of registration marks so that a single sheet of paper could be perfectly aligned with the image on each stone.

When the drawings were all finished, they and the stone holding the halftone had to be etched. A measured solution of gum Arabic and acid was mixed then poured atop each stone. After it was worked into the image for a few minutes it was buffed down into an even coat and left to dry, sometimes overnight. This etch imparts salt layers into the stone that become highly attractive to water. After the etch is washed off, water will only be absorbed into these salty layers that correspond with the non-printing areas of the image. The first stone ready for printing is then placed on the bed of a cylinder press where it is dampened with a sponge. When its surface is rolled with the appropriate oil based color ink, it will only adhere to the dry stone while being repelled from areas where water was absorbed. In this manner an exact copy of the original drawing is formed. At this point the image may be checked for flaws and some blank areas that are filling in with ink may need to be polished out further. If this is done the stone will have to be re-etched though a localized spot etch may do. Once ready to print, paper is placed over the wet ink carefully aligning the marks placed on its back with the registration marks on the stone. A thin but sturdy tympan is then placed over the paper to protect it, and then pressure is applied through a pass under the heavy press cylinder to transfer the image. This procedure is then repeated until all the copies needed are printed. While the dampening, inking, and placement of paper could all have been done by hand, most printing presses at this time had additional rollers and sheet feeders added to them to perform these tasks automatically dramatically increasing printing speed.

Once the ink dried the next stone would be placed on the press to print the second color. This process was repeated until all five stones completed the image. Now there was the back of the card to consider. Information such as text is most legible when printed in solid tones with sharp edges. Letterpress is the most suitable medium to accomplish this and it was used to print this postcard’s back. While new type was set into a chase for the publishers name and serial number, the other elements standard on a postcard’s back such as the words Post Card and the Rotograph logo were already cast in line block from a photomechanical transfer of a drawing. The metal line block was then mounted onto a thick wooden block to make it the same height as the cast type and they were put into the chase together, and then looked in a frame for printing. A different type of press was needed for this job for the reliefed surface of the plate would be rolled with ink and the raised portions would print when pressed into the postcard back. Careful attention to registration was still needed for it is in this step that many cards seriously misalign. Although the title on the front of most postcards would normally be added in the same manner as on the back, the title on this card was printed along with the image on the halftone plate, which indicates it was drawn onto the photograph in ink before the halftone negative was made.

After all the printing was finished and the ink was dry, the excess paper around each card was trimmed off. If there were any registration problems between front and back the image would be left intact and the faulty back sacrificed. The finished cards were then packaged and mailed back to the publisher. If manufactured in Germany, order to delivery might take three to five months, which is why real photo cards often exclusively capture news events. While used litho-stones could be covered in gum and put into storage in cases when a reorder was likely, they were most often just reground for the next job. Many printers just did not have an excess of stones that could lay dormant for long or the room needed to store them so the process would just start from scratch if there was a reorder. Ware from printing can also destabilize a stones delicate surface so preparing new stones helped guarantee fidelity. This is the major reason for all the variations found on postcards produced from the same photograph. With so much of the process left up to the discretion of individuals, it was impossible to reprint an image with consistent results. Every card found with a printing variation on it represents a new printing from a new order.