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Embossing: The whites on this card have been embossed in careful registration to only raise the paper’s surface between the printed ink so that the illusion of lace lying atop the card is created. Depending on the type of illustration, an embossed texture is not always immediately visible in a postcard’s composition. It is however nearly always obvious from its back especially when the edges pick up dirt as they tend to do.
Reproducing cards, first copyrighted as a novelty by A. Loeffler in 1895 combined the art of rubbing with a reliefed paper surface created through embossing. These cards held a simple printed linear drawing, and then a similar linear pattern would be embossed into them so that the entire image was raised. A postcard printed back would then be glued onto its highly uneven back so it could be written upon. The front of these cards contained printed instructions that were not embossed, advising that if a piece of paper was held firmly over it and rubbed with a soft pencil or crayon, the printed image would be reproduced. In this manner the image could be reproduced more times than anyone would ever have patience to do. The soft paper embossing on these cards wore out quickly when used as directed.
Reproducing Card: This early embossed postcard was purposely designed so that a rubbing could be taken off of it. While the simple linear drawing suggests what to expect, the embossing beneath it is not nearly as fine, and will only produce an image that is vaguely similar.
Blind Embossing: On the postcard above from 1893 the unprinted shapes of the insects were left as white silhouettes surrounded by dark ink. They were embossed afterwards from the back to provide them with detail and emphasize their presence. The entire printed surface of the card below is reserved for a solid neutral tint. Its sole purpose is to bring out the white areas of the card that carry the image through embossing. While the letters are embossed, it is in the details of the castle that this technique is used to its best advantage. Note that the scan does not capture the fine details of the embossing nor its high relief that allow it to be read from a distance.
Blind Embossing: Paper was not the only material that could be embossed. Pictured above is a postcard where the entire image is created through blind embossing heavy copper foil. A paper postcard back is adhered to it so it can be written upon, but it is doubtful that these sort of fragile novelties were mailed, at least without a cover.
Previous to their application on postcards, blind embossing had long been used to place official seals on documents. The use of printed seals dates back at least 3,000 years to China, but the modern embossed seal has more in common with the art of rubber stamping that developed in the mid-19th century. While a seal could be carved, it was usually cast in metal from a mold that had been taken from a relief. The original reliefed form could have been hand carved or photomechanical etched into metal. Seals were traditionally used by pressing them into soft substances like wax but they were later adapted to hand held embossing machines that could create enough pressure to clearly emboss the image into a sheet of paper. This had important implications to postcards, not in their design but in their labeling. Many photographers used embossing machines or similar hand held devices to place their names (blind signature) onto real photo postcards because printing on items made in limited numbers was highly impractical. Real photo postcards were usually placed on photo paper with pre-printed postcard backs so there was no need for printing at all. Sometimes a business name or title was added to a printed card through blind embossing but this is far more rare.
Embossing and Airbrush
Airbrushed Embossing: The airbrushed color on this postcard was not used to create a more representational image but rather to bring out the design in relief. This type of color application by hand prevented any two postcards from looking exactly alike.
Blocking with Foil Stamping: Gold has been add this lithographic postcard for decorative emphasis through blocking. It use has been optimized by the contrasting black background. Many Holiday cards used blocking to create the effect of snow.
False Plate Marks
False Plate Mark: A false plate mark has been printed around the image of this halftone postcard from 1908 even though it has no resemblance to one made in intaglio. False plate marks were primarily used as a marketing ploy to create associations with fine art.
Even though gravure is an intaglio process printed off a metal plate, most postcards printed by it were produced on large sheets of paper, which were later cut down to size leaving no plate mark behind. False plate marks were sometimes added back onto these cards to remind the customer that they were looking at a true intaglio prints. Photogravure was also used to create false etchings. Since they are both intaglio techniques one can easily pass for the other without close inspection, and the addition of a false plate mark adds much to this deception. Small gravure plates were also printed by hand, which would leave a real plate mark behind. Hand printing however is a slow process, so real plate marks are usually only found on small editions printed by artists and not by large commercial printers.
Oleograph: This postcard printed in a red, yellow, and blue halftones was embossed with line work then heavily varnished. When looking at the card it appears that the imitation brush strokes were drawn into the varnish but the embossing can be felt through the back.
Advertising Card: This early lithographic advertising card has been die cut into the shape of a fan to gain greater attention. It has also received spot printing in gold, which was a fairly common practice on these cards.
Die cutting was also used to create punch out cards. These cards were not irregular shaped, shapes were only partially cut within them so that they could be punched out with hand pressure after purchase. Most of these cards seem to have been made to create small paper toys. While some of these punched out objects like dolls or animals were meant to stand alone, others had pieces that could be assembled into a more elaborate toy. Similar cards were also produced where the printed toys needed to be cut out.
Punch Out Card: This card captures a typical page from a illustrated scientific journal, but the five insects pictured van all be punched out as toys. On the back of the card shown below, we can better see the perforated edges of the parcel die cut, along with instructions for use.
The first picture puzzle seems to date back to 1760 when the English cartographer John Spilsbury cut up a map mounted on wood into individual countries to better teach geography. These early novelties on wood where often made with the same tools used in marquetry work, but this slow handiwork would be industrialized when pictures pasted to cardboard were die cut on press beds. Cardboard postcards die cut into interlocking pieces would eventually be made as novelties. A variation is a postcard puzzle in which the pieces are not cut through but perforated in straight lines by a die and punch machine. These devices were first introduced in the 1840’s and are best known for their work in separating stamps. Whether die cutting or perforating, the same cut could be used on multiple cards because the pattern did not follow the printed image.
Picture Puzzle Postcard: The puzzle on this postcard is not cut through but only perforated. After a message was written on its back, the card was then folded along the perforated lines until all the pieces were separated. Each piece would then be mailed separately similar to an installment postcard set. Once reassembled the message could be read. This card was sold in an envelope with printed instructions on it.
Die Cut Postcard: This real photo novelty contains some hand coloring and a large ribbon appliqué. Much of the intense coloring comes from metallic ribbons foil sandwiched between the front and back of the card. This hidden layer has been exposed through die cutting shapes out from the front of the card. While this technique was used to manufacture hold to light cards, this card is completely opaque.
TECHNIQUES FOR NOVELTIES
By 1890 Bibby, Baron & Sons patented a new type of press where a flexible transfer plate made of cheap molded rubber is adhered to a printing cylinder and inked with a finely textured roller, and then it is directly rolled onto the intended product to create a printed image. Its basic principles are the same as found in letterpress printing, but this process is more versatile. It is used to print on almost any surface, porous and non-porous alike, such as, leather, plastic, metal, paper, cardboard, plastic, and wood. It was used to create novelty postcards where unusual material could not be run through a more conventional press. Its look can vary between fine and sloppy, and its limitations prevent it from printing finely detailed work. The early water based inks, which had a tendency to smear almost doomed this technology but the introduction of oil based aniline inks breathed new life into the process. A new crisis arose in the 1940’s when aniline was found to be toxic but better inks were substituted for it in 1949. This process went by many names such as gummidruck, lustro, and transglo printing, but by 1951 the name flexography finally took hold.
Flexography: The postcard above used flexography to print on a wooden veneer that was too delicate to pass through a rotary press without cracking. It has stretched the limit on how fine an image can be created with this process. The example below is a postcard made of thick leather that displays the more typical quality of printing that this process provided.
Pyrography (Writing with Fire)
Pyrograph: The drawing on this postcard was entirely burnt into a thin wood veneer. Most cards produced in this manner lack this sort of artistry.
Hold to Light Cards
A second method places translucent colored paper, usually red and yellow, between the two layers but in this case the printed front has the shapes to be illuminated die cut out of it. Even though the entire image can be viewed under normal light, the cut away areas make the layer underneath more translucent when held to light, producing brighter stronger colors. These types of cards seem to appear more often in the United States.
Hold to Light: Parts of this black & white collotype have been cut out to reveal red and yellow printed in the layer underneath. When held to light these thiner color areas will brighten while the thicker areas of the card will appear darker by contrast thus simulating a night scene. This transformation was not supposed to be realistic, only fun.
A third method of making hold-to-light cards uses two printed layers. The top layer holds what appears to be a normal image, and the hidden layer underneath either contains additional imagery that can enhance or change the meaning of the narrative when held up to light. Sometimes this same technique was used to change black & white cards into color images. Unless held up to light many of these hold-to-light card cards are not discernible from ordinary postcards. Many of these cards are unfortunately printed on paper too thick for the backlighting to be effective. These novelties became popular in the 1890’s.
Hold to Light: The front of the card above is printed in monochrome, but its hidden layer seen below has fields of pale blue and red. The darkest areas are also printed in black to give them more emphisis. When the card is held up to light, the two layers combine to form the color image further below. Note that the middle layer shown here is skewed because it was photographed under extreme bright light. While this reveals the hidden printing more clearly, it is impossible to separate it from the layer above. The completed image will also vary in appearance depending on the type and intensity of the light shining through it.
Invisible Ink: This comic newspaper postcard from 1906 was printed in lithographic colors and invisible ink. It has already been heated to reveal the hidden visual punch line of the riddle.
Some novelty cards were designed to reveal hidden messages rather than pictures. Perhaps the most common method used was to print the invisible message directly on the card with some sort of clear varnish. This substance had the property of holding graphite from a pencil or metallic fragments from a coin if rubbed over it thus revealing the message. The clarity of the message was always dependent on how carefully the card was rubbed and with what material. Any fault in the printing was difficult to discern beforehand because it was invisible.
Rub On Card: This novelty was promoted as a Metropolitan Wireless Message Post Card. A coin has already been rubbed over its surface to reveal an insurance advertisement. While the message can be read, its clarity is less than ideal. Novelties provided more incentive for the receiver to read junk mail that might otherwise be quickly discarded.
Screen printing did not become a commercially viable process until a suitable rubber blade (squeegee) was developed for it in 1936. Even so with war looming the cost of silk began running high. It took the development of polyester, a cheap and durable substitute during the 1940’s for the technique to gain wider use. At this same time artists began using the screen printing process in increasing numbers because the method did not require access to an expensive press to produce prints. This new medium met with much resistance within artistic circles due to its close associations with cheap commercial printing. The term Serigraphy, coined in the United States, was applied to it as a way to distinguish its use in fine art printing from its commercial cousin. Pretensions have since been largely put aside and the process is now often referred to as silkscreen. There is no actual difference between the two and today both terms are often used interchangeably. Screen printing was used sparingly in postcard production, and it is largely found among those cards produced by small shops or individual artists.
Screen Print: The postcard above has the simple classic type of design most often found on a screen print, but it is also a good example of bad printing. In the detail below we can see that when the screen pulled up too slowly after ink was forced through, a screen pattern was left behind in the excessively thick ink. The process may have also been rushed for it appears that subsequent layers of ink were added over those that were not completely dry. The detail from a different print seen further below demonstrates what a proper flat printing surface of a silkscreen should look like, where the overlap of the ink skins are barely visible.
Silhouette: While this postcard has the look of cut paper, the edges of the silhouette are jagged and are accompanied by ink squash to reveal it was printed from a line block plate.
Tinted Silhouettes: A very popular variation of the traditional silhouette was to combine it with a color tint. This was not to make it look more real, only to expand the compositional possibilities. The lithographic card above was printed with a solid black but the grey comes from a tinting plate of halftone dots. While these two colors harmonize, the multiple colors on the card below feels contrary to the spirit of the silhouette despite its limited appearance. Although it is printed with tricolor halftone dots, the black seems to have been added as a solid color to enhance the silhouette with contrast.
Pictorial Silhouette: As time went on, more liberties were taken with the way silhouettes were presented until they were just elements within a pictorial composition. The mixing of styles may have seemed clever but they usually read as awkward. It works well in this card because of the limited palette, which is appropriate to a night scene. The image was only printed with a blue and light blue halftone. A grey border has been added to make the white paper within the image pop as highlights.