For something that seems like such a simple concept, postcards have quite a bit of history behind them.
Surprisingly, their production and usage were restricted quite a bit in their early days, but changes in their regulation allowed the postcard business to expand and became quite popular by the turn of the 20th century.
Postcards made for a quick, easy, and affordable way to communicate via mail, and added a layer of style that traditional letters just didn’t offer. The imagination and artwork that went into the creation of postcards have turned them into a significant collector hobby that persists to this day.
Let’s take a look at the history of postcards in the United States, and how they developed as both an industry and as a hobby for collectors.
Even though postcards, as we know them, didn’t exist before 1870, Americans did use cards as mailed materials in those long-ago days. Since they didn’t have any artwork or other normally-associated characteristics, these were generally referred to as “mailed cards” instead of postcards, but they did form the basis for what we’d see later.
Another major influencer of what would become postcards was the picture envelope, which was precisely what it sounds like. It’s easy to see how it and the mailed cards were the direct ancestors of postcards, and while no known picture envelopes still exist today, their legacy lives on in postcards.
While the first postcards wouldn’t be printed for some years to come, the United States Congress passed an act in 1861 that made it legal for private printing companies to produce cards under one ounce that could be sent in the mail. No sooner was the ink dry on that Act that John P. Carlton copyrighted the first postcard produced in the United States.
Both the US Postal Service and private companies like Carlton and Lipman’s were producing postcards by the early 1870s, though the government prohibited privately-produced cards from bearing the phrase “postal card” at that time. Privately-produced cards cost more at first, but the prices fell in line with one another by the turn of the century.
Initially, messages were prohibited from appearing on the address side of postcards, with a note declaring such on the address side of most postcards. An exception was eventually made for postcards with no message on the front of the card.
Later, cards that bore an image on the front eliminated any space for a message, leading into the “divided back” years where messages could be placed on the left half of the address side of a postcard. Another innovation during this time was the first postcards to use real photos on the image side of the card.
A significant change shook the postcard industry when World War I broke out, and German companies (whose superior technology made them the highest-quality printers) were no longer able to do business in the United States. To save money and reduce the amount of ink used, many postcards during this period left a white, unprinted border around the image on the card.
The 1930s brought a much-needed technological development because the golden age of postcards had more or less ended after German postcards were no longer available in the United States. A new printing process made it possible to print postcards with a high rag content that gave postcards the appearance of having been printed on linen instead of paper.
This style of postcard became very popular worldwide, and technological developments allowed an increase in the speed of production and brighter dyes to provide color. The white border around the postcard was still standard, though the back often now included information about the image on the opposite side.
The advent of the photochrom-style postcard brought postcards into the modern era. Resources were again limited during World War II, but when they came back into the market afterward, new technology allowed for the creation of postcards with an image that closely resembles a real photograph.
Unfortunately, the popularity of the postcard again began to decline in the 1990s when email and e-cards began to replace traditional postcards and mail in general. Today, most postcards are bought as souvenirs rather than actually as a method of communication. However, any aspiring artist can still find a way to make your own postcard and, with the right enthusiasm, drive, and conviction, forge the legacy of the postcard into the 21st century and beyond.