History of Postcards

By Arthur J. Sommers, Washington County Museum Archival Volunteer
This article is a short history of the evolution of post cards. They evolved from being solely an official form of government correspondence to a means of transmitting beautiful lithographed subject matter and real black & white images of landscapes, buildings, and people.

Almost everyone taking a vacation today uses their own camera or phone, which generallyimg004 has good capabilities for taking both still images and video. A century ago, few people had their own camera and when they went on a trip, they would typically buy a post card view of the place they were visiting. They might mail the post card back to a friend or relative. They might also forego mailing the card and carry it back home to put into a post card album. Then they could share memories of their trip with their family and neighbors.
Collecting post cards was one of the top three hobbies 100 years ago. People might collect coins, stamps, or post cards. They might collect all three. There are millions of vintage post cards that have survived the passage of time. Many vintage post cards that were mailed might be missing the stamp. That is a good indication that a stamp collector removed the stamp from the post card for their stamp collection.
Post cards started out as an official product of the U.S. Postal System. One side of the post card was reserved for an address and the other side was for correspondence. Illustrations were eventually placed on both government and privately printed cards. The Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago is generally seen as the catalyst for encouraging private publishers to expand their efforts in printing the post cards illustrated.img007

Responding to lobbying by both private publishers and the general public, an act of Congress in 1898 allowed private printers to print and sell cards that bore the inscription “Private Mailing Card.” A dozen or more printers started producing post cards with a view on one side. The other side of the post card was still reserved for the address. Printers often left a wide margin around the view allowing people to write a message on the card.img008

In 1901, the Government granted permission to private printers to replace “Private Mailing Card” with the shorter term “Post Card” on their product. Originally, post card views were lithographed images. Germany printed the most lithographed post cards. With the beginning of World War I (1914-1918), printing shifted to the United States and England.

As smaller, better cameras became more available, img009 then having the image printed on post card stock. These photograph based post cards became known as “Real Photo Post Cards.” Writing was still not permitted on the address side yet.

In 1907, a dividing line was permitted on the address side of post cards. On one side of the dividing line was space for the address and the other side had room for a note to the recipient of the post card. The boom in placing black and white photographs on post cards and having img010anauthorized place to write notes were two factors ushering in a golden age of post card production and collection. Post card collecting even came to have its own official designation as deltiology. By 1910, post card collecting became a favorite hobby of people around the world.

To provide an idea of how quickly post card collecting caught on with the general public, the U.S. Post Office processed over 5 billion pieces of mail of all kinds in 1895. By 1905, the volume of processed mail doubled to 10 billion pieces. By 1913, the volume had increased to 18.5 billion pieces of mail moving through the postal system. The large majority of that increase was due to people mailing post cards. A card typically cost a penny and it only took a penny stamp to mail the card.

There are two major categories of post card types. There are “topics” which can have almost any subject matter. There are post cards of clowns, the circus, the military services, movie theaters, trains, automobiles, animals in costumes, etc. The other major category is “view” cards. These are cards showing landscapes, buildings, and streets in communities around the world. This second category is the source of images for many visual history books.

Arcadia Publishing is famous for printing visual history books of communities across the United States. The authors of over 8,000 Arcadia titles often use RPPC images to illustrate each community’s history. There are events where post card dealers set out boxes and boxes of post cards for potential buyers to browse through looking for an old lithograph post card of a favorite topic. They might also be looking for a unique view of their hometown from one hundred years ago. A black and white image on a vintage post card might be the only surviving record of a building that no longer exists. Another source for acquiring old post cards is eBay. If your family comes from a small town in New York or Kansas or Colorado, you can go onto eBay here in Oregon and search by simply typing the town of your ancestor in the search field.

The Washington County Museum’s Archives and Research Center located at the Portland Community College (Rock Creek Campus) has a large collection of both lithograph and real black and white photograph post cards. The three Arcadia Publishing books on Hillsboro, Oregon contain images that the authors of those books obtained from the Archives. Many of those images are from old post cards.

Public institutions like historical societies and archives and museums strive to preserve and protect their collections. Post cards are paper and need to be protected from moisture and sunlight and creasing. There are soft acid free plastic sleeves designed specifically to hold a single post card. There are acid free paper envelopes, which can be used to store post cards as well. Collectors will use both the soft plastic sleeve for individual cards, but they also use a specially designed four-pocket plastic protector which holds four post cards. That style protector of can be placed in a three-ring binder for storage and easy access and recovery.

If you have a postcard collection, take steps to preserve it or donate it to your local archive, so they can take care of it for you and make it available for research and education. You may have the only image that exists!

*Click Images to Englarge

Want to learn more about Washington County History? Return to our History Page.