What do you collect––old baseball cards, stamps, coins, knives, cups and saucers, or something more exotic? Maybe your special collection consists of a rock from every state you’ve visited, recipes, antique farm equipment, or baseball caps. Nearly everyone collects one thing or another. In the United States, one of the most popular collecting hobbies is deltiology, or postcard collecting.
Before the use of postcards was authorized in this country, envelopes were printed with pictures on them of valentines, music, and comics. During the Civil War period of 1861-1865, thousands of patriotic pictures were printed on envelopes and are now known as Patriotic Covers. J.P. Carlton copyrighted the first privately printed postal-type card in 1861, and later transferred the copyright to H.L. Lipman. These Lipman Postal Cards were sold until they were replaced in 1873 by the U. S. Government postals.
By 1898, the United States government gave private printers the authorization to print and sell postcards or private mailing cards for use after July 1, 1898, and could be mailed for 1 cent.
Postcards have changed through the years and are divided into eras by postcard collectors. The Pioneer Era is considered to be from 1870-1898. During this period, there were several firsts. In 1872, the first advertising card appeared in Great Britain. The first multi-colored card ever printed was a Heligoland card of 1889. The first cards printed with the intention of being used as souvenirs were sold in 1893 at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
The Private Mailing Card Era was from 1898-1901 and writing was allowed only on the picture side of the card, not the back side as they are today. Real photo postcards began to appear. In 1898, the postage required to mail a postcard was reduced from two cents to one cent, so compared to the current rate of 23 cents, that was a real deal.
From 1901-1907, the Undivided Back Era saw the mass public taking black and white photos with inexpensive Folding Pocket Kodak cameras and having the pictures developed with a postcard backing so they could be mailed. By the end of this period, collecting picture postcards was the number-one hobby in the country with 677,777,798 postcards mailed in one year in America.
The Golden Age was during the Divided Back Era of 1907-1915. Postcards now had divided backs––the right side for the mailing address and the left side for a message. Hodgenville postcard collector and expert Carl Howell says, “During this period, women, especially, would belong to clubs where they would mail penny postcards to women they didn’t know in other clubs. In this way, they would get pen pals. Then at Sunday afternoon gatherings after church, the featured attraction would be when the women brought out their postcard albums for everyone to see.”
Americans were wild about collecting postcards and millions of cards were printed in this period. Until the beginning of World War I, most of the postcards in the world were printed in Germany and were of top quality. “The real early postcards were sent to Berlin for colorization,” Howell explains. “A negative from a real photo would be sent along with instructions about what colors to use. The colored postcards were beautiful, but the colors were not always right.”
World War I, the influenza epidemics, the introduction of the telephone, and the rising import tariffs had a profound negative effect on the postcard hobby and the Golden Age.
The Early Modern Era or White Border Era lasted from 1916-1930. To save ink, postcards were printed with a white border. After World War I, the German publishing industry was never rebuilt and inexperienced American labor created poor quality cards. That and the advent of movies led to decreasing interest in postcards. Only the real photo postcards did well.
New American printing processes ushered in the Linen Card Era from 1930-1945. Postcards were printed on a linen-type paper stock and had a textured feel. Bright and vivid colors were used on the cards, which were mostly view (scenes or buildings) and comic cards. The political humor cards of World War II were notable. But war shortages again slowed the industry.
The Photochrome Era began in 1939 and continues to the present day. Union Oil Company began launching these cards in their western service stations in 1939. The postcard quality is the best in years, much to the delight of collectors. Postcard collecting is enjoying a renewed popularity, in spite of the cost of the cards and postage.
Postcards have been printed on many materials, including paper, wood, leather, metal, plastic, and silk. There are many types of postcards printed, as any collector will agree. View cards are popular with many collectors buying cards of their hometown––the buildings and streets––as a way to have a social history of the town.
Postcards are also used as greeting cards, though they are likely reproductions of cards from earlier eras. “Every holiday was commemorated in some fashion by the postcard companies,” Howell says. You can find a multitude of Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Easter, birthdays, and St. Patrick’s Day cards, although Labor Day cards are scarce.
Historical cards depict events such as wars, expositions, parades, politics, and disasters, including floods, fires, and train wrecks.
Artist-signed postcards attracted the best artists of the time to create remarkable quality works—these cards are very popular with collectors. Artists Frances Brundage, Jesse Wilcox Smith, Charles Dana Gibson, Eva Daniell, Charles M. Russell, and Paul Berthon are just a few of the sought-after names on postcards. One of the most outstanding postcard publishers was Raphael Tuck and Sons Ltd. of London.
Postcard collectors usually have favorite types of cards that they collect. Some may collect cards of Santa, political figures, modes of transportation, or views. Collections may exist of nothing but bridges, teddy bears, children, fairies, railroad depots, sports figures, or commemoratives of the Civil War. Another favorite collectible is hold-to-light cards. These old cards may have stars and a moon that appear when held up to a light, or another section will appear to be lighted, created from a double paper and cutouts that aren’t readily visible when casually viewing.
Postcards are fun to collect and appeal to all ages. If the cards are handled with care and stored in archival-safe albums, they will be around for many years to delight and educate their viewers.
HOW TO BEGIN COLLECTING POSTCARDS
So now you want to collect postcards and need to know where to find them? Besides family members who may be willing to part with them, you can look for old postcards in antique shops, flea markets, and shops that carry collectibles.
There are wonderful online auctions for postcards. eBay’s Web site, www.ebay.com, auctions postcards daily from all over the world and has cards of all ages and conditions.
Don’t forget to store your postcard treasures in archival-safe albums to protect them for generations to come.
RESOURCES FOR POSTCARD COLLECTING
For an exclusive list of books, Web sites, and books about Kentucky counties and postcards, just click postcard resources