Saturday, October 20, 2012

Penny Postcards from the Past

Remember when we used to go on trips,  how we always stopped by the souvenir shop  to purchase color postcards? Or found them in our hotel room for free?

We sent postcards greetings to family and friends, but also collected a few for ourselves as a reminder of the places we had visited.

A postcard from the past. Bankhead Hotel, Birmingham, Ala. Image Credit:

They were perfect for short notes such as “having a great time; wish you were here.”
Quick notes for busy vacationers, the postcards also were cheaper to mail than a letter.

Thinking about those beautiful cards today, I remembered how I bought postcards in every city, town,  museum, castle and garden when I visited several European countries in the 1980s.

And in grade school I remember buying picture postcards on each day trip taken – the Natural Bridge in Alabama, Andrew Jackson’s home in Nashville, Rock City in Chattanooga. I don’t think those have survived. 

Since I've been thinking about postcards, I wanted to find out more about the advent of picture postcards and here are a few details.

There are several eras of postcards. They were called penny postcards long after the price to mail them increased. 

Pre-Postcard Era, 1840-1869
Due to government postal regulations, postcards were a long time in developing. The direct ancestor seems to be the envelopes printed with pictures on them

In the Pre-Postcard era,  patriotic pictures appeared on U.S. envelopes during the Civil War period of 1861-1865. Image Credit:

Pioneer Era, 1870-1898

The first known printed picture postcard, with an image on one side, was created in France in 1870. The first advertising card appeared in 1872 in Great Britain. The first German card appeared in 1874. Cards showing the Eiffel Tower in 1889 & 1890 gave impetus to the postcard heyday a decade later.  The first postcard to be printed as a souvenir in the United States was created in 1893 to advertise the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Claimed to be the first printed picture postcard. Image Credit:

Private Mailing Card Era, 1898-1901

Starting in 1898, American publishers were allowed to print and sell cards bearing the inscription, “Private Mailing Card, Authorized by Act of Congress on May 19, 1898”. These were to be posted with one cent stamps (the same rate as government postals). This was perhaps the most significant event to enhance the use of private postals. As with government postals and previous pioneer cards, writing was still reserved for the front (picture side) of the cards only.

Private Mailing Card Era
Image Credit:

Undivided Back Era, 1901-1907
In 1901, the U.S. Government granted the use of the words "Post Card" to be printed on the undivided back of privately printed cards and allowed publishers to drop the authorization inscription previously required. As in earlier eras, writing was still limited to the front. However, during this time, other countries began to permit the use of a divided back. This enabled the front to be used exclusively for the design, while the back was divided so that the left side was for writing messages and the right side for the address. England was the first to permit the divided back in 1902, France followed in 1904, Germany in 1905 and finally the U.S. in 1907. These changes ushered in the "Golden Age" of postcards as millions were sold and used.

Undivided Back Postcard. Image Credit:

 Divided Back Era, 1907-1915
By this period, divided backs were almost universal. Previous to and during this period, a majority of U.S. postcards were printed in Europe, especially in Germany whose printing methods were regarded as the best in the world. But rising import tariffs and the threats of war caused a swift decline in the cards imported. Thus the political strains of the day brought about the end of the "Golden Age".

Divided Back Postcard. Image Credit:

White Border Era, 1916-1930
During this period, American technology advanced allowing the production of quality cards. The cards of this era were usually printed with white borders around the picture, thus the term “white border cards.”

White Border Postcard. Image Credit:

Linen Card Era, 1930-1945
Changing technology now enabled publishers to print cards on a linen type paper stock with very bright and vivid colors. View and comic cards were the most often published. Sets and series were few and far between and the greeting card was almost exclusively replaced with the new French-fold cards. Among the best cards of this era are the political humor cards of World War II.

Linen Card Era Postcard. Image Credit:

Photo Chrome Era, 1939-present
Photochromes are commonly called “ modern chromes” and are still the most popular cards today. Prints are colorized images produced from black-and-white photographic negatives via the direct photographic transfer of a negative onto lithographic printing plates.Since the earlier days of fine printing craftsmanship, these are the best reproductions to come along in years.

Postcard publishers use Kodachrome for the easy separation of color for litho-plates used to print postcards. Although chrome postcards resemble photos they actually are produced by a lithographic printing process.

Since the mid-1950s almost all postcards are photochromes.

Photochrome of Dam Square, Amsterdam c. 1890–1900. Image Credit:

With everyone having a cell phone these days, I wonder if the habit of sending a postcard isn’t all but dead. I hope not. I like the idea of sending postcards.

Have you mailed any postcards lately?


  1. Thank you Sanda for your research on the subject!
    I am lucky to have a blog friend, who finds the most wonderful cards and sends them to me.
    In return, I send a few postcards, but not nearly as often as I´d wish to.

    1. Oh, I forgot something.
      I don´t like the tradition of sending " the must cards ", that is the Xmas cards, the Valentine Day cards, etc.
      Whenever something turns into a " must ", I try to skip it.
      This just reveals how horrible I am ; )!

    2. Hi Mette, I didn't intend that the post would turn into the vast amount of information it did. But you know how it goes--one thing led to another and I didn't know where to stop. But it was fun learning all that about postcards.

      How nice that a blogger friend sends postcards!

      I'm with you on the "must" cards, but I don't think that makes us too "horrible." Sending a card should be from the heart, not just checking off a box.

      Thanks for your comment!

  2. I enjoy sending old fashioned mail. That includes post cards, I still buy them when out and about. I enjoyed your history of the post card. I have saved many that I have received, fun to look back through them and recall the person who sent the card.


    1. Great that you still send letters and cards. It's so rare these days and very special that some still take the time to do it. I think about in the future, there won't be any letters/cards for archivists/historians to sift through -- everything is electronically sent and eventually deleted.

  3. Would love to send cards to blogger friends,all those different countries what a treat.

    The last card I sent was from Paris when I was there 2 yrs ago.

    Have enjoyed your history of the American way of sending cards.
    Dam sq so well known to me.Ida

  4. So would I, Ida, but how do you ever get a mailing address? (can e-mail and ask if their e-mail address is on their page, but often it is not). I thought, after I wrote people don't send postcards, that the only time they do is when they visit a country other than their own and phone calls are too expensive.
    Thinking about postcards makes me want to go out and find some beautiful ones. I read that collecting them is a quite popular hobby in some quarters, and the old ones can be quite expensive.

  5. I dead consider blissful once I get articles relatable to my subject. cheap eddm printing


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