A Brief History of Postcards

Postcards derived from trade cards in the late 19th century. Trade cards were small cards published for advertisement of products and services after the Civil War. They were some of the first examples of colored printing with the development of chromolithography. We will discuss this printing process in another article. The bottom line is that early chromolithographic trade cards made a dynamic impression on the general public. For the first time colored images became available to the common person on the street. The general public were suddenly able to possess colored prints of artwork and other illustrations.

Trade were often produced in sets or series. These were offered as incentives for various products and were collected by the public. Some of the most prolific and popular trade cards were produced by thread and sewing machine companies. Trade cards became very popular collectibles and were an effective means of advertising. The Golden Age of Trade Cards was circa 1885 to 1900.


A major development took place in 1896 that would forever change the way people in America would communicate. Rural Free Delivers, RFD, was established in the United States. It suddenly became possible to send mail to almost anyone throughout the country. This revolutionized the way people communicated and marked the beginning of the introduction of “penny” postcards.

Congress authorized the use of Private Mailing Cards (PMC) on May 19, 1898, effective July 1, 1898. This was an experiment to raise revenue for the government. The cost of postage of a PMC was one cent, half of the two cents postage required for a letter. Previous to this time privately printed cards, also known as postals, required two-cents postage rather than the one-cent postage on government issued cards. There was little incentive to produce or use privately printed postals before July 1, 1898. The higher cost and limited space for writing a message, in comparison to a letter, made pioneer cards less appealing to the public.


PMCs became popular in large part because of the reduction of postage and the expansion of RFD. The back side of PMCs was for the address only, the same regulation as government postals. The message and image were delegated to the front side of the card. PMCs converted to Undivided Back Cards (U/B). The government allowed the use of the words “Post Card” or Postcard” to be printed on the backs of privately printed cards beginning December 24, 1901. Like PMCs, the message on U/Bs had to be written on the front side of the card and only the address on the back side. Below is an example of a PMC with a message written on the front. The message distracts from the image.

PMCs, and a couple of years later U/Bs, became very popular with the emergence of the RFD. The experiment by the government to raise revenue proved to be successful beyond their highest expectations. The next development in the evolution of postcards, or postals, came on March 1, 1907, when the government established Divided Back Cards (D/B). D/Bs allowed for both the message and the address to be written on the back side of the card. The advantage of this was that the entire front of the card could now be used for the image. “Penny” postcards became even more popular at this time and were the most sought-after collectible in the world. Postcard clubs were formed throughout the country. The official figures of the U.S. Post Office for their fiscal year ending June 30, 1908, cite almost 700 million postcards mailed in the United States. That does not include postcards that were purchased but never mailed. The total population of America was less than 89 million at that time. The card below is a D/B that uses the entire front of the card for the image. Postcards became even more popular after the authorization of divided backs for both the address and the message.

Delti is Greek for card. Deltiology is the accepted term for the study or collecting of postcards. Postcards were the most popular collectibles in the world during the Golden Age of Postcards. Postcard collecting was prevalent throughout Europe at the turn of the century and by 1905 had reached comparable proportions in North America. A more pragmatic and enduring quality of postcards was that they were the primary form of communication prior to World War I, before the telephone and radio became widespread. Postcard clubs were established throughout the world and members exchanged postals through the mail. This era is often referred to as the Postcard Craze. The Year Date postal below shows 4 major tourists attractions in the US. Yellowstone Park is among the images chosen but the publisher. This is evidence that Yellowstone was among the top locations in the country for postcard sales going back to 1905 in the U/D era of postcard production. The other images are the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor, the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, the Capitol building in Washington DC, and Niagara Falls. The (Beehive) Geyser in Yellowstone Park is the only image west of the Mississippi. 

The years 1907 to 1909 were the pinnacle of postcard sales and collecting in the United States. The beginning of the end of the Golden Age of Postcards was the passage of the Payne-Aldrich Tariff on August 5, 1909. Germany produced more postcards than any other country in the world. This tariff increased the price of imported paper, including postcards, and seriously affected the export trade of German, and European, printing companies. The more serious occurrence to adversely affect postcard production was World War I. European printing companies suffered serious setbacks when a number of their factories and buildings were damaged or destroyed in the war. The German printing industry never regained the superiority and dominance of the international printing trade they experienced during the Golden Age of Postcards.

The next phase of postcard production in the United States between 1920 to 1930 is referred to as the White Border Era. Postcards printed in the period usually had a white border around the edges of the card. North American printing companies, with one notable, used inferior printing techniques and supplies to the German’s high-quality chromolithographs. The exception is the Detroit Publishing Company, which we will discuss in another article. The US economy after World War I was depressed. The papers and inks used in the production of postcards were inexpensive and a lower quality than those used before the war. Chromolithographic printing was an expensive and labor-intensive process. The German printers produced the finest and best-printed postcards in the world to attract postcard collectors. Postcards fell out of favor after WWI because of the weak economy, the increased use of radio and telephone as means of communication, and the lower quality cards that were produced.

Postcards underwent a major change beginning in 1930. The Curt Teich Company of Chicago developed a printing technique for printing bright colors on a paper stock composed of heavy rag content. These colorful postcards were called linens and this period of postcard production is referred to as the Linen Era. Unfortunately the development of linen postcards occurred around the same period as the Great Depression. One style of linen postcards produced by the Curt Teich Company is known as large letter. Large letter postcards are art deco style designs of large letters with images inside the letters. The popularity of large letter postcard designs was recognized by the United States Postal Service when they released the Greetings From America stamps in 2002. This set of 50 stamps featured large letters from each state and became one of the best-selling sets of modern commemorative stamps. Curt Teich published large letter postcards of many of America’s national parks, including a number of parks that were established in the 1930s.

The last, and most recent, change in postcard production began in 1939 and continues through today. This period is known as the Photochrome Era. Do not confuse this with chromo or chromolithography. Photochrome refers to photographic based images printed on a glossy surface. Standard Oil first produced these chrome postcards, in large part because they used an oil base in production. There are two general periods within the Photochrome Era; pre-zip code through 1963 and post-zip code after 1964. Postcard production in the modern era includes a wide range of printing techniques and postcard types. In the 21st century there have been a number of different printing techniques used to produce postcards. These modern printing techniques are outside the scope of this article and merit an independent study of their own.

We will be posting more articles on postcards and postcard collecting. Let us know if you have any questions. We will be glad to assist you however we can. In the meantime good luck finding that special postcard. It is probably out there somewhere.