Although earlier examples are known, the postcard was patented in 1861 by John P. Charlton of Philadelphia. The rights were sold to H.L. Lipman who produced postcards with a decorated border labelled “Lipman’s postal card”. By 1870, picture postcards were being produced in limited quantities in Europe.
A surge in the use of postcard came from the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in May 1893. At this Exposition, postcards illustrating buildings and views were issued. These included government produced postal cards and privately produced “souvenir cards”.
Until 1901, the U.S. Government did not permit the use of the term “postcard” on privately produced cards; these were called “souvenir cards” or “mail cards”. In 1898, an Act of Congress permitted the manufacture and sale of “private mailing cards”, or “PMCs” and, in 1901, the ban on the use of the word “postcard” was lifted. From that time, several manufacturers began to produce postcards in significant volumes. By 1908, the number of postcards mailed in the year had exceeded 677,000,000. About three-quarters of these cards were made in Europe, particularly in Germany.
In 1906, Kodak introduced their Folding Pocket camera, the first camera aimed at a mass market. One feature of this camera was the ability of the photographer to write a message on the negative with a metal scribe. These negatives were postcard sized and could be printed onto paper with a postcard back. Black-and-white “real photo” postcards made in this way and also by professional manufacturers continued to be popular until colour postcards “photochrome” came to dominate the industry after the Second World War.
Until 1907, the US Government did not permit any writing on the address side of a postcard. (So, writing on the picture side of earlier cards does not diminish their value.) In that year, postcards with a divided back, and the address on the right side, were permitted.
The First World War ended German exports of postcards. After the War, “hand tinted” postcards from Belgium and France enjoyed a brief period of popularity. These card were coloured by women who would moisten the tips of their brushes with their lips. Unfortunately, the paints they used contained lead which is poisonous. When this was realised, production of these cards was discontinued.
In America, higher production costs and competition for spending on entertainment from new media, like movies and the radio, resulted in cost cutting. The effects of this included the production of postcards with a white border around the picture to save ink and runs of thousands of postcards with the same picture.
The erotic French postcard, which had first appeared in 1910, was another casualty of the rise of the motion picture. At its peak, the French erotic postcard industry was producing over 120 million postcards a year and employing 33,000 people. They had practically ceased production by 1925.
In the 1930s, new printing processes allowed the printing of postcards on paper with a high rag content. These “linen postcards” were cheaper to produce yet allowed the use of bright colours.
A new process for producing colour postcards, called “photochome” or “chrome” was invented shortly before the Second World War and came to dominate the industry after the War ended in 1945.
Did you know?
Collecting postcards is called “deltiology” and is the third largest collecting hobby in the world (after stamp and coin collecting). In the period before the First World War, deltiology was the largest collecting hobby.
Some of the types of postcards that are particularly sought after by collectors include:
- Any postcard made before the First World War.
- “Transparency” cards which have a hidden image printed on a second layer that becomes visible when the card is held up to a strong light.
- “Hold-to-light” cards in which light shines through a translucent window in the card.
- “Magic Moving Picture” which have moving parts or different scenes that are revealed when a tab is pushed or pulled.
- Full sets of “instalment” cards which were mailed one at a time and then assembled to make a large picture.
- Christmas cards which show Santa Claus wearing any colour other than red. (The tradition that Santa Claus wears a red suit originated in a 1931 Coca-Cola advertising campaign. The ad was painted by the Swedish commercial artist Haddon Sunblom; the model was a retired Coke employee and, of course, the colours were those of the Coke logo.)