Vintage Postcards and Their Amazing History
Vintage postcards is a phrase for all postcards published at least a few decades ago but in practice, it's mostly used for picture postcards (not all of them have pictures!) from the so-called golden era between 1890 and 1915 (sometimes extending to the 1930s).
While today postcards are still used, their popularity is in decline for numerous reasons and poor literacy is only one of them. On the other hand vintage post picture cards are still very much in favor among collectors with pretty serious business evolved in certain niches about which we'll talk about in the continuation of this article.
First things first. What are postcards? When was the first postcard made and used? Who invented it and why? How did people react to the idea of sending their personal thoughts to others without an envelope, so everybody could read it?
First Postcards Had No Pictures ...
... but the oldest postcard did! For many years people believed that the history of postcards started in today's Germany in 1865 when Heinrich von Stephan suggested to the post officials sending messages on stiff paper. One side would serve for the address of the recipient and the other for the message of the sender.
His idea was decisively refused on a simple premise: without an envelope, the privacy of the message would be non-existent, so nobody would use such a service. Austro-Hungarian Post was more willing to accept the idea and decided to give it a go about four years later. They sold more than three million postcards in the first three months. None of the first postcards in Europe had an image.
Digging deeper into history reveals the fact that the first postcards sent through the mail (some with pictures and some without) in the USA predated European postcards for more than two decades. There's a record of a postcard being sent in December 1848. It was without a picture as well but had printed advertising. Several cards (some with pictures, some without) were sent in the next years but only in 1861 Philadelphia's publisher John P. Charlton patented a printed postcard and sold a patent to Hymen L. Lipman, who started selling it. Several other entrepreneurs followed his example but until 1870 their efforts stayed relatively unimportant.
So who was first? Germany, Austria, or the USA? In 2002 a new answer came - it was the UK. On 14 July 1840, Theodore Hook, writer, composer, and playboy who lived in London received a postcard from Fulham. Historians believe he sent it himself as one of the practical jokes he was known for.
The oldest postcard according to the British Philatelic Association's expert committee is made of paper. One side is covered with a hand-drawn caricature of twelve postal officers with gigantic pens sitting around a huge inkwell. There is a writing Penny Penates alluding to their pens and positions (penates were ancient guardians of households). Another extremely important detail is a stamp - the only known surviving and posted Penny Black, the first stamp with adhesive in the world. Penny Black was soon taken out of circulation and replaced with Penny Red. The reason was simple: red cancelation on the black stamp was hard to see and easy to clear so the same stamp could be used over and over again.
Anyway, the oldest known postcard called Penny Penates was sold on auction to a collector from Latvia for almost 50 thousand dollars which very likely makes it the most expensive postcard in the world too.
We already mentioned the early years of postcards in the USA. In 1872 the government accepted the rules and in 1873 started producing postal cards. Private production was still allowed but the mailing of postcards (the government called their product postal card) was more expensive - two cents instead of one. The most important rule was about sides. In both cases, one was reserved for the address, the other for the message.
Only in 1898 the status of postal cards and postcards was equalized which meant the cost of sending each was the same. One side was still reserved for address only and there was a small sign explicitly stating that. More and more postcards had pictures on the other side which meant there was no place for a message or a small amount of space in the image was reserved for a few words only.
Other postal services in the world applied the same standard and postcards were sent internationally in large quantities.
It was 1907 and this year is often used as the one for the beginning of the Golden Age, when a major change was accepted. The side reserved for the address was divided in half. The right side stayed reserved for the address (and postal stamp), but the left was intended for the message of the sender. This made a huge impact on the development of the other side where pictures became the de facto standard and there were no more limitations caused by the possibility of writing.
Full-color pictures became a magnet for artists, regular users, and collectors. Technical inventions and economic reasons (scarcity of ink during World War, for instance) led to further development of picture postcards. Cards with white borders became fashionable and in the years before the Second World War were marked with ragged borders making paper look like linen.
The last major change so far was the introduction of photochrom technology by which a faithful copy of any image, drawn, painted, or photographed can be used for the picture side of a postcard. Millions of collectors were organized into thousands of clubs all over the world but soon lost their interest and today postcards are mainly used for greetings on special occasions, like personal milestones, holidays, or sending best wishes from vacations.
Themed Picture Postcards
There are numerous themes used for picture postcards and our site is especially interested in holidays. We'll present a few examples of holiday-related cards by eminent artists who managed to sell millions of their works in the best years of the industry. There will also be links to more examples of the finest works for selected themes.
Enjoy your scrolling!
The beginning of a new calendar year is like a birthday but on this day everybody celebrates. Well, a lot of people celebrate on other dates because there is more than one calendar standard in the world. Yet almost everybody acknowledges the importance of the first day in January and these cards are still being widely printed and used.
Let's see how vintage artists presented their views on the topic.
Everybody thinks of love on February, 14th, even if he or she doesn't admit it. Valentine's Picture Postcards or simply Valentines are not necessarily sent to your lover. Many used them to metaphorically send a kiss and a hug to people who are dear to their hearts in other ways too.
And, of course, an anonymous Valentine's Card can serve as a first step to informing somebody you are interested in him or her.
The most popular Irish saint became a global phenomenon more than a century ago. St. Patrick's Day is celebrated all over the world and these lovely vintage greeting cards are a reminder of how much more than drinking can this holiday offer. No matter what, for many people this holiday is the most important in March.
Easter, the major holiday for Christians, is another great occasion to send a good wish or two to your beloved family members and other friends. Typical elements like eggs, chickens, or bunnies are still popular today.
Memorial Day / Independence Day
These are two different holidays but often the same design is used for both occasions. This kind of postcard is typical of the USA with dominant white, red, and blue colors (the USA flag).
31 October is probably the most popular among kids. Witches and jack-o'-lanterns are classic elements of Halloween picture postcards. Such postcards are one of the most in-demand with many collectors specializing in collecting Halloween-themed cards only.
Thanksgiving is a family holiday where everything is about sharing. A colorful history of pilgrims and their interaction with native Americans is also an attractive way to introduce children to the early years of settlers in the colonies.
Turkeys are, of course, dominating in Thanksgiving postcards.
Christmas postcards are the most used holiday-themed cards today. Christmas is a big deal all over the world, even in countries where Christianity is not so widely present. It also became a great business with sales of decorations, presents, and other stuff in billions of dollars.
Other types of vintage postcards
These postcards differ from standard by having a raised surface. Their production is more expensive due to material usage and also technically more demanding.
A lot of people love to look at (and collect) picture postcards with landscapes showing the look of areas in not-so-distant past. Old postcards show cities, countryside, folkloric elements, ... Some are reproductions of paintings or illustrations, while others rely on photographs. Both groups can serve as important documents of the old times.
Topographical postcards, for instance, use their picture sides for views and scenes.
The abbreviation stands for Real Photo Picture Postcards. They should not be confused with postcards with reproductions of photographs. The difference is simple: RP cards are real photos made of negatives typically in small batches by an individual like a photographer or a small organization like a local store. RPs are not printed as similar cards with reproductions of photos which makes them rare and very collectible
There are many other types of vintage picture postcards in the market, like folded cards, reward cards, cards of different sizes, composites (several postcards have to be put together to compose a complete picture) ... Numerous postcards were also printed and sold in series what created dozens of niches for collectors of vintage cards.