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Appeal of Postcard Collecting

Updated on April 20, 2012

Postcards have been printed on everything from metal, leather, wood, plastic, to silk. Collecting them is an interesting pastime enjoyed by millions worldwide for pleasure or as an investment. The technical name for the study and collection of postcards is deltiology. As far as collectables are concerned, it’s the third largest hobby in the world. The first two are coins and stamps, respectfully. Collecting baseball cards is larger only in the US.

It’s easy to see the appeal of the hobby. Just about every subject imaginable at one time or another has been featured on a postcard. Since their inception they have captured history in miniature, perhaps because of their popularity as souvenirs from places people traveled. Additionally, messages written on them give us a private glimpse into the lives of people now long gone.

Postcards, as we know them now, had a slow beginning due to postal restrictions of the day. There were lithograph prints, woodcuts and broadsides, but they had to be hand delivered. The envelope seems to be the closest link in the post card’s evolution. These early envelopes often had pictures printed on them. The subject matter ranged from comics, Valentines and music to the patriotic. Patriotic pictures on envelopes during the American Civil War became known as Patriotic Covers.

Earliest Known Picture Postcard

The first postcards in the US were privately printed and copyrighted in 1861 by J.P. Carlton. When the copyright was later transferred to H.L. Lipman they became known as Lipman Postals.These cards had no images. And finally in 1873 they were replaced by U.S. Government Postals. The earliest known picture postcard was a hand-painted humorous caricature of postal workers mailed by Theodore Hook to himself in 1840. It’s thought he created the card and sent it as a practical joke lampooning the postal service.

The first American postcards with pictures were introduced in 1873 by the Morgan Envelope Factory of Springfield, MA. Later the same year the first pre-stamped penny postcards came on the scene depicting the Interstate Industrial Exposition in Chicago, although these weren’t intended to be sold as souvenirs. The first to be sold as souvenirs in the US advertised the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago during 1893. This event did much to popularize them.

Until May 1898, the Post Office was the only entity allowed to print them. But that changed with the passage of the Private Mailing Card Act which allowed private companies to produce them. However, the US government prohibited calling them "postcards,” up until December 1901. So, during that time they were known as "souvenir cards" and had to be labeled "Private Mailing Cards.”

But, even then they couldn’t have a divided back and messages had to be written on the front. It wasn’t until March 1907 postcards with divided backs came into being. Messages were written on the left and the right side was reserved for the address. In 1908, about 680 million postcards were mailed.

Postcard enthusiasts generally classify cards according to the specific era in which they were created. They are:

· Pre-Postcard Era, 1840 - 1869

· Pioneer Era, 1870-1898

· Private Mailing Card Era, 1898-1901

· Undivided Back Era, 1901-1907

· Divided Back Era, 1907-1915

· Early Modern Era (White Border), 1916-1930

· Linen Card Era, 1930-1945

· Photochrome Era, 1939-present

These classifications can be broken down even further into subcategories which are determined by, design, materials and techniques used in their production and subject matter. As an example certain cards were made featuring specific subjects such as famous structures, trains and locations. These are usually referred to as View Cards and offer historic reference to buildings, streets and even towns which may no longer exist. And then there are:

Greeting Cards

Historical Cards

Art Cards

Photographic Cards

Of course, there is always a group that defies being classified with the ordinary. With postcards, this was a cartoon style some referred to as saucy seaside. They became very popular in Britain during the 1930s and often pushed the limits of common decency with their coarse humor. However, in the 50s the government noticed a gradual loss of morals in society and restricted their publication. But in the 60s, considered a more liberal era, they made a brief comeback and during the 80s fizzled out altogether due to poor quality. Original ones are now highly sought after.


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    • JamaGenee profile image

      Joanna McKenna 

      6 years ago from Central Oklahoma

      Fascinating! So much information here! I don't collect postcards, but do treasure several postcards from the early 1900s that have photos of family members on the front. Apparently these were produced by the studio photographer who took the photo, and were popular for awhile as a simple way to send photographs without the need for an envelope. Of course, the message, address and postmark on the back clearly identifies who was in the photo, who sent it and from where, and the date. Priceless!

      Voted up and awesome!

    • JY3502 profile imageAUTHOR

      John Young 

      6 years ago from Florence, South Carolina

      Thought I'd research a little since I have a bunch I got from my grandma when she passed in 1980.

    • Angelo52 profile image


      6 years ago from Central Florida

      This was so cool. I remember getting postcards as a kid from older family friends who went someplace on vacation. Unfortunately they are all gone, lost in time you might say. up +

    • cat on a soapbox profile image

      Catherine Tally 

      6 years ago from Los Angeles

      Thank you for a very interesting hub!


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