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Postcard Collecting 101

Updated on April 9, 2014

Just about anything can be collected, but how many vintage collectibles can be acquired on a budget? Postcard collecting, known as deltiology, is growing at a rapid rate, and their affordability surely plays a large part. Keep in mind that postcards over 100 years old can routinely be purchased for under five dollars. For that price you are getting an artifact that illustrates a time very different from ours, when telephones and automobiles were new, roads weren't paved, and the primary occupation in the U.S. was farming. Anyone with an interest in history, be it on the local or national scale, is sure to get hooked, but when hunting for postcards you need to know what you're looking at. I'm going to cover the basics with you, the essentials that will help get your collection off to a good start.

Dating Postcards

You must be able to determine the approximate age of a postcard without relying on postmarks. Postcards have gone through a number of distinct changes over the years, and knowing when these changes occurred makes determining the approximate date of a given postcard relatively simple. The earliest examples of what can legitimately considered a postcard is the Private Mailing Card, which was used from 1898 to 1901. During this period the back was specifically for the address and postage only, with the front displaying a picture and/or correspondence. They are very easy to identify, as they all are marked, “Private Mailing Card, Authorized by Act of Congress on May 19, 1898″.

Front of a Private Mailing Card. The image on this example is more colorful than most.
Front of a Private Mailing Card. The image on this example is more colorful than most.
Back view of the Private Mailing Card.
Back view of the Private Mailing Card.

Following the Private Mailing Cards came what is referred to as Undivided Back Post Cards. Not an official designation, the term is purely descriptive, denoting the period between the Private Mailing Cards and the Divided Back Postcards that followed. Published between 1901 and 1907, the undivided back cards had the same restrictions as the earlier cards, with pictures and writing only allowed on the front.

An undivided back postcard, mailed in 1906. The blank area on the right allows for minimal correspondence.
An undivided back postcard, mailed in 1906. The blank area on the right allows for minimal correspondence.

Divided Back Post Cards introduced the format that postcards retain to this day, with a picture or photo on the front and the back bisected by a vertical line, message on the left, address on the right. Used between 1907 and 1914, Divided Back Post Cards were extremely popular and are plentiful today. They are also popular with collectors, as they are typically feature high quality images of a myriad of subjects. The majority of these cards were printed in Germany, as their printing was far superior to that done in the U.S., but that would change. Be aware that all postcards from 1907 forward have divided backs, and you'll have to be able to recognize the changes that followed in order to identify a card as in fact being from this era.

Divided back postcard view of Central Park, mailed in 1909.
Divided back postcard view of Central Park, mailed in 1909.

Following the Divided Back Post Cards we have what are called White Border Postcards. These cards were a consequence of a discontinuance of commerce between the U.S. and Germany as WWI began. White Border Postcards were domestically produced between 1915 and 1930, and their quality varies greatly. They often display garish, poorly aligned colors, and always have a white border. The linen cards that followed also have white borders, but they can be distinguished by their fabric-like texture.

A typical white border postcard.
A typical white border postcard.

Linen Postcards were printed from roughly 1931 to 1945, but some were still produced in the '50s. They are easily identified by their distinctive fabric-like texture. Old-school collectors don't tend to give linen cards much respect, but that's starting to change.

Linen postcard from the '40s.
Linen postcard from the '40s.

Chrome Postcards (Photochrome Postcards) were introduced in 1939 and are still produced today. The shiny photo-based color cards had completely taken over by the '60s, but have yet to be embraced by collectors.

A typical photochrome postcard.
A typical photochrome postcard.

Real Photo Postcards

Distinct from all the postcard types we've just covered, real photo postcards, or RPPCs, are actual photographs that have been mounted to a postcard backing. The production of these was enabled by Kodak, who introduced the No. 3A Folding Pocket Kodak camera in 1903. This camera was specifically designed to use postcard-size film, and similar cameras from other manufacturers soon followed. You will come across commercial mass-produced RPPCs as well as those of a more personal nature that captured family, friends and locales. The personal images tend to be more valuable, as a given image wasn't reproduced countless times. (and, all else being equal, RPPCs tend to be more valuable than non-RPPCs) Be aware that many black-and-white postcards were made that are not real photos, and if you're not sure you can look at the image with a magnifying class. A real photo postcard will exhibit smooth gradations from light to dark, otherwise you'll see transitions made up of a pattern of dots.

Real photo postcard of a Kansas school house, 1919.
Real photo postcard of a Kansas school house, 1919.

Narrowing Down Your Collection

You've learned how to determine the age of vintage postcards, but have you given thought to the focus of your collection? You can certainly build a varied collection that includes every type of postcard, but targeting a specific genre is often more satisfying, as well as more impressive when viewed as a group. You might set your sights on postcards from your hometown, divided back cards that represent your state, or you may choose to collect comic postcards produced during WWII. Large-letter postcards, those colorful linen-era cards that proclaim “Greetings from....” are extremely popular with collectors, as are holiday postcards. But be aware, depending on the holiday and the scene depicted, holiday cards can get pricey. One example is Christmas postcards that depict Santa, but the big-daddy of all holiday postcards are those that celebrate Halloween. Halloween postcards are rare, and this, combined with their nostalgic appeal, can send the value of certain examples into the hundreds. Among the most appealing of postcards are those that have captured depictions of "Roadside America". Scenes of early "auto camps", motels, hotels and restaurants will invariably bring a smile to those who grew up in the heyday of family vacations, when the whole gang would pile into the family station wagon or sedan and take to the highway. Just remember that you decide what to collect, so choose a topic that you find appealing, not what you think will accrue in value.

Halloween postcard, mailed in 1910.
Halloween postcard, mailed in 1910.

Postcard Sources

There are a number of places were you might find postcards, including garage sales, estate sales, and flea markets. Antique malls can also be a good source, as one or more dealers may specialize in postcards, but the prices could be on the high side. To get the most for your money, bulk purchases are the way to go, and I've made many such purchases on eBay. Postcard lots of 50, 100 or more can come at great savings, but you have to use caution. Those with experience in using eBay know that all online dealers are not created equal, and you need to read the description closely, study any photos, and ask any questions in time for the seller to respond before the end of the auction. Are there any duplicates? How many of the cards are chrome? How many have been mailed? These are some of the questions you'll want to ask. It's not easy to do, but above all you'll want to get a sense of the over-all condition of the lot, looking for stains, tears, etc. I use great caution when bidding on postcard lots, and I never, never, pay more than fifty cents per card.

Storage

Old postcards are fragile, so you'll want to keep them stored safely. Plastic postcard sleeves are the way to go, as they're inexpensive and allow handling without the cards being damaged by oils in the skin. I recommend the polypropylene sleeves by Ultra-Pro in the 3 11/16" x 5 3/4" size. (these fit standard sized postcards) Assuming you're going to amass a significant number of cards, I suggest keeping the sleeved cards in the corrugated cardboard boxes sold for that purchase. Besides the conventional soft sleeves, rigid sleeves are also available, but their price makes them best suited for particularly valuable examples. All these supplies are available from online sources like The 2 Buds.

I hope this article will be helpful to you, and don't hesitate to point out anything I may have omitted. Thank you for reading!

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    • Mark D Stevens profile image
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      Mark D. Stevens 3 years ago from Fort Worth, Texas

      Hey Maureen! One can't state flatly that color postcards are more valuable than black-and-white (or vice versa) as there are just too many other factors to consider, things like age, condition, subject-matter, etc. Also, many b&w cards are what are known as "real photo postcards", and they tend to bring more than others. As for cartoon postcards, I consider that a genre that has yet to be given its due. The artwork on comic postcards is often excellent (and often by known illustrators), and the humorous cards from the WWII era are particularly amusing. Enjoy your collection...it sounds wonderful!

    • profile image

      Maureen Smith 3 years ago

      From 1901 to 1909, my grandmother and grandfather worked in the Circus and traveled through Europe and America. I inherited her collection of Post Cards (several hundred) some she bought. The cards that were sent to her were written in a foreign language. So I can't decipher the country of origin. We also have some of the circus performers on cards. I am trying to put them in some order: Country, and the various sections of the US. Are color pc more valuable than black and white? How about cartoon vs. photos? It is lot of fun looking back on history. Very interesting!

    • Denise Handlon profile image

      Denise Handlon 3 years ago from North Carolina

      Enjoyed this interesting hub. I collect P C but the contemporary ones. I use them as markers of my travels. I add the date on the back to remind me of when I took the trip. Up & U/ I.

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      LisaKeating 3 years ago

      Enjoyed this article. Just bought my first vintage postcards. They were Easter cards I used for decorating in a cloche. This is an area of collecting I could really get in to.