Antique Postcards

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A Short History of the Postcard

French can-can dancers. 1900s postcard.

Until the emergence of email and Instagram, postcards were for over a hundred years the main way that people communicated using pictures and text.  The idea, however, took a little while to catch on.  The first “post cards” were just as their name implies, cards of thick paper that a person could send in the post without the need of an envelope. The address could be written on one side and the message on the other.  They had no pictures. 

The first proposal for such an “open post sheet” was by a Prussian postal official in 1865. Dr. Heinrich Von Stephan’s idea was rejected by his superiors, however, on the grounds that no one, it was thought, would be willing to compromise their privacy by sending an “open” message through the postal system.

However, just a few years later such privacy considerations fell away when during the Franco-Prussian war, the North German Federation decided to offer its soldiers the postcard as a cheap and efficient means by which they might communicate with their families.  Their viability had been proven the previous year by the Austro-Hungarian Empire whose postal service had sold over 3 million post cards in the first 3 months of their issuance. Antique postcards were born!

By the 1870s countries all over Europe, North America, and even Japan began issuing postcards, and millions were being sent across the globe annually. Most of these early postcards were still without pictures. The man credited with first adding pictures to postcards was German printer and bookseller by the name of August Schwartz.  As early as 1870 Schwartz was producing and selling postcards with the picture of a man and cannon on one side presaging the Franco-Prussian war.  Within in a few years picture postcards were commonplace throughout Europe and the Americas.

Antique French postcards are usually the most wanted by collectors. They will like to know that French law officially accepted postcards in 1872. They launched two designs on sale for 10 and 15 cents. Three years later, the restrictions that limited antique French postcards were relaxed, and a great diversity of designs arrived on the market.

In the beginning, antique French postcards used engravings, but soon Dominique Piazza started to send photographs of Marseille to an exiled friend. Of course, publishers took the idea, and the postcards as we know them now were born.

A Picture Post Card For Every Occasion 

Early pictures on postcards usually commemorated events or served as commercial advertisements. The Eiffel Tower, completed in 1889 and showcased at the Paris World Fair in the same year, was depicted in a variety of ways on antique French postcards and were some of the first to be collected specifically as commemorative souvenirs.

In Britain and the United States postcards were sent out by companies seeking to advertise their services.  The lowering of the postage rate in the United States for postage cards from 2 cents to only 1 helped usher in a “golden era” of postcard correspondence, there from 1890 to roughly the beginning of WWI.  The 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, the so-called “Columbian Exposition” celebrating the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ first voyage to the New World, was another event memorialized in picture postcards. 

Pictures of cities and famous landmarks also became popular themes for postcards in the later 19th century.  The tradition of sending a postcard back to friends and family while on a trip abroad started in this era.  Before the widespread use of the camera, such postcards were really the only way that people could share pictures of where they had been with those back home. 

Postcards with holiday themes also became quickly popular and were the precursor to the gift card era that would follow.  Christmas themed postcards were especially popular in Europe and America.  The artistry of the pictures on postcards varied considerably. 

On the lower end were postcards that simply had a bit of floral-patterned decoration on them while on the higher end there were limited edition prints made by skilled artists as an easy way to earn some money and advertise their work. Some of the most popular themes for these artists to depict on postcards aside from landscapes were women and children. Whether they were portraits of actual women and children or simply idealized depictions 19th century postcards, the Victorian period loved sending themselves the contemporary equivalent of the “selfie.”

At the turn of the century, women themselves started to use these postcards to advocate for themselves greater political rights.  In 1910 the National American Women’s Suffrage Association started a “postcard” campaign selling picture postcards with women and children on them to raise funds and spread their message that a woman was not just a pretty face, but, in the words of one postcard, someone who wanted “to speak for myself at the polls.” 

Postcard Printing: From Lithograph to Photocrome

The manner in which all of these postcards were printed underwent a significant evolution in the first 50 years of their existence.  Most of the earliest postcard pictures were printed using the lithograph method in which images were engraved onto metal plates which, very simply, were used as “stamps” to mass produce the image on paper.

The Art Nouveau movement around the turn of the 20th century embraced postcards wholeheartedly.  The movement’s combination of modern lines with Renaissance floral themed depictions of women was particularly popular in French postcards. By the turn of the 20th century, off-set printing had been invented which was faster and cheaper than traditional lithography. 

Another method of printing developed in the early 20th century, the linen print. It produced postcards with bright, vivid colours and a distinctive “cloth” like texture. As photographic cameras became more widespread in the second half of the 19th century, printing was developed to mass produce high quality prints on postcards.  As early as 1903 the Kodak company introduced the first consumer class camera with postcard-sized film which allowed private citizens to take their own photos and later develop them onto postcard-sized paper.  By 1939 photochrome printing, which produced the first “photographic” quality picture postcards, became widespread in the United States.

Collage postcards

Although paper postcards were something simple and that most could afford, advances in printing –such as embossed postcards, die-cut lace paper, golden ink, hand-painted photos, collage postcards- came to convert old postcards into true works of art.

Among all the antique collage postcards, the most complex ones even included embossed silk or embossed velvet motifs, which were then elaborately decorated by hand. This increased the price of those antique postcards and led many people to decide to create their own postcards from clippings, dried flowers, textile appliqués…

In the case of the botanical-themed antique collage postcards, three factors typical of the moment were combined:

  1. Language of flowers
  2. Souvenir/ephemera
  3. Postcards

To create a collage postcard, some flowers were taken (often in accordance with the symbolism of the Language of Flowers), which evoked a special moment or day. They adhered to the postcard and it was sent. A woman could even take some of the flowers from her headdress to create a postcard collage, or add the ones she received to her hat, or create a small corsage brooch, or boutonniere (in the case of men).

Unfortunately, not many of these old collage postcards have survived, because the bouquets of flowers and textile appliqués that they included were used to place them on clothes, hats, bags… as a love token.

Even more exceptional are the collage postcards that function as herbariums, that is, they collect natural flowers that they add to the postcard, as a memory or “souvenir”. Due to their seasonality, the flowers in this type of antique collage postcard became the testimony of a very specific time and place.

Silk postcards

Satin and velvet (both silk fabrics) are two of the most appreciated for their softness and elegance. For this reason, many manufacturers of old postcards decided to include silk postcards among their creations. Gilding, hand painting, and embossing techniques could be applied to satin and velvet to create beautiful collage postcards.

One of the most fascinating sub-types of antique collage postcards is silk postcards. These postcards are very exclusive because they use the usual industrial techniques on old postcards in textile materials such as satin and silk or cotton velvet. That means people couldn’t replicate them at home by creating a cheaper version: they could only be bought, making them more special antique ephemera.

Postcards in the Modern Age

The effects of the two world wars on postcard production, like that of almost everything else, were profound.  While the originators of the postcard in Germany had dominated the industrial production of them up until the first world war, increasingly American printing factories, particularly as their technological know-how improved, took over supply of the large North American market.  While the hay days of the postcard Golden Age were over, the postcard continued to be a popular form of communication, particularly for travellers and as commemorative souvenirs right up until the age of the internet in the 90s.    

Deltiology: Collecting Antique Postcards

Today vintage and antique postcards of the 19th and early 20th centuries are so collectable that those who do so have created an entire field of study devoted to them, called Deltiology.  Most deltiogolists, like their scientific cousins, like to specialize their collections around a certain theme, time period, or location.  Especially rare antique postcards can be worth a lot of money to such collectors.  The most expensive “antique postcard”, also thought to be the first, was an 1840 one-of-a-kind, which sold for over 31,000 pounds at a London Stamp exchange auction in 2002. However, many antique postcards can be purchased today for a reasonable price and they are a great way to explore a by-gone era. 

Many antique postcard collectors also value them as historical artifacts that can tell us a great deal about the values and artistic sensibilities of the people who created them and sent them all around the world.  

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