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The History of the Postcard

Though they have fallen out of favor in the electronic age, postcards were a popular form of communication in the United States for more than a hundred years. Printing technology and consumer preferences drove the most significant postcard changes over the years. In addition, Congress exerted regulatory control over postcards, guiding their development in sometimes surprising ways. Over the years, postcard development has been divided into a handful of distinct periods. Today, deltiologists (postcard collectors) use these periods' defining characteristics to determine the age and value of their collections.

Pre-Postcard Period: 1848-70

Prior to the Civil War, postcards were rarely used in the United States. Instead, many Americans sent cards through the mail enclosed in stamped envelopes. In some cases, so-called "picture envelopes" were used. These specially printed envelopes depicted scenes of local interest and may have been the inspiration for modern postcards. John P. Charlton copyrighted the first postcard in 1861, shortly after Congress began permitting cards to be directly sent in the mail without envelopes.


Pioneer Period: 1870-98

The first government-issued postcards appeared in 1872. Notably, these Congress-approved postcards undercut the postage price of privately produced cards. Government postcards could be mailed for one cent, while private cards cost two cents to mail. In addition, only government-produced cards could be marketed as "postal cards." Hymen L. Lipman, who now owned the copyright on Charlton's design, began manufacturing postcards in a variety of colors. Lipman had sold the patent for the first pencil with an embedded eraser, and he used that capital to establish himself as a leader in the stationery market.


Private Mailing Card Period: 1898-1901

The postcard marketplace became more equitable in the 1890s when Congress lowered the cost to mail private cards. The cost to send a postcard, whether printed by the government or a private company, was now one cent. Government-produced cards were still the only ones labeled "postal cards," though. The same legislation established the term "private mailing card" to differentiate private cards from government cards. Congress implemented tight controls over the appearance of images and messages on the front of the card, ostensibly to make mail sorting more efficient.


"Post Card" Period: 1901-07

By the end of 1901, restrictions on private cards were relaxed once again. All cards could now be referred to as "post cards" instead of "private mailing cards." Advancing printing technology made postcard images higher in quality and more readily available, leading most postcards to incorporate images on the front. This left the back of the card for the address. This period of postcard history is known as the Undivided Back Period: The front of the card would bear a printed image as well as the written message, and the back would be used only to address the card for mailing.


Divided-Back Period: 1907-15

The Divided-Back Period began with yet another congressional change to postcard law. The 1907 revision indicated that messages could be included on the address side of a postcard, as long as the right side was left for the address. While the change was prompted by an international standards body (the Universal Postal Union Congress), the United States quickly adopted the idea. Technology kept pushing postcard development forward as well. The Kodak postcard camera enabled photographers to snap a photo and imprint a postcard negative. The customized negative was the right size for a divided-back postcard and even reserved a spot for postage. Around the same time, a salesman in Michigan invented the revolving postcard rack, allowing customers to quickly review dozens of postcards. Postcard popularity soared as these changes made them more accessible and useful.


White-Border Period: 1915-30

The advent of World War I stifled postcard development, as printers in Germany could no longer market their products in the United States. American printers stepped up to meet the demand for postcards, but print quality did not measure up to the previous German products. The relatively low-quality postcards and the country's focus on the war diminished interest in postcards. The so-called Golden Age of Postcards came to an end as demand fell. This era is known as the White-Border Period because of the white borders American manufacturers added to postcards. The white border meant less printing on the card, which saved a bit of money on ink. The border also made postcards more closely resemble photographs of the time. Some clever postcard-senders took advantage of the borders by writing messages on them.


Linen Period: 1930-45

Technology came to the rescue in the 1930s, as new transfer methods revitalized interest in postcards and kicked off the Linen Period. New cards could be printed to resemble linen rather than paper, giving them an upscale appearance. A pioneer of this process was Curt Teich & Co., which soon became a leader in postcard production. Their new printing processes enabled quicker printing, keeping costs down. In addition, more intense colors could be added to the postcards, increasing their visual appeal. Interestingly, some manufacturers chose to retain the white border that many consumers had grown accustomed to. Others, however, chose to print to the edges of their cards.


Photochrom Period: 1945-Present

Linen postcards gave way to photochrom postcards around the time of World War II. Photochrom (also known as Fotochrom or Photochrome) enabled printers to directly transfer photographic negatives onto printing plates. Colored gels were used to produce a sharp, colorful photo. Consumers snapped up these new postcards for sending messages and for preserving as keepsakes. Postcards soared in popularity, despite a temporary dip in production volumes during the war. Photochrom postcards remained the standard for decades to come. By the 1990s, however, postcards fell out of fashion. Email and other forms of electronic communication made short messages by postal service nearly obsolete, though high-quality postcards depicting landmarks and famous locations are still popular as souvenirs and among collectors.


Further Reading

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