United States Postcards

Figure 1.--America in the early 20th century had only a small post card industry. Many of the cards used in America wee imported, especially from Germany. The imported cards were often of a higher quality than American cards. This printed and hand colored card was mailed in America during 1915. Notice the quality of the color coloring and the Europen look of the children's clothes and building, despite the English-language caption. Put your cursor on the image to see the back.

It is interesting to note that America at this time also had a postcard industry. Post cards began to appear in large numbers during the early 1890s. Imports, especilly imports from Germany, were very important in America--at least until World War I (1914-18). Beautifully dressed children, however, were never as popular on American postcards as on English and French postcards. Actually beginning in the 1900s and continuing in the 1920s, Americans could choose to have their photographs developed with a postcard back. This allowed the photos to be mailed to family and relatives like postcards. Large numbers of these cards exist. In France, however, people appeared to have preferred to purchase ready made postcards like this one. A discerning collector can date many post cards even if they have not been postally used.


Postcards for a long time were were called penny potcards because the postage was a penny (1 cent). The potage over time is a little complicated, but important because it can help date cards. A postcard specialist tells us, "The domestic post card was authorized to be mailed at the same rate as government postal cards on July 1, 1898. Post cards were of course available well before 1898, but previously they were charged the higher letter rate, not a flat 2. This 1898 1 card rate continued until November 2, 1917 (the "war tax" increase) when the rate was effectively increased to 2. On July 1, 1919, the rate was reduced back to 1. However on April 15, 1925, the "postal" card rate stayed 1 and the "post" card rate increased to 2. This condition continued until July 10, 1928, when both "postal" and "post" card were again charged 1. On January 2, 1952, the card rate went to 2 and has been increasing every since (except as you note from September 14, 1975 to December 31, 1975 when the rate actually decreased from 8 to 7). Most of the card rates (domestic including charges for pre-sorting and automation, and also international rates) are tabulated in the United Postal Stationery Society's 2005 United States Postal Card Catalog." [Bussey]


HBC does not yet have details about the U.S. postcard industry. Many early cards were apparently imported from Germany. We do not know how successful French nd English printers were, both countris had large post card industries. The German cards seem to have bter color prining technology. Here Germany's advanced chemical industry gave the entrpeneurs in many industrues a considerable advantage. The German cards are relatively easy to identify because they were labeled "Printed in Saxony" or some other German state. Some said "Printed" or "Mde" in Germany". As far as we can tell, excepted for prining English greetings and Ennglish backs, the German companies made not effort to create images especially designed for the American market. They seen to have just used cards they created for the German market. The scenes are recognizably German as is the clothing the children are depicted wearing. This does not seem to have affected their popularity on the Ameican market.

World War I (1914-18)

The U.S. post card industry was given a strong impetus when World War I broke out in Europe in 1914. The Royal Navy blockaded Germany when the War broke out (August 1914). It then became very difficult for Germany to export goods like the postcard here (figure 1). They also had difficulty importing raw materials. This was eventually to have a major impact on the War. Even before America entered the War in 1917, trade with Germany had been significantly curtailed. American postcard companies rapidly expanded their operations. After the War ended (1918), German companies were never avle to recover the market they once dominated.


Beautifully dressed children, however, were never as popular on American postcards as on English and French postcards. Actually beginning in the 1900s and continuing in the 1920s, Americans could choose to have their photographs developed with a postcard back. This allowed the photos to be mailed to family and relatives like postcards. Large numbers of these cards exist. In France, however, people appeared to have preferred to purchase ready made postcards.


Collecting old postcards was once a popular hobby. While this is less true tday, they are still popular. The large numbers prinyed means that the cost of these cards is still modest, meaning that almost anyone can aford to collect them.

Historical Significance

The humble penny postcard is an item of today that is of some historical importance. Picture postcards were made of landscapes and city scapes as well as important buildings, streets, and memorials accross the country. The image of late 19th cetury, but more early 20th cebntury America was captured on the penny postcard. Various scenes of life were preserved in color from virtually every city, town, and village across America. The souvenir post card preserved the outward appearance of American towns and cities. The snapshot photographically printed as postcards preserved the more personal lives of Americans. And then were the the greeting postcards which often had children and adults in fancy dress as many wanted to imageine themselves dressing or how thaey would have liked to dress their children.


The postcard fad in America began in the big cities. Postcards began to appear in the cities such as New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Washington, D. C., where tourists purchased picture postal cards to mail back home to friends and relatives. Popular exhibitions beginning in the 1890s all had postcards printed. Tourists like to send greetings and to impress the folks back hime. Others bought the cards to put in their personal albums when they returned. Such albumns were a mainstay of the Victoroan and Edwardian home and still popular in America as late as the 1950s. Not everyone was a photographer, especially in the 1890s before the Kodak Brownie so these cards were a colorful addition to the family albumns. Soon the post card fad spread from the big cities to smaller towns and villages. A basic chronology of postcards in America can be very useful in dating the cards. The dating of the postcard for years or eras of issue can be accurately determined if the card is studied for identity points. Research has already been done by earlier historians and guidelines have been put into place. Of course postally used cards with post marks are the easiest to date, but even without post marks dates can often be assigned. Post card historians have identified seven eras for the postcard industry and each one has distinguishing points to help establish its respective identity. The following may help determine the era of any card in question.

Initial Era (1893-98)

The American post card era began when picture postcards were placed on sale by vendors and exhibitors at the Colombian Exposition in Chicago, May 1893. These were very popular and proved to be a great success. The profitable and lasting future of the postcard was greatly enhanced. The cards from this era are relatively scarce. They can be identified by combinations of the following:

Postcards were used in America during the late-19th century, but were not very common. Post cards in America prior to 1898 were sent at the same rate as a letter. Post cards were not commonly avaialble even in large cities. Many of the ones that were available were European imports. Some were homemade. Most picture cards during this period were printed on the backs of the "postal cards" issued by the Post Office. Here the exposition cards are the most notable, especially Columbian Exposition Cards (1893). The Exhibition was the turning point for pstcards in America. The first picture postcard was created to advertise the Exhibition.

Private mailing card era (1898-1901)

Post cards in the 1890s existed, but today are relatively scarse compared to the flood of cards after the turn of the 20th century. This is in large part due to Congress which passed a bill on May 19, 1898. The new law allowed for privately printed cards to be mailed at the same rate as "postal cards" that the Post Office had been printing. The going rate at the time was one penny. (Explaining the origin of the term "penny post" card.) The cards had to be the same general size and weight as the Post Office postal cards. This gave private printers permission to print and sell postcards. These cards were at first all issued with the inscription "Private Mailing Card," and today they are referred to as PMCs by collectors. Some were inscribed rather formally "Authorized by an Act of Congress May 19, 1898". It is thus easy to identify these early PMCs because of the inscriptions. It may be noted that many of the early pioneer views printed in the 1890s were reprinted as PMCs.

Undivided back era (1901-1907)

The Government had a major impact on the postcard industry. The cards were normally mailed through the U.S. Post Office. Thus postal regulations had a major impact on the industry. The Post Office on December 24, 1901, gave permission for use of the wording "Post Card" to be imprinted on the backs of privately printed cards. All cards during this era had undivided backs of privately printed cards and only the address was to appear on the back. The message, therefore, had to be written on the front (picture side) of the card. For this reason, there is writing on the face of many cards. As a result, collectors often call PMCs and the type of post cards that came just after withoutthe PMC inscription as "undivided backs". There was no vertical dividing lines on the backs of these cards. The Post Office was very strict. So as not to cinfuse mail sorters, only the address the card was to be sent to was allowed. Postal regulations did not pemit the return address or message written on the back.

Divided back era (1907-1918)

This divided-back era began on March 1, 1907. The divided back made it possible for both the address and the message to be on the back of the card. This prevented the face of the card from being written on and proved to be a great boon for collectors. Normally the view colors or images filled the entire card with no white border. The primary publisher was AZO. AZO and other companies put stamp boxes on the back of the cards. The can be used to date the cards. People could have their family snapshots printed with post card backs. Studios also printed portraits wth postcard backs. As Countries like England, France, and Germany had more advanced postcard industries, many cards were imported. Thus many of the cards used in America during this period were imported. British and Germans cards were especially popular in America and were usually the highest quality cards. The German made card here is a good example (figure 1). Rafael Tuck and Sons was especially well known and began exporting postcards to the United States beginning in 1899. With the onset of World War I (1914-18), German cards were no longer available in America because of the British naval blockade. British cards also decreased in availability as Britain focused its economy on the War. This disription gave a boost to domestic American companies. Divided back cards were the standard in the United States until the "white border" cards appeared.

White border era (1915/16-1930)

The White Border era seems to have brought an end to the postcard craze era. Post card collecting, in part because of the War, declined in popularity. The high quality European cards were no lionger available. America became a more serious place, especially after 1917 when the country entered the War. There were fewer family vacations and this fewer cards needed to send home. The golden age ended as imports from Germany ceased and publishers in the U.S. began printing postcards to try to fill the void. The cards were very poor quality and many were reprints of earlier Divided Back Era cards. These are easily distinguished by the white border around the pictured area. They were especially common in the 1920s. With the passing of the golden era of post card collecting, the use of the posrcard became much like it is today. Postcards became common for vacations, but were no longer a fad as was the case in the 1900s and 10s. These were mostly commercial cards, but we see some studio portraits with white border images and postcard backs. The stamp boxes are still useful in dating them.

Linnen era (1930-1945)

Improvements in America printing technology brought improved card quality. Publishers began using a linen-like paper containing a high rag content but used very cheap inks in most instances. Until recently, collectors considered these cards very cheap. Now they are very popular with collectors of roadside America, Blacks, Comics, and Advertising. Views are also becoming more popular as collectors realize that this era too is a part of out history, and these cards help to illustrate the changes in the geographic structure of America.

Photochrome era (1939 to present day)

"Modern Chromes," as the postcard fraternity now calls them, were first introduced in 1939. Publishers, such as Mike Roberts, Dexter Press, Curt Teich, and Plastichrome, began producing cards that had very beautiful chrome colors and were very appealing to collectors. The growth of this group has been spectacular in recent years, so much so that there are now many postcard dealers who specialize only in chromes. These were commercial cards, not the private snap sots and stufio portraits published with photographic backs.

Real photo/personal postcards (1900 to present day)

Real Photo postcards were in use as early as 1900. They were normally personal snapshots printed with a postcard mailing back. It is sometimes very hard to date a card unless it has been postally used or dated by the photographer. The stamp box can often be used to date cards. The box will usually show the process by which it was printed---AZO, EKC, KODAK, VELOX, and KRUXO are some of the principal ones. Careful study of photo cards is essential to make sure they have not been reproduced.

Format Masks

We note some other postcard formats that have chronological trends. We note that some postcards had geometric masks in the early-20th century. The most common mask seems to have been oval shapes. These were not studio portraits, although we also see these geomeric masks in studio portraits as well. We have just begun to assess this trend. A good example of an oval mask is two unidentified siblings in 1917.


Bussey, Lewsis. President of the United Postal Stationery Society. February 29, 2008.


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Created: October 13, 2000
Last updated: 10:16 AM 3/17/2017