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A brief history of the postcard

The history of postcards can be traced to the 1860s. In 1861, John P. Charlton of Philadelphia obtained a copyright on a private postal card. He transferred his copyright to H. L. Lipman of Philadelphia the same year. H. L. Lipman began to print and sell "Lipman's Postal Card." Those cards were non-pictorial cards and were used for advertising purposes. They were used until the United States issued the first governmental postal cards in 1873.1 A card had similar function as "Lipman's Poststal Card" was used in Belgium in 1864.2

Dr. Heinrich von Stephan from Germany proposed the governmental correspondence card in 1865, but the idea was rejected for fear of losing postal revenue. A few years later, Dr. Emanuel Hermann of Vienna proposed the idea again, and this time the Austrian Post Office agreed to this suggestion. Finally, the world's first government postal card was created in Austria on October 1, 1869. With imprinted stamp, the governmental postal card was called Corresponendz Karte (Correspondence card). Because of the great success of the Austrian postal card, many countries joined postal cards production in the next few years. Germany followed in 1870. The United States approved on June 8, 1872.3 Japan's first postal card was issued in December 1873.4 Chinese postal regulation for postal cards was enacted in 1896, but the first postal card was issued two years later.5 However, those governmental postal cards were not allowed to be sent internationally until the first Postal Congress in 1875.

Governmental postal cards normally were blank on the message side, where the purchaser can print or illustrate the message. The backside was limited to the address only. Although entrepreneurs could put images on governmental postal cards for advertisements, those cards were not commercially produced picture postcards as those we are used to use now, and the process costs were rather expensive. In response to the proposal of publishers, US Congress authorized privately published postcards on May 19, 1898. The act of Congress prompted the mass production of postcards that were mailed throughout the world. People became obsessed with buying, sending and collecting postcards.

These privately published postcards had the same standards and rates as government postal cards, which had a picture on the front and a space for the address, but no message on the back. More and more postal regulations were eased after 1898. For example, the word "Post Card" could be used to distinguish the private cards from governmental "Postal Card"; the back of postcards can be divided for the message and the address; and in 1907 the entire front of postcards could be used for design in the United States.6 With the purchaser absorbing the mailing expenses, postcards became a highly successful and inexpensive way to send short messages and delivered us from the toil of letter writing.

Sensing economic potential in picture postcards, more and more companies entered into the postcard business, and the types of postcards expanded. The major types of postcards are those which describe tourist attractions; they are used as souvenirs, communication, collection and sources for research.7

The golden era of postcards began about 1895,8 because of the development of printing technology, the widespread use of photography and the growing acceptance of postcards. Finally, postcards could be mass-produced at a reasonable cost.9 The Rural Free Delivery system also played an important role that made sending postcards become a way of life in the United States.10

Postcard production of the golden era seemed to start on the downward path by 1912. Due to the keen competition of postcard contrasts, postcard companies were forced to curtail expense. "Since labor constitute the greatest expense, color schemes were reformulated and fewer hues were used to reduce press time and costs per printed sheet." The resolution of postcards publishers resulted in a decline in quality and new images and subjects decreased. In turn, popular magazines and newspapers were able to include photographic images in their publications,11 postcards were no longer the primary medium to distribute photographic images to the mass. The shortages of paper and ink during World War I also resulted in the slump of postcard industry.12

Since long before the days of e-mail and faxes, postcards have delivered panoramic scenes and pithy greetings from folks far away. For many people, postcards are more than mail; they are keepsakes.


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1. See J. R. Burdick, Pioneer Post Cards (reprint, New York: nostalgia Press, n.d.), p.7.
2. See Susan Brown Nicholson, "Introuduction", The Encyclopedia of Antique Postcards, 1994, p1.
3. See Susan Brown Nicholson, "Introuduction", The Encyclopedia of Antique Postcards, 1994.
4. See Japan's Postcard History.
5. See Xing Yen, Postal Meander: Stamps and Postal History, 1984, p16.
6. According to John McClintock, head of the Postcard History Society, CNN report, 1998
7. See Christraud M. Geary and Virginia-Lee Webb, Delivering Views: Distant Cultures in Early Postcards, 1998, p.3.
8. See Howard Woody, "International Postcards", Delivering Views: Distant Cultures in Early Postcards, 1998, p13. The author suggests that the golden ear of postcard began about 1895, and came to an end by 1912. However, according to Susan Brown Nicholson's book, The Encyclopedia of Antique Postcard, "From 1898 to 1918 a phenomenon called the Golden Age of Postcards emerged."
9. See Howard Woody, "International Postcards", Delivering Views: Distant Cultures in Early Postcards, 1998, p13.
10. See Susan Brown Nicholson, The Encyclopedia of Antique Postcard, 1994, p3.
11. Also see Patricia C. Albers, "Symbols, Souvenirs, and Sentiments", Delivering Views: Distant Cultures in Early Postcards, 1998, p84.
12. See Howard Woody, "International Postcards", Delivering Views: Distant Cultures in Early Postcards, 1998.


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