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A Brief History of Postcards
First of all, let’s define what a postcard is. A postcard, or postcard, is a piece of paper, slightly thicker than regular writing paper, either rectangular or square in shape and intended for writing and mailing without an envelope. The study and collecting of postcards are termed deltiology.
Looking at the history of postcards, you’ll find that cards inscribed with messages have been sporadically created and posted by individuals almost since the creation of the first postal services.
As the postcard evolved, the earliest known picture postcard was a hand-painted design on a card and posted in London to the writer Theodore Hook in 1840. This early picture postcard bore a penny black stamp. It might have been meant as a joke because the picture on it just happened to be a caricature of workers in the post office.
Let’s fast forward to the US where up until 1861 there was legally no such thing as a postcard. People of that time didn’t have envelopes like we do today but rather the paper they wrote on itself became the envelope.
According to the early US postal regulations of the time, there was officially no such thing as a ‘postcard’ as we know it today. And anybody who created such a device and attempted to ‘post’ it would have a 50/50 chance at best of it being delivered.
Things took a change for the better on February 27, 1861, when the 36th US Congress passed “An Act establishing certain Post Routes.” Section 13 of that Act allowed the mailing of postcards. The section reads:
“And be it further enacted, That cards, blank or printed, blanks in packages weighing a minimum of eight ounces, and seeds or cuttings, in packages not exceeding eight ounces in weight, shall also be deemed mailable matter, and charged with postage at the rate of one cent an ounce, or fraction of an ounce, to any place in the United States under fifteen hundred miles, and at the rate of two cents an ounce or fraction of an ounce, over fifteen hundred miles, to be prepaid by postage stamps.”
And that’s how postcards got started in America.
There were mixed feelings about this new form of correspondence. Many people questioned whether the government could make any money on them and didn’t think the contents could be kept private. However, with the Confederate attack on April 12 of that year and the start of the American Civil War, the subject of postcards became a forgotten issue.
Historic Lipman’s Postal Card
The first commercially produced card was actually created in 1861 by John P. Charlton of Philadelphia, who patented and produced the first ‘postal card’. Later that year he sold the rights to H. L. Lipman, whose postcards, complete with a decorated border, were labeled “Lipman’s postcard .” These cards had no images.
1861 was an important year in the evolution of postcards because it opened up a whole new industry to private enterprise. The government up to that time the government officials had a monopoly on producing postcards.
Just 9 years later the copyright was transferred to H. L. Lipman of Philadelphia and the earliest postmark found on a “Lipman’s Postal Card” is from October 25, 1870.
At that time the United States government didn’t allow private companies to call their cards “postcards”. They had to be called “souvenir cards” and labeled “Private Mailing Cards”. This regulation was rescinded on December 24, 1901, and after that time it was OK for private companies to use the word “postcard”.
Early postcards were not allowed to have a divided back and correspondents could only write on the front of the postcard. This was referred to as the “undivided back” era of postcards. On March 1, 1907, the Post Office allowed private citizens to write down on the address side of a postcard. It was on this date that postcards were allowed to possess a “divided back”.
On these cards the rear is split into two sections, the left section getting used for the message and therefore the right for the address. With this type of card began the Golden Age of American postcards, which lasted until 1915, when World War I blocked the import of the fine German-printed cards which had the largest share of the market.
The “white border” era, named thus because they had ‘white borders’ to make printing easier, lasted from about 1916 to 1930. The “linen card” era lasted from about 1931 to the first 1950s when cards were primarily printed on papers with a textured surface almost like linen cloth.
In America, the final major change in postcard design came with the new postcard regulations of March 1, 1907, which allowed the back of postcards to be divided down the justify. The right side of the rear was now for the address and postage and therefore the left side was for the private message that wont to be written on the front of the card.
Because this is often essentially an equivalent basic design that’s still in use today for postcards, March 1, 1907, is taken into account the birthday of the fashionable postcard. However, printers eager to economize continued using their old designs for a time. So it is common to see postcards that were made after 1907 that still have some white space on the front for writing or to see the undivided backs with a line simply drawn down the middle.