The world’s first documented postcard is from 1840, sent to a writer by the name of Theodore Hooke in London. It bore the newly debuted black penny stamp and is the cause of some chagrin. It is likely to have been sent by Theodore himself to himself as a joke on the postal service as the caricture on front parodies the postal workers.
There are two possible origins of the first commercially printed postcard. The Smithsonian cites Germany with having the first idea of a government issued postcard, proposed by Dr. Heinrich Von Stephan and eventually published in 1870. However, Austria beat Germany to the punch when it came to the actual printing and issued theirs one year prior.
The Metropolitan Postcard Club of New York attributes the first commercially printed postcard in 1861 to John P. Charlton of Philadelphia, who patented it and then sold the patent to Hymen Lipman. Lipman went on to create ‘Lipman’s postal card’.
Until this point in history, all postcards had postage printed on them. The first postcard to which a stamp had to be affixed was in Austria in 1869.
This period is referred to by collectors as the Pre-Postcard Era.
The era to follow the Pre-Postcard Era is coined the Pioneer Era and runs from 1870-1898. During this time, the first picture postcard, which was used as a souvenir, made its appearance. It was printed in 1870, in France, by Leon Besnardeau during the Franco-Prussian war. Vienna followed suit soon after, sending its first postcard souvenir in 1871.
The United States was slow to catch the souvenir card trend, printing the first in 1893 for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Around this time, the government held the rights to print all postcards and any privately published cards were to be referred to as ‘souvenir cards’. During this era, postcards did not feature the divided back common on today’s postcards, but instead had their messages written on the front of the card along with the image.
PRIVATE MAILING CARDS
Because the government had the rights to all issued postcards, in 1898 congress moved that any privately printed cards would include the words “Private Mailing Card” on it and only require a one cent stamp. For this reason, the time period from 1898- 1901 is called the Private Mailing Card Era.
UNDIVIDED BACK CARDS
In 1901, government began printing the words ‘Post Card’ on the back of postcards with space underneath for the address of the recipient. This ushered in the Undivided Back Era until 1907, when a divided back was allowed in the United States.
Other countries printed divided back cards much sooner than the United States with England in 1902, France two years later, and Germany in 1905.
DIVIDED BACK CARDS
What some call the “Golden Age” of postcards began with the development of the divided back card in the US in 1907. No longer did writing have to share space with the card’s design, but instead two columns on the back of the postcard were designed to accommodate the address of the recipient on one side and the written message from the sender on the other. This was a significant improvement as the entire front side of the postcard was able to be used for the card’s design. This improvement, coupled with advancing technology that allowed black and white photographs to be printed on the postcards, caused postcard collecting to become a widespread trend.
WHITE BORDER CARDS
Most of the publishing facilities in both England and Germany were destroyed during World War I. This allowed for a huge boom in production for the United States and some increased printing in France and Belgium. Cards printed during this period between 1915 and 1930 bore a distinct white margin around the border of the postcard making it easy for collectors to identify the era in which these cards were issued.
During this era, France and Belgium had a short lived postcard design called hand tinted postcards which were beautifully hand painted by women artisans. It was short lived because the paint they were using to tint the cards contained lead and caused illness in the painters.
The margin of white border around postcards shrunk until designs were printed all the way to the edges of the cards during what collectors call the Linen Card Era. In 1930, printers began to print postcards on linen or cloth-like paper with bold colors.
Linen Cards began to taper off in production around 1939 due to the new ability to produce high quality, color photographs on postcards.
Color photo postcards became popular in 1939 bringing a new (and our current) era of postcard design to the world. Produced by the Union Oil Company and sold in service stations across the United States, photochrome completely replaced black and white photocards and linen cards in 1945.
Photochrome cards are still in use today as people continue to use postcards to document travels, send a quick friendly greeting and purchase an inexpensive souvenir to remember important events. Postcard collecting is also quite common, with black and white ‘real photo’ postcards of local places and city scenes of high value due to their historical importance. Postcards offer a unique glimpse into a moment of time forever suspended in print.