The History of Postcards

When the cost to mail a postcard, in the U.S., went up to two cents, postcard mailings plummeted

To send a standard-size postcard today will cost you forty cents. The earliest known picture postcard was a hand-painted design on a card created by the writer Theodore Hook. The postage was a penny and it is believed he mailed it to himself in 1840.

This card was sold in 2002 to collector Eugene Gomberg, of Riga, Latvia, in a telephone bid at the London Stamp Exchange auction for $41,493.76. It is a hand-colored card that caricatures the postal service by showing post office “scribes” sitting around an enormous inkwell. Until this card was found in 2001 it had been thought the postcard was invented in Austria, Germany, or the United States in the 1860s.

The card and the stamp, the only Penny Black stamp ever found on a postcard, was authenticated by the British Philatelic Association[1]. The postcard made its way to the United States in 1848, with the sending of a card depicting printed advertising. It was a handmade card, like its British predecessor. Postcards began being commercially produced in the United States in 1861.

The first producer of them was John P. Charlton in Philadelphia, who obtained a patent on his postcard design. Charlton later sold the rights to his patent to Hyman Lipman. Lipman sold postcards with decorated borders, but no images, and labeled them “Lipman’s postal card.”

The British post office began issuing postcards without images in 1870, and included a stamp in the design, so buying additional postage was not necessary. The price of the stamp was built into the cost of the postcard. The first postcard sold with a commercially printed image on it was made in France in 1870, by Leon Besnardeau at Camp Conlie.

In 1871, the first picture postcard that was used as a souvenir (and not as a letter home from soldiers) was sent from Vienna, Austria. These new picture postcards, with images of all kinds of things, became more popular in Europe and the United States in the 1880s.

The first American picture postcard was designed in 1873 by the Morgan Envelope Factory, located in Springfield, Massachusetts. The first images on these picture postcards were of the Interstate Industrial Exposition of Chicago.

Later that same year, pre-stamped postcards, called “penny postcards” were introduced to the market by U.S. Post Master John Creswell. The first postcard sent as a souvenir in the United States was sent in 1893, with images on it to advertise the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Until 1907, any postcard made by any person or company had to be made so that the purchaser could only write on the front of the card. The address had to go on the back of the card. In 1907, the rule was changed to allow a divided back of the card, where both writing and an address could go.

With multiple daily pickups and deliveries (up to 12 times per day in large cities!), postcards were effectively the text messages of their time. It was cheap and convenient to send them, and postcard-obsession reached its peak in the Edwardian era with billions of them being sent every year.

In 1902, the British Post Office allowed messages to be written on one half of the side normally reserved for the address, paving the way for the divided back era of postcards. This left the reverse side of the card free to be completely filled with an image.

In 1910, the invention of high-speed photo printers allowed real-photo postcards to be mass-produced. Emphasis on their production would shift away from unique handmade cards to large-scale commercial printing. Real-photos postcards would start losing their popularity by the 1930s as other sources of photo imagery became more readily available. In 1925, the postage for postcards in the United States is raised to two cents. It dramatically cuts down on their use but the rate is repealed in 1928 due to its unpopularity.

Curt Teich begins printing postcards on the linen-textured stock in 1931, which allows them to be printed with brighter dye-based inks on high-speed presses. Many other publishers follow his lead and soon these brightly colored, highly retouched linen cards came to dominate the American market.

In 1938, Kodachrome, the first practical color transparency film was refined from the version first released two years earlier. Color separation could now be easily made to reproduce natural color, and modern photo chrome (Chrome) cards begin to be published a year later.

In 1952, the age of the Penny Postcard reached its end as the mailing rate was raised to two cents once again. This time the price would continually go up. By 1956, an easy-to-use metal litho-plate was developed, offset printing began to replace line block (letterpress) as the dominant method of printing postcards.

The early dull grainy appearance of phytochromes improved to the point where they replaced linens and monopolized postcard production. By 1995, postcard mailing has declined dramatically.

  1. The British Philatelic Association is an association of stamp dealers best known for the work of BPA Expertising Limited, a business that provides opinions on the genuineness or otherwise of philatelic items submitted to them. During the Second World War, it operated a “Philatelic Import and Export Control” scheme in connection with controls on capital flows imposed by the British Government to protect the British economy.

Postcard History: A Magazine for the Postcard Collector
Vintage American
Visit The Past
Prater Collectibles
Postcard Inspirations
History of postcards
Smithsonian Institution Archives

Author: Doyle

I was born in Atlanta, moved to Alpharetta at 4, lived there for 53 years and moved to Decatur in 2016. I've worked at such places as Richway, North Fulton Medical Center, Management Science America (Computer Tech/Project Manager) and Stacy's Compounding Pharmacy (Pharmacy Tech).

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