Wish You Were Here! Collecting Postcards

People collect postcards for the same reason that they send them. It's an appropriate event and people marker. When you're on vacation with the family, the trip wouldn't be complete without combing a postcard rack at the souvenir shop in town. And how many times have you bought a bunch of extra postcards to keep for yourself? Many times, of course. After all, postcards are cheap. Ten postcards for $1 is not uncommon. Sometimes you can even get fifteen for $1. After a couple of decades of vacationing, you've probably accumulated quite a postcard collection. And it's a collection with a very personal touch; one that documents your life and—hopefully—some of the best times.


Postcard collecting is ideal for kids as well as adults. Get your kids started now, if they haven't already begun a collection themselves. Wherever you go, pick up a postcard or two. They are ideal learning tools. If your work takes you to different places, bring back some postcards from each stopover. Airport gift shops are full of them. You'll be pleasantly surprised at how much your youngsters will appreciate them, and how much it'll spur them on to want to know more about the people, places, and things that grace the postcards.

Of course, for many serious postcard collectors, current postcards may or may not be a part of their always-growing inventory. For sure, though, their postcards go back in time. Postcard collectors have so much to choose from. The styles through the years vary a great deal and the subject matter is limitless. Postcards have been on the scene in the United States since the middle of the nineteenth century, and they span the globe. These two historical facts open up endless avenues for postcard collectors to travel down.

If you're looking for antique postcards, you should check out www.vintagepostcards.com. They specialize in vintage postcards of all sorts. A page of postcards even showcases “postcards about postcards.” For example, “Brook's Store, Headquarters for Souvenir Post Cards” from Hoboken, New Jersey. Cost: $100.

The History of Postcards

One of the earliest American postcards on record sports a December 1848 postmark on it. From 1848 to 1893, privately issued postcards were produced, but they are very rare finds in today's postcard hobby. During this period, only the federal government was permitted to use the term post card on a piece of mail. Non-government postcards of this time were imprinted with such things as souvenir card, correspondence card, and mail card. And it cost twice as much to mail a non-government postcard in those days.

The postcard was around and available, but as a widely used mailing preference, it remained rather obscure. That is, until it received national attention and acclaim at the World's Fair in Chicago in 1893. Two types of postcards were sold at this hugely attended and exciting event celebrating the technological innovations of the day. There was the government-issued postcard, which required a one-cent stamp for mailing, and there were numerous souvenir postcards from the fair, which required a two-cent stamp.

These early postcards have been classified as part of the Pioneer Era. The pioneer postcards (1893–1898) in effect greased the skids for the many, many private issues to follow. In the last decade of the nineteenth century, the postcard maintained a rather mysterious appeal to the folks who encountered them for the first time. Sending something other than a letter—with an image on it, no less—was a dazzling alternative. But for the men and women on the cusp of the twentieth century, the postcard as a routine mailing option was a novel breakthrough. Since communication with friends and relations far away was done exclusively by letter writing, the picture postcard was big stuff—a new dimension in reaching out and touching someone.

Undivided-back postcard: (A) undivided back, (B) front side, with space for writing

Thanks to a benevolent Act of Congress, on May 19, 1898, a law was passed that permitted entrepreneurs to sell and identify postcards as mailing instruments, ushering in the Golden Age of Postcards (1898–1918). The postcards, however, had to be identified as private mailing cards (PMCs). The Private Mailing Card Era within the Golden Age spans the years of 1898 through 1901. It cost one cent to mail a postcard back then, and quickly businesses took to selling postcards to a citizenry that slowly, but increasingly, were eager to send them—and to collect them, too. Most of these early postcards were printed in Germany, as their more advanced lithography printing technology won the day. This remained the case until the outbreak of World War I in 1914 or thereabouts, when many printers in the United States got the hang of it. On these early postcards, writing—other than addressee information—was expressly forbidden on the backs of them. Messages were scribbled on the front of the postcard, beside the image, where often a small blank space was provided. These early postcard backs are referred to today as undivided backs.

In 1901, the word postcard was officially relinquished by the government. Private producers of postcards could now use the term on their productions too, just like the government, which had maintained a monopoly on the term for decades. And so was born the Post Card Era, covering the years 1901 through 1907. Today, the two words post card have become one in the dictionary, and postcard is acceptable and widely used.

The Divided Back Era was quietly ushered in with a simple line on the postcard's back, partitioning the address side on the right, from the writing side on the left. This inaugurated the longstanding postcard tradition of messages consigned to their backs in blissful coexistence with the addressee info. This era (1907–1914) also witnessed millions of postcards wind their way through the mail. With images running the gamut of humanity, the postcard had arrived.

It reached new heights, however, in what is known as the White Border Era, which lasted from 1915 to 1930. It refers specifically to postcards printed with a white border surrounding their images. The white-border postcards were very similar in appearance with their postcard predecessors, the divided backs, except for the border addition on their fronts, and sometimes a more detailed description on their reverse, identifying their varying images (for example, “The Boardwalk at Atlantic City”). The white border will assist you in determining a postcard's age.

With new printing possibilities coming into play, the next style of postcard is consigned to what is called the Linen Era. Once it was feasible to print on card stock with a high rag content (cheaper paper), that's the route the postcard went down. You can recognize these particular postcards for their layered linen-like texture and oftentimes garish colors. This postcard period generally spans the years 1930 to 1944, but many were manufactured after that. This postcard timeframe also coexisted with two colossal events in American history, namely the Great Depression and World War II. So, if you have a war-year postcard from the 1940s, it's more than likely printed on rag stock. Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of these particular postcards is the robust colors used in their printing, including some hues that don't necessarily jibe with reality. If you come upon an older postcard with an image of a man who looks like he's sporting cherry red lipstick—and it's not intended as a humorous postcard—you've likely got hold of a Linen Era issue. Some of the postcards from this historical period used the white border, while others were full bleed, meaning that the image covered the entire surface—without a border.

The ever-shifting postcard winds blew in a style that proved to be so popular that it is still around today. It's known as the Photochrome Era, which overlapped with linen-like postcards for a time in 1939, when the Union Oil Company launched these high-quality color photo postcards in their western service stations. It was after the war, in 1945, however, when they became very widespread and popular with consumers. And, generally speaking, these photochrome postcards are the ones you are plucking off the racks in gift shops and gas stations today.

Vintage postcards are often found stamped and postmarked. If you come upon a stamped and postmarked vintage postcard, don't remove the stamp. Old postcards are usually worth more with the stamp still attached to them.

How Collections Begin

How do postcard collections get started? There are so many reasons why collectors seek out the particular postcards that they do. A trip to Australia might foster a love affair between you and the people and places in the Land Down Under, which might, in turn, manifest itself in an Australian postcard fetish that leads to a collection of Australia-issued postcards throughout the twentieth century.

Your mother's small hometown of Bangor, Pennsylvania, in the state's Slate Belt, and the fond memories you have of visiting your grandparents there, could jumpstart a postcard collection of small American towns. There are plenty of vintage postcards from places that once teemed with industries like steel, coal, and slate that today are shadows of their former vibrant selves. Postcards from these old towns celebrate and remember the importance of these hamlets in building America.

Maybe you were born and raised in Los Angeles, California, and you've seen the city's geographical expanse and population balloon over these past few decades. A postcard history of the City of Angels might just be the perfect match for you.

Other postcard collections revolve around the images themselves. Here are some popular postcard categories: angels, art deco, animals, children, ethnic, famous, greetings, humor, medical care, military, novelties, real photographs, topicals, transportation, views, and vintage. And these categories themselves have copious subcategories in the postcard-collecting arena. Listing them all is impossible.

A great book on postcard collecting A to Z is The Postcard Price Guide by J. L. Mashburn. This is a comprehensive reference book that'll not only give you an idea of what your postcards are worth, but also provide you with historical background coupled with loads of photographs. The author is a collector, dealer, and historian, the perfect triad for a writer of this kind of material.

For collectors of postcards—and stamps and assorted ephemera, too—there's an online auction site that should appeal to you. Playle's Auction Mall at www.playle.com regularly features thousands of postcards in its auctions.

Postcard Terminology

There are many postcard terms frequently seen in the hobby. Getting acquainted with them will assist you greatly in your postcard chase.

What is the study and collecting of postcards called?

It is referred to as deltiology, a word that traces its roots to the Greek word deltion, which literally means “small writing tablet.” Get it? Small writing tablet equals small writing surface on a postcard.

Artist Signed

Postcards are described as such when they exhibit a facsimile signature of an illustrator. If a byline of any kind connotes the artist of the postcard image, it is dubbed artist signed.


You've probably seen the term die-cut mentioned in reference to other collectible items ranging from baseball cards to old advertising signs. Add postcards to the list. Die-cut refers to things precisely shaped by a manufacturer to resemble the contours of something like a car, animal, or human being. In the postcard realm, it means postcards that aren't in the traditional rectangle form, but shaped like a tiger or Santa Claus or an angel.


Postcards with designs that are raised above the surface in some fashion are referred to as embossed. They are usually easily distinguished from their non-embossed companions. If you don't know if you have an embossed postcard by sight, run your clean fingers across its front. The surface will be raised up to some degree, and not smooth to the touch.

Hold to Light (HTL)

HTL postcards are schizophrenics that transform themselves before your eyes. A manufacturing process enables these postcards—when held up to light—to appear entirely different (day to night, for instance).


Installment postcards are ones with several different images or designs that are meant to be mailed—one a day—to a lucky recipient, who ultimately will get the picture when the final card in the installment arrives. The postcard images form one picture when they are all placed together.


Postcards that feature moving parts. This style is usually equipped with a tab to pull or a wheel to turn. The end result of all this pulling and turning is a shifting or changing image.


An oilette postcard is one that resembles an oil painting. It's even replete with brush strokes.


The postcards of today are generally 6” × 4”. The common postcard from the Golden Age of postcards was 5½” ×”. Postcards bigger than 6” × 4” are considered oversized by the post office and require a regular mail first-class stamp.


Different postcards issued with a common theme, be it an event, topic, or work of a particular illustrator, are referred to as series postcards.

If you collect postcards, drop by www.deltiology.com and www.postcard.org. These sites will provide you with links and information on upgrading and enhancing your collection.


Many people associate postcards with pictures. That is, shots of the beach, the mountains, historic buildings, and other scenic wonders. But that's only a sampling of what makes it onto postcards. Topics are postcards that are not views, but devoted to specific subjects. Dogs, hula-hoops, gas stations, curvaceous females, and the game of baseball are just a few examples of topics on postcards.

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