A simple postcard can be an intriguing mystery to uncover. It shares a glimpse from those who travel, and it preserves special memories from our past. Join Janine Pumilia as she looks at the history and purpose of postcards, then uncovers the stories and sentiments they have to share.
To most people, an old postcard is just an old postcard – a quaint vestige of a bygone era.
In the hands of a collector, however, it can be an intriguing mystery to solve clue by clue. Who printed it, in what country, when, for which publisher? Who mailed it to whom, from where, and why? Is the artist or photographer signed? Is there anything unusual in the image, like a “new” invention or a Santa in a non-red suit? What’s that postal cancellation mark and does that post office still exist? Is that a common Franklin 1-cent stamp or a pre-1920 commemorative stamp? Is the back undivided, dating the card to pre-1907? Is the card embossed? Linen? Chrome? Real-Photo? A novelty? A view card or topical?
The study and collection of postcards, called “deltiology,” is among the most popular collecting hobbies in the world, along with coin and stamp collecting (numismatics and philately).
“Postcards are relatively inexpensive to buy and ship, and are easy to store,” says Pauly Rush of Loves Park, Ill., a longtime collector and dealer. “There are so many topics to specialize in, which makes it fun for different kinds of people.”
Just a few collectible topics: town views, state capitals, trains and train depots, aviation, poetry, skyscrapers, sports, military, disasters, lighthouses, amusement parks, national parks, automobiles and holiday greetings. Some people try to collect all the postcards from a certain series, publisher, signed artist or geographic location. The latter is how Rush got his start.
“In 1999, I acquired an album of 270 postcards related to my hometown of Summit, Ill., near Chicago,” he says. “Then I started looking for the ones that I didn’t have. One thing leads to another and pretty soon you develop a passion for it. When you finally track down that one postcard you’ve been looking for, it’s exciting.”
Collectors and dealers aren’t the only postcard enthusiasts. Genealogists may glean insight into the personality, addresses, interests, handwriting, friendships and everyday lives of their ancestors.
Perhaps the most important function of postcards today is research. The right postcard in the hands of the right researcher can result in that “Aha!” answer to a niggling question.
“From a visual standpoint, a postcard provides a view into what the country looked like – or what it hoped to look like – throughout the 20th century,” says Will Hansen, Curator of Americana at the Newberry Library in Chicago.
Since 2016, Newberry has housed the largest public postcard collection in the nation. That’s the year Lake County Forest Preserves District entrusted the massive Curt Teich Postcard Archives Collection to Newberry after curating it for 30-plus years. Newberry also is home to collections from other important postcard publishers including Detroit, Raphael Tuck, V.O. Hammon and Dexter Press.
The Teich collection contains more than 360,000 images relating to more than 10,000 towns and cities in the U.S., Canada and 115 other countries. It fits well with Newberry’s interest in local and family history, travel, Chicago and the Midwest, and the history of printing, publishing and typography, says Hansen.
“Researchers find postcard collections useful for a broad range of reasons, which is one reason we wanted to take on the Teich collection,” Hansen explains. “Artists find inspiration from images on postcards and may even manipulate them into new images [when copyright allows]. Undergrad students researching something like the origin of a particular community use postcards. Genealogists may find images of their ancestors’ hometowns or even their homes and workplaces, in our collection. And people interested in the pioneering techniques of printing itself – lithography and offset, for example, study postcards.”
Postcards show us how Americans have viewed themselves, says Hansen.
“Americana is a very big subject and postcards help to tell the story,” he says. “Americans were not the first people to use postcards, but postcards were enthusiastically adopted by American consumers, readers and writers. They were something made to be used, and people of all social classes used them.”
Billions of postcards have been purchased by Americans over the past 130 years, which makes a curator’s job daunting.
“Postcards are interesting because they’re everywhere, and yet laying your hands on a specific one is difficult,” notes Hansen.
That’s exactly what makes it exciting for collectors, says Rush.
“It’s all about the thrill of the chase.”
The Postcard Craze
Those who love a good “Immigrant Achieves the American Dream” story would enjoy reading the biography of postcard publishing magnate Curtis Otto Teich, which can be found at immigrantentreprenuership.org, written by Shana Lopes. Teich’s story helps us to understand both the development of the postcard industry and the mindset of American advertising. Teich built the most prolific and technically advanced postcard production company in the world, notable also for its 80-year longevity.
Teich arrived in the U.S. in 1895 at age 18, two years after Americans fell in love with the first picture postcards introduced by the U.S. Post Office at the 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago. These “souvenir cards” were pre-printed with 1-cent postage and offered colorful exposition scenes visitors could mail home.
In 1898, Congress passed the Private Mailing Card Act, which allowed independent companies to print and sell mailing cards as long as the back was used only for an address and an adhesive 1-cent stamp. (The rate to mail a letter was 2 cents.) Hand-written messages and printed imagery were restricted to the front of the card until 1907, when divided -back cards enabled printers to use the full front of a card for artwork and text.
Both photography and printing technology advanced significantly at the end of the 1800s, but few skilled printers lived in the U.S. Ever since the metal, movable-type Gutenberg press was invented in 1440, Germany had been the global epicenter of printing. Germans exported tons of fine-quality picture postcards throughout Europe and, when it became legal in 1898, to America.
Some 7 billion postcards were mailed worldwide in 1905, one billion of them in the USA, which comprised less than 5 percent of the global population. In 1907, some 33 tons of German postcards were imported here, according to George and Dorothy Miller, authors of “Picture Postcards in the United States.” Successful American postcard artists like Ellen Clapsaddle, whose work is coveted by today’s collectors, lived in Germany for years at a time, working closely with German printers.
The years from about 1905 to 1915 are called “the Golden Age of Postcards” because of the wild popularity of this new twist on communication. Postcards were the Facebook of their era, connecting friends and relatives of all social classes easily and cheaply. There was widespread appreciation for the technical accomplishments they represented, too. Both pristine and mailed picture postcards were collected, traded and carefully placed into albums made for that purpose.
At the dawn of this U.S. postcard frenzy, in 1898, Curt Teich opened his publishing company in Chicago after a stint working for New York print shops. He came from a long line of printers whose German veins ran with ink. He quickly developed an understanding of American business owners and set off to impress them.
In 1905, camera in hand, Teich rode trains coast to coast across America, jumping off at stops to photograph Main Street businesses and solicit postcard orders from their owners. He charged $1 per 1,000 postcards and earned a whopping $30,000 from this adventure – about $880,000 in today’s money. In the process, he captured for posterity a glimpse of 1905 small-town America. He and other postcard producers would continue to document American communities decade after decade, one card at a time.
The rise of automobiles and a national highway system, along with an expanding middle class, helped the tourism and postcard industries to thrive hand-in-hand.
“Teich sort of struck gold in the right moment,” says Hansen. “A lot of postcard printing companies emerged in America, but there weren’t many working at the same scale.”
By 1912, Teich was printing 150 million postcards per year. His fortunes only grew when his adopted country went to war with his native homeland, shutting down the export of German postcards.
Lesser-skilled American printers struggled to fill the postcard void while Teich hired skilled German-American immigrants like himself. His reputation for excellence in printing only grew. During his company’s heyday from 1920 to 1940, he employed more than 1,000 people, including a traveling salesforce armed with cameras. They sold postcards to households door-to-door and solicited orders for advertising postcards from small businesses, just as Teich had done in 1905.
Teich married Chicago native Anna Niether and in 1925 they moved to Glencoe, Ill., in Lake County. They had four sons and a daughter. Two sons fought in World War II; one was captured and killed while Teich printed secret invasion maps for the U.S. government, nearly at cost. The couple moved to Florida in the 1950s and Curt Teich died in 1974 at age 96.
Today, the massive factory he built at 1733 W. Irving Park in the Lakewood neighborhood of Chicago is converted to condos and named Postcard Place Lofts. Teich’s youngest son, Ralph, had the foresight to preserve the factory’s voluminous contents by donating them to the Lake County Discovery Center Museum in Wauconda, Ill., near his home. This included not only eight decades’ worth of pristine samples of all things printed at Curt Teich Co., but also carefully kept records, photos, sketches and correspondence documenting the back-and-forth communication between customers and printer.
Making the Sausage
“It’s important to remember that making postcards was a business,” says Hansen. “The printers produced what they thought they would sell.”
The Teich collection contains samples of drapery fabric, carpet and other items used to ensure color accuracy in advertising postcards ordered by owners of diners, movie palaces, shops and other businesses across America and the world. Teich’s end goal wasn’t accuracy for its own sake, however. His goal was pleasing his customer, which sometimes meant foregoing accuracy.
In published interviews, Teich’s son Ralph explained the great technical efforts made by his father to present idealized images. For example, he said, if the customer was a Miami hotel owner several blocks from the beach, who wanted his hotel to appear to be on the beach, Teich was willing and able to bring the beach to the hotel. This was no easy feat in the pre-digital age.
The Teich archives document many such examples of images manipulated to present an alternate reality – nothing new in American advertising history.
“One customer requested that the black children in a photo be made white,” notes Hansen.
Postcards, not unlike today’s internet disinformation campaigns that use doctored photos and videos, can’t always be trusted at face value.
Also similar to today’s social media, postcards were a largely unregulated Wild West of content. Printers like Teich provided a platform but didn’t make content judgments. They said that to turn a profit, one must print any job a paying customer requests.
Many postcard orders were placed by people who just wanted to promote their place or product. Others wanted to promulgate a certain viewpoint or spread disinformation or profit from the exploitation of weaker classes of people.
Religious-themed postcards abounded, but so did those that cracked cruel jokes, exploited women, shocked with gruesome murder scenes such as mob hits, or fueled racial belittlement and stereotyping. Teich printed his share of postcards that furthered tropes of the Old South. Ironically, postcard propaganda also was used to incite hatred against German-Americans in order to drum up support for World War I, a war most Americans were reluctant to enter.
“The most disturbing postcards I’ve run across are real-photo postcards of lynchings,” says Hansen. “People would write, ‘I attended and was a part of this’ and then drop them in the mail.”
The publication and mail circulation of “obscene matter” was banned by the U.S. government in 1873 with passage of the Comstock Act. It was expanded in 1908 to include material “tending to incite arson, murder or assassination.” Explicit racist texts were banned and some towns self-censored lynching photo postcards.
Still, production of postcards promoting obscenity and violence continued. Purveyors bypassed the law by mailing them inside envelopes or wrappers, much as people today use encryption on the dark web to conceal forbidden activity.
“On the other hand,” says Hansen, “postcards reveal really charming and delightful aspects of American life. Civic pride, the dedication of monuments, the celebration of accomplishments and inventions.”
It’s all part of the American story.
Access to Postcards
The Digital Age is a double-edged sword for postcards. While we no longer rely on them as a speedy form of communication, there’s growing appreciation for their value to researchers. Public access has never been greater, as libraries, the U.S. National Archives and museums large and small work to digitize collections. It’s labor-intensive, expensive work.
Thanks to a grant from the Community Foundation of Northern Illinois, Midway Village Museum in Rockford has digitized and posted online images of more than 5,000 historical items, many of them postcards related to local street views and landmarks, Camp Grant, correspondence of soldiers, and special events in the late 1800s/early 1900s.
“Postcards can provide a visual glimpse of history we don’t find any other way,” says Midway Village Museum Chief Curator of Collections Laura Furman. “They’re an important resource.”
Kinds of Postcards
U.S. postcard collectors speak of two main categories: View cards and topicals.
View cards are produced by hotels, airlines, steamship lines, municipalities and attractions such as amusement parks or large events. They’re typically purchased and mailed by travelers.
View cards also are produced by local businesses and organizations for residents of their own communities, often depicting a certain business, public building or point of civic pride like a statue, garden or lake.
Topical cards are less about “where” than “what.” They include all holiday greetings and subjects unrelated to place.
Some people collect postcards for the sheer joy of it. Others, like Rush, have turned their hobby into a business. He sells his postcards at regional shows, including the Rockford Postcard Show organized by Carol Kamin of Elgin for the past 30 years. He also sells them at his booths inside East State Antique Mall in Rockford and on e-Bay.
As with most collectibles, rarity, condition and supply/demand impact price. Values rise and fall with global and popular trends. Demand for cards related to China have risen along with an improved standard of living in China, for example.
“I have certain regular customer and I know what they’re looking for,” says Rush. “Some subjects run hot and cold, but others are always steady, like train depots and postcards signed by a particular artist or photographer. Lately people have been looking for cards by C.R. Childs, a Chicago photographer who took photos in northern Illinois in the early 1900s. People often want town views of places that are important to them. In recent years, Real-Photo Post Cards (RPPCs) have been in high demand.”
RPPCs are made by developing a negative onto photo paper with a pre-printed postcard backing. They first appeared in about 1900 and can be distinguished from mass-produced photochrome postcards (‘chromes’) by examining them under a magnifying glass. Chromes reveal a dot matrix; RPPCs don’t.
One way to gauge the value of a postcard is to look it up on a site like eBay and use advanced filters to check the “sold” price, says Rush. Many postcard websites, such as Barr’s Postcard News & Ephemera, track notable postcard trends and sales.
Many websites and books exist to teach collectors how to date a postcard. In general, undivided-back postcards predate 1907. White-border postcards were made from 1915-1930.
Linen postcards, with their high-rag-content paper that readily absorbs bright-colored inks, were prominent from 1930-1945. These were a specialty of Teich’s company. He began the process with one or more photos and embellished an image to achieve a highly stylized, art poster look.
Novelty postcards are those which stray from the norm in shape or materials. They may be made from leather, wood, copper or even coconut husks instead of paper. Some can be pulled apart into jigsaw pieces. Still others are adorned with a three-dimensional object like a piece of twine made to look like an animal’s tail. Mechanical postcards incorporate moving parts.
While age doesn’t necessarily make a postcard a gem, most cards produced after 1960 are of little value. But who knows how long that will be true? One can imagine that collectors of tomorrow may gobble up postcards depicting the moon landing, the 9/11 attack, 1970s TV sets, the extinct polar bear, certain K-pop bands, or a piece of U.S. coastline that’s long since disappeared underwater. Now’s the time to buy them up cheap for our unborn grandchildren. Whether or not these postcards ever develop monetary value, they’ll continue telling the story of the America we know – and want to become.
U.S. Postcard Eras
Pioneer Era (1873-1898) These cards were issued by the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), pre-stamped at 1¢. In 1893, at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, USPC introduced picture postcards with images from the exposition on the front side. The back was reserved for the address and postage only.
Private Mailing Card and Undivided Back Era (1898-1907) In 1898, the U.S. government made it legal for private printers to make and sell postcards with a postage rate of 1 cent like the government-made cards. They were required to include the term “Private Mailing Card” (PMCs). The postcard backs were used only for the address and an adhesive stamp. Any message had to be written on the front, alongside the image, if there was one.
Divided Back Era (1907-1915) During this “Golden Age of Postcards,” both the message and address were allowed on the back for the first time. This meant printers could fill the entire front of a card with imagery. About 75 percent of private U.S. postcard inventory was supplied by Germany in this era.
White Border Era (1915-1930) The lead-up to World War I shut down German imports. U.S. publishers filled the void, but quality decreased. Most postcards from this era have a white border.
Linen Era (1930-1945) Publishers used paper with a woven texture you can feel. It easily absorbed bright-colored inks. Many iconic tourism postcards were made in this time period.
Photochrome Era (1939-now) ‘Chromes’ (named for Kodak Kodachrome) mostly have sharp colors and a slick finish like a glossy color photo, although they can be matte finished. The photos are mass reproduced in a halftone printing process, so a dot matrix can be detected under a magnifying glass, unlike RPPCs.
Real Photo Postcards (1900-now) Called RPPCs by collectors, these were made by developing a negative onto photo paper with a pre-printed postcard backing. Most are black and white. Dating them is difficult but the stamp box on the address may contain the name of the company that produced the photo paper.
Dating a postcard can be difficult. Sometimes the stamp value helps. From 1872 through 1951, a postcard stamp cost 1 cent, except during WW I (1917-1919) and in 1925-1928, when it cost 2 cents. From 1952 on, postage rose steadily. Today a postcard costs 36 cents to mail.
The publisher’s numbering system can also be a clue, as can the picture content, card size, printing process, phone/ZIP codes, and real photo postcard stamp boxes.
Postcards … Can be a Family Thing
My love of postcards began when I was age 5 and my paternal Grandma India, born in 1888, showed me albums of postcards she had collected when she came of age in rural Indiana. I only lately came to understand this was the ‘Golden Age of Postcards,’ about 1905-1915.
Her eyes twinkled when she ran her hands over the messages written on the backs. She told me stories of sleigh rides, taffy pulls, dances and spelling bees in a one-room schoolhouse. I marveled at the lovely penmanship, the 1-cent stamps, the way only her name and town were needed on the address. The elaborate artwork on these German-made postcards idealized a world where roses climbed your gilded mailbox and friendly bluebirds lit on your fingertips. As a suburban child in the raucous 1960s, I wanted to live in that gentle postcard world.
My late mom, Naomi, also loved postcards and added to India’s collection over the decades. Mom enjoyed chatting with other collectors and researching her postcards. Their monetary value meant little to her. She collected any subject she found intriguing – and Mom was born curious. A high school teacher, she especially loved postcards with humor, poetry and Rockford landmarks.
For her 75th birthday, we organized a mail shower of postcards from acquaintances around the world; she was THRILLED. That was 25 years ago. She would have turned 100 this Feb. 19. I didn’t plan this article to coincide with her centennial, but here we are.
I’ve always been more of a postcard enjoyer than knowledgeable collector, but now I’m finally learning the subject in earnest.
Mom enjoyed showing her postcards to my children when they were young. She was so tickled when the Roman Colosseum appeard on TV and my son Blake, then age 5, said, “Grandma, you have a postcard of that!”
Postcard collecting is a fun hobby for generations to enjoy together. Kids favor topics like animals, world landmarks and state capitols. Riffling through a box of 25-cent postcards at the antique store or on eBay, isn’t a bad way to spend time. One thing leads to another and, before you know it, you’ve learned something together.
If you’ve enjoyed this article, send me a postcard and I’ll return one! Send it to Northwest Quarterly, 222 7th St., Rockford, IL, 61104.