Post Card History and Dating Methods
Although the world's first picture post cards date from the 1860s to the mid-1870s, post cards, as we know them, came into being in the United States about 1901. Prior to that time, there were trade cards and postal cards, which usually carried advertising or printed messages.
Trade cards became popular with the enterprising merchants who distributed them from the 1870s to the 1890s. With the advent of the camera, which was developed in the mid-1800s, and later the post card, history would be forever immortalized in print.
The back of a post card can give several clues about the age of a card. If the postmark on a postally used card is readable, that is the first clue to its age. Most of the cards that made it to the post office were mailed within a year or two of being produced. On a card that was not mailed, the first place to look is the stamp box.
Stamp boxes are the small rectangular boxes printed on the upper right hand side, where the stamp is to be affixed. By comparing identical mailed and unmailed cards, researchers have developed a pattern to determine when a particular style of card was produced.
Real photo post cards (RPPCs) are cards that have been produced in the darkroom on photographic paper. On real photo post cards, codes in the stamp boxes can also be helpful in dating the card.
Stamp boxes on printed or lithographed cards also offer dating clues. Often there is a reference in the box to the amount of postage required. Of course, if the card is used and has a stamp, that too gives a clue, both by its value, and the style of stamp itself.
For U.S. post cards, the standard postal rate was:
1872 1 cent
*The post card rate was increased from 1 cent to 2 cents as a wartime measure. When World War I ended at the end of 1918, the rate was lowered to its prewar level of one cent. The postal rate was raised briefly from 1 cent to 2 cents in 1917-1919 and in 1925-1928; the conclusive raise to 2 cents was in 1951.
**The U.S. Commission (Rate Board) overestimated revenue needs in 1974 and was forced to reduce the postage rate in 1975.
Post Card Eras
Pioneer Era (1893-1898)
Most of the earliest American picture post cards that exist today are those that were sold at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Illinois, starting on May 1, 1893. These were illustrations on government-printed postal cards and on privately printed souvenir cards.
The government postal cards included a printed 1-cent stamp; the privately printed souvenir cards required a 2-cent adhesive postage stamp to be affixed. Messages were not permitted on the address side of the cards; after attempting various forms of explaining that regulation, the U.S. Post Office adopted the printed message that states “This side is for the address only”. Other backs from this pioneer era of the American post card are known today as “Souvenir Card” and “Mail Card.” This period ended July 1, 1898.
Private Mailing Card Era (1898-1901)
An Act of U.S. Congress on May 19, 1898 granted private printers permission to print and sell cards that bore the inscription “Private Mailing Card (“PMCs”). The required postage was a 1-cent adhesive stamp. At this time, a dozen or more American printers began to focus on post card production. Still, no message was permitted on the address side. The term “Post Card” was not widely used until the early 1900s (it was later contracted to "postcard" as a word-counting, cost-saving measure).
Real Photo Post Cards (1900 to 1995)
Post cards that are actual photographic replications were first produced around 1900. They provide a quality black and white photographic record of history in the making and they can usually be enlarged somewhat without losing image quality. They may or may not have a white border, or a divided back, or other features of post cards, depending on the paper the photographer used.
Many of the real photo post cards being done at the current time are reproductions of earlier historic photos. The easiest way to distinguish a real photo postcard is to look at it under a magnifying glass; it will show smooth transitions from one tone to another. Photo post card paper is currently only available from foreign sources.
Undivided Back Era (1901-1907)
New U.S. postal regulations on December 24, 1901 stipulated that the words “Post Card” should be printed at the top of the address side of privately printed cards. Government-issued cards were to be designated as “Postal Cards”. Writing was still not permitted on the address side. In this era, private citizens began to take black and white photographs and have them printed on paper with post card backs.
If no message was permitted on the address side, the card probably predated March of 1907.
Early Divided Back Era (1907-1914)
Post cards with a divided back were permitted in the U.S. beginning on March 1, 1907. The address was to be written on the right side; the left side was for writing messages. Many millions of cards were published in this era -- it was the golden age of postcards. Up to this point, most postcards were printed in Germany, which was far ahead of the United States in the use of lithographic processes. With the advent of World War I, the production of post cards for American consumption switched from Germany to England and then to the United States.
White Border Era (1915-1930)
Most post cards produced in the United States were printed during this period. To save ink, publishers left a border around the view, thus these post cards are referred to as “White Border” cards. Due to the relatively high cost of labor, along with inexperience and changes in public taste, the quality of the mass produced cards in this era began to decline. Furthermore, strong competition in a narrowing market caused many publishers to go out of business.
Linen Era (1930-1945)
New printing processes allowed printing on post cards with high rag content that caused a linen-like finish. These cheaply produced cards allowed the use of gaudy dyes for coloring. The firm of Curt Teich flourished because of its line of linen postcards. Tichenor Brothers in Cambridge, Massachusetts also produced many cards in this era. Many important events and scenes in history are documented by these cards.
Photochrome Era (1939 to present)
“Chrome” post cards began to dominate the scene soon after the Union Oil Company placed them in its western service stations in 1939. Mike Roberts pioneered his “WESCO” cards soon after World War II. Three-dimensional post cards also appeared in this era. By the 1960s, the standard size of cards had grown to 4 x 6 inches.
Photochromes are not real photos but rather, lithographed cards done by a photochrome process. To distinguish a printed post card from a real photo post card, examine it under a magnifying glass and you will see the dot pattern that is characteristic of lithographed cards. The best printed cards were produced by the photogravure process. They are difficult to discern from real photos but usually don't have the glossy finish of photographs.
Additional Dating Characteristics
Does the card include postal mailing codes? The U.S. introduced the use of two-digit zone numbers on May 1, 1943; use of five-digit Zip codes began in July of 1963.
Does it list a phone number with area code? The first unassisted coast-to-coast direct dialing with a three-digit area code began on November 10, 1951.
The size of the post card can also give a clue:
Clues can also be found in the printing process:
AZO Stamp Boxes
One of the popular photographic papers used for producing real photo post cards was Kodak Professional AZO Paper.
This was suitable for making contact prints, rather than enlargements for which the source of light would be much weaker.
Post cards produced on AZO paper had AZO stamp boxes on the back. The style of these boxes varied over time.