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Example of a court card, postmarked 1899, showing Robert Burns and his cottage and monument in Ayr

A postcard or post card is a rectangular piece of thick paper or thin cardboard intended for writing and mailing without an envelope. Shapes other than rectangular may also be used. There are novelty exceptions, such as wood postcards, made of thin wood, and copper postcards sold in the Copper Country of the U.S. state of Michigan, and coconut "postcards" from tropical islands.

In some places, one can send a postcard for a lower fee than for a letter. Stamp collectors distinguish between postcards (which require a stamp) and postal cards (which have the postage pre-printed on them). While a postcard is usually printed by a private company, individual or organization, a postal card is issued by the relevant postal authority.

The world's oldest postcard was sent in 1840 to the writer Theodore Hook from Fulham in London, England. The study and collecting of postcards is termed deltiology.



Early history of postcards[edit]

The claimed first printed picture postcard.
Austrian postcard from 1901.

Cards with messages had been sporadically created and posted by individuals since the beginning of postal services. The earliest known picture postcard was a hand-painted design on card, posted in Fulham in London by the writer Theodore Hook to himself in 1840, and bearing a penny black stamp.[1][2] He probably created and posted the card to himself as a practical joke on the postal service, since the image is a caricature of workers in the post office.[2][3] In 2002 the postcard sold for a record £31,750.[2]

In the United States, the custom of sending through the mail, at letter rate, a picture or blank card stock that held a message, began with a card postmarked in December 1848 containing printed advertising. [4] The first commercially produced card was created in 1861 by John P. Charlton of Philadelphia, who patented a postal card, and sold the rights to Hymen Lipman, whose postcards, complete with a decorated border, were labeled "Lipman's postal card". These cards had no images.

In Britain, postcards without images were issued by the Post Office in 1870, and were printed with a stamp as part of the design, which was included in the price of purchase. These cards came in two sizes. The larger size was found to be slightly too large for ease of handling, and was soon withdrawn in favour of cards 13mm (½ inch) shorter.[5] The first known printed picture postcard, with an image on one side, was created in France in 1870 at Camp Conlie by Léon Besnardeau (1829–1914). Conlie was a training camp for soldiers in the Franco-Prussian war. The cards had a lithographed design printed on them containing emblematic images of piles of armaments on either side of a scroll topped by the arms of the Duchy of Brittany and the inscription "War of 1870. Camp Conlie. Souvenir of the National Defence. Army of Brittany".[6] While these are certainly the first known picture postcards, there was no space for stamps and no evidence that they were ever posted without envelopes.[7]

In the following year the first known picture postcard in which the image functioned as a souvenir was sent from Vienna. [8] The first advertising card appeared in 1872 in Great Britain and the first German card appeared in 1874. Cards showing images increased in number during the 1880s. Images of the newly built Eiffel Tower in 1889 and 1890 gave impetus to the postcard, leading to the so-called "golden age" of the picture postcard in years following the mid-1890s. Early postcards often showcased photography of nude women. These were commonly known as French postcards, due to the large number of them produced in France.

Early US postcards[edit]

A 1908 postcard of a postcard factory in Chicago, which claims to be 'The largest building in America devoted exclusively to the manufacture of Post Cards'
Back of the above 1905 card
Postcard with 1908 cancellation
American 'divided back' postcard, 1916

The first American postcard was developed in 1873 by the Morgan Envelope Factory of Springfield, Massachusetts.[9][10] These first postcards depicted the Interstate Industrial Exposition that took place in Chicago.[11] Later in 1873, Post Master John Creswell introduced the first pre-stamped "Postal Cards", often called "penny postcards". Postcards were made because people were looking for an easier way to send quick notes. The first postcard to be printed as a souvenir in the United States was created in 1893 to advertise the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

The Post Office was the only establishment allowed to print postcards, and it held its monopoly until May 19, 1898, when Congress passed the Private Mailing Card Act, which allowed private publishers and printers to produce postcards. Initially, the United States government prohibited private companies from calling their cards "postcards", so they were known as "souvenir cards". These cards had to be labeled "Private Mailing Cards". This prohibition was rescinded on December 24, 1901, from when private companies could use the word "postcard". Postcards were not allowed to have a divided back and correspondents could only write on the front of the postcard. This was known as the "undivided back" era of postcards. From March 1, 1907 the Post Office allowed private citizens to write on the address side of a postcard. It was on this date that postcards were allowed to have a "divided back".[11]

On these cards the back is divided into two sections: the left section is used for the message and the right for the address. Thus began the Golden Age of American postcards, which peaked in 1910 with the introduction of tariffs on German-printed postcards, and ended by 1915, when World War I ultimately disrupted the printing and import of the fine German-printed cards. The postcard craze between 1907 and 1910 was particularly popular among rural and small-town women in Northern U.S. states.[12]

Postcards, in the form of government postal cards and privately printed souvenir cards, became very popular as a result of the Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago in 1893, after postcards featuring buildings were distributed at the fair. In 1908, more than 677 million postcards were mailed.

The "white border" era, named for borders around the picture area, lasted from about 1916 to 1930.

Mid-20th century US postcards[edit]

The Great White Liner "South American," Chicago, Illinois, circa 1915-1930. Curt Teich & Co. postcard 103504.

Linen postcards were produced in great quantity from 1931 to 1959. Despite the name, linen postcards were not produced on a linen fabric, but used newer printing processes that used an inexpensive card stock with a high rag content, and were then finished with a pattern which resembled linen. The face of the cards is distinguished by a textured cloth appearance which makes them easily recognizable. The reverse of the card is smooth, like earlier postcards. The rag content in the card stock allowed a much more colorful and vibrant image to be printed than the earlier "white border" style. Due to the inexpensive production and bright realistic images they became popular.

One of the better known linen era postcard manufacturers was Curt Teich and Company, who first produced the immensely popular "large letter linen" postcards (among many others). The card design featured a large letter spelling of a state or place with smaller photos inside the letters. The design can still be found in many places today. Other manufacturers include Tichnor and Company, Haynes, Stanley Piltz, E.C Kropp, and the Asheville Postcard Company.

By the late 1920s new colorants had been developed that were very enticing to the printing industry. Though they were best used as dyes to show off their brightness, this proved to be problematic. Where traditional pigment based inks would lie on a paper's surface, these thinner watery dyes had a tendency to be absorbed into a paper's fibers, where it lost its advantage of higher color density, leaving behind a dull blurry finish. To experience the rich colors of dyes light must be able to pass through them to excite their electrons. A partial solution was to combine these dyes with petroleum distillates, leading to faster drying heatset inks. But it was Curt Teich who finally solved the problem by embossing paper with a linen texture before printing. The embossing created more surface area, which allowed the new heatset inks to dry even faster. The quicker drying time allowed these dyes to remain on the paper's surface, thus retaining their superior strength, which give Linens their telltale bright colors. In addition to printing with the usual CYMK colors, a lighter blue was sometimes used to give the images extra punch. Higher speed presses could also accommodate this method, leading to its widespread use. Although first introduced in 1931, their growing popularity was interrupted by the outbreak of war. They were not to be printed in numbers again until the later 1940s, when the war effort ceased consuming most of the country’s resources. Even though the images on linen cards were based on photographs, they contained much handwork of the artists who brought them into production. There is of course nothing new in this; what it notable is that they were to be the last postcards to show any touch of the human hand on them. In their last days, many were published to look more like photo-based chrome cards that began to dominate the market. Textured papers for postcards had been manufactured ever since the turn of the century. But since this procedure was not then a necessary step in aiding card production, its added cost kept the process limited to a handful of publishers. Its original use most likely came from attempts to simulate the texture of canvas, thus relating the postcard to a painted work of fine art.[13]

The United States Postal Service defines a postcard as: rectangular, at least 3 12 inches (88.9 mm) high × 5 inches (127 mm) long × 0.007 inches (0.178 mm) thick and no more than 4 14 inches (108 mm) high × 6 inches (152.4 mm) long × 0.016 inches (0.406 mm) thick.[14] However, some postcards have deviated from this (for example, shaped postcards).

Contemporary postcards[edit]

A tinted (black-and-white image that has had colored tint added) souvenir card. Image of the Christopher Columbus taken circa 1896

The last and current postcard era, which began about 1939, is the "chrome" era, however these types of cards did not begin to dominate until about 1950. The images on these cards are generally based on colored photographs, and are readily identified by the glossy appearance given by the paper's coating. 'These still photographs made the invisible visible, the unnoticed noticed, the complex simple and the simple complex. The power of the still photograph forms symbolic structures and make the image a reality', as Elizabeth Edwards wrote in her book: The Tourist Image: Myths and Myth Making in Tourism.[15]

In 1973 the British Post Office introduced a new type of card, PHQ Cards, popular with collectors, especially when they have the appropriate stamp affixed and a First day of issue postmark obtained.

Postcards in British India[edit]

In July 1879, the Post Office of India introduced a quarter anna postcard that could be posted from one place to another within British India. This was the cheapest form of post provided to the Indian people to date and proved a huge success. The establishment of a large postal system spanning India resulted in unprecedented postal access: a message on a postcard could be sent from one part of the country to another part (often to a physical address without a nearby post office) without additional postage affixed. This was followed in April 1880 by postcards meant specifically for government use and by reply postcards in 1890.[16]:423–424 The postcard facility continues to this date in independent India.

British seaside postcards[edit]

A seaside postcard.
A typical "saucy" postcard by Donald McGill

In 1894, British publishers were given permission by the Royal Mail to manufacture and distribute picture postcards, which could be sent through the post. It was originally thought that the first UK postcards were produced by printing firm Stewarts of Edinburgh but later research published in Picture Postcard Monthly in 1991, has shown that the first GB picture card was published by ETW Dennis of Scarborough.[17] Two postmarked examples of the September 1894 E T W Dennis card have survived but no cards of Stewart dated 1894 have been found.[18] Early postcards were pictures of landmarks, scenic views, photographs or drawings of celebrities and so on. With steam locomotives providing fast and affordable travel, the seaside became a popular tourist destination, and generated its own souvenir-industry.

In the early 1930s, cartoon-style saucy postcards became widespread, and at the peak of their popularity the sale of saucy postcards reached a massive 16 million a year. They were often bawdy in nature, making use of innuendo and double entendres and traditionally featured stereotypical characters such as vicars, large ladies, and put-upon husbands, in the same vein as the Carry On films.

In the early 1950s, the newly elected Conservative government were concerned at the apparent deterioration of morals in Britain and decided on a crackdown on these postcards. The main target of their campaign was the postcard artist Donald McGill. In the more liberal 1960s, the saucy postcard was revived and later came to be considered, by some, as an art form.[19] However, during the 1970s and 1980s, the quality of the artwork and humour started to deteriorate and, with changing attitudes towards the cards' content, the demise of the saucy postcard occurred.

Original postcards are now highly sought after, and rare examples can command high prices at auction. The best-known saucy seaside postcards were created by a publishing company called Bamforths, based in the town of Holmfirth, West Yorkshire, England.

Despite the decline in popularity of postcards that are overtly 'saucy', postcards continue to be a significant economic and cultural aspect of British seaside tourism. Sold by newsagents and street vendors, as well as by specialist souvenir shops, modern seaside postcards often feature multiple depictions of the resort in unusually favourable weather conditions. British photographer John Hinde used saturated colour and meticulously planned his photographs, which made his postcards of the later twentieth century become collected and admired as kitsch. Such cards are also respected as important documents of social history, and have been influential on the work of Martin Parr.



Postcard by Takehisa Yumeji, 1912

In Japan, official postcards have one side dedicated exclusively to the address, and the other side for the content, though commemorative picture postcards and private picture postcards also exist. In Japan today, two particular idiosyncratic postcard customs exist: New Year's Day postcards (年賀状, nengajō) and return postcards (往復はがき, ōfuku-hagaki). New Year's Day postcards serve as greeting cards, similar to Western Christmas cards, while return postcards function similarly to a self-addressed stamped envelope, allowing one to receive a reply without burdening the addressee with postage fees. Return postcards consist of a single double-size sheet, and cost double the price of a usual postcard – one addresses and writes one half as a usual postcard, writes one's own address on the return card, leaving the other side blank for the reply, then folds and sends. Return postcards are most frequently encountered by non-Japanese in the context of making reservations at certain locations that only accept reservations by return postcard, notably at Saihō-ji (moss temple). For overseas purposes, an international reply coupon is used instead.

In Japan, official postcards were introduced in December 1873, shortly after stamps were introduced to Japan.[20][21] Return postcards were introduced in 1885, sealed postcards in 1900, and private postcards were allowed from 1900.[20]



Standard stamped postcard Russia

In the State Standard of the Russian Federation "GOST 51507-99. Postal cards. Technical requirements. Methods of Control" (2000)[22] gives the following definition:

Post Card is a standard rectangular form of a paper for public postings. According to the same state standards, cards are classified according to the type and kind.

Depending on whether or not the image on the card printing postage stamp cards are divided into two types:

  • marked;
  • unmarked.

Depending on whether or not the card illustrations, cards are divided into two types:

  • illustrated;
  • simple, that is non-illustrated.

Cards, depending on the location of illustrations divided into:

  • Vector card at the location on the front side;
  • on the reverse side.

Depending on the walking area cards subdivided into:

  • cards for shipment within the Russian Federation (internal post);
  • cards for shipment outside of the Russian Federation (international postage).

Free postcards[edit]

Specialist marketing companies in many countries produce and distribute advertising postcards which are available for free. These are normally offered on wire rack displays in plazas, coffee shops and other commercial locations, usually not intended to be mailed.


The initial appearance of picture postcards (and the enthusiasm with which the new medium was embraced) raised some legal issues. Picture postcards allowed and encouraged many individuals to send images across national borders, and the legal availability of a postcard image in one country did not guarantee that the card would be considered "proper" in the destination country, or in the intermediate countries that the card would have to pass through. Some countries might refuse to handle postcards containing sexual references (in seaside postcards) or images of full or partial nudity (for instance, in images of classical statuary or paintings).[23]

In response to this new phenomenon, the Ottoman Empire banned the sale or importation of some materials relating to the Islamic prophet Muhammad in 1900. Affected postcards that were successfully sent through the Ottoman Empire before this date (and are postmarked accordingly) have a high rarity value and are considered valuable by collectors.

Glossary of postcard terms[edit]

3D postcard – 1970s
A postcard that has some form of cloth, metal or other embellishment attached to it.
Art Déco
Artistic style of the 1920s, recognizable by its symmetrical designs and straight lines.
Folies Bergère costume, c. 1900.
Art Nouveau
Artistic style of the turn of the century, characterized by flowing lines and flowery symbols, yet often depicting impressionist more than representational art.
Artist Signed
Postcards with artwork that has the artist's signature, and the art is often unique for postcards.
Bas Relief
Postcards with a heavily raised surface, giving a papier-mâché appearance.
Big Letter
A postcard that shows the name of a place in very big letters that do not have pictures inside each letter (see also Large Letter).
A number of individual cards, that when placed together in a group, form a larger picture. Also called "installment" cards.
Court Cards
The official size for British postcards between 1894–1899, measuring 115 mm × 89 mm (4.5 in × 3.5 in).
Divided Back
Postcards with a back divided into two sections, one for the message, the other for the address. British cards were first divided in 1902 and American cards in 1907.
Django Fontina
A postcard written to a stranger, typically as a means of disseminating poetry.
Any card issued before the Divided Back was introduced.
Postcards with a raised surface.
Ōura Church, Hand-tinted postcard
Black-and-white images were tinted by hand using watercolors and stencils.
Also referred to as ‘HTL’, postcards often of a night time scene with cut out areas to show the light.
Intermediate Size
The link between Court Cards and Standard Size, measuring 130 mm × 80 mm (5.1 in × 3.1 in).
Postcards with a rotating wheel that reveals a myriad of colours when turned.
"Large Letter" card c. 1940s
Large Letter
A postcard that has the name of a place shown as a series of very large letters, inside of each of which is a picture of that locale (see also Big Letter).
Midget Postcards
Novelty cards of the size 90 mm × 70 mm (3.54 in × 2.76 in).
Any postcard that deviates in any way from the norm. Cards that do something, or have articles attached to them, or are printed in an unusual size or on strange materials. An example is cards made of leather.
A trade name used by Raphael Tuck & Sons for postcards reproduced from original paintings.
The style of writing used on postcards; short sentences, jumping from one subject to another.
Real Photographic
Abbreviated to "RP." Postcards produced by a photographic, rather than a printing, process.
Reward Cards
Cards that were given away to school children for good work.
Standard Size
Introduced in Britain in November 1899, measuring 140 mm × 89 mm (5.5 in × 3.5 in).
A Topographical postcard of Benwick
Postcards showing street scenes and general views. Judges Postcards produced many British topographical views.
Undivided Back
Postcards with a plain back where all of this space was used for the address. This is usually in reference to Early cards, although undivided were still in common use up until 1907.
Usually found on undivided back cards, consisting of a design that does not occupy the whole of the picture side. Vignettes may be anything from a small sketch in one corner of the card, to a design cover three quarters of the card. The purpose is to leave some space for the message to be written, as the entire reverse of the card could only be used for the address.
A card with the opening line of a sentence, which the sender would then complete. Often found on early comic cards.


See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Oldest picture postcard". Guinness World Records. Retrieved 1 March 2017.
  2. ^ a b c "Oldest postcard sells for £31,750". BBC News. 2002-03-08. Retrieved 2012-06-16.
  3. ^ Arifa Akbar, "Oldest picture postcard in the world snapped up for £31,750", The Independent, 9 March 2002.
  4. ^ "Pre History of the Postcard 1848-1872". Metropolitan Postcard Club of New York City.
  5. ^ Willoughby, Martin (1992). A History of Postcards. London England: Bracken Books. p. 160. ISBN 1858911621.
  6. ^ The New York Times, September 21, 1904.
  7. ^ "Histoire de la Carte Postale, Cartopole, Baud" (in French). Archived from the original on 2011-07-18. Retrieved 2012-06-16.
  8. ^ Frank Staff, The Picture Postcard & Its Origins, New York: F.A. Praeger, p.51.
  9. ^ "History & Innovation". Retrieved 2012-06-16.
  10. ^ "Springfield 375 | Springfield's Official 375th Anniversary Celebration Site". Archived from the original on 2012-04-05. Retrieved 2012-06-16.
  11. ^ a b "The History of Postcards".
  12. ^ Gifford, Daniel (2013) American Holiday Postcards 1905-1915: Imagery and Context. McFarland Press. ISBN 0786478179.
  13. ^ Linen Cards. Metropolitan Postcard Club of New York City.
  14. ^ "USPS - Mail Characteristics - Sizes for Cards". USPS. Archived from the original on 2008-01-20. Retrieved 2 June 2011.
  15. ^ Edwards, Elizabeth (1996). The Tourist Image: Myths and Myth Making in Tourism. West Sussex PO19 1UD, England: John Wiley and Sons. pp. 199–200. ISBN 0-471-96309-7.
  16. ^ The Imperial Gazetteer of India. (1908). Vol 3 (Economic), p. 424
  17. ^ Sept and Dec 1991 Picture Postcard Monthly
  18. ^ PPC Annual 2015
  19. ^ Nick Collins (5 August 2010). "Bawdy seaside postcards on display". The Telegraph. Retrieved 12 September 2011.
  20. ^ a b "PostcardGuide Japan/Konnichiwa!".
  21. ^ PostcardGuide Japan, April 2, 1997
  23. ^ For example, the United States Postal Service would only allow the delivery of postcards showing a back view of naked men from Britain if their posteriors were covered with a black bar. "Naked film postcards returned to sender". BBC News. 30 July 2001. Retrieved 2011-06-05.

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