Interestingly, postcards haven’t always taken the form they do today. If you look at the history of postcards, over 100 years ago they were restricted by numerous regulations. However, as the industry blossomed, so made the nations love of postcards. Royal Mail reveals that roughly 135 million postcards get sent annually. That’s a whopping 30 million more than three years ago!
They’re a quick, easy, and personal way to connect with loved ones. Alternatively, collecting postcards makes for a fun hobby. Let’s explore the history of postcards a little further.
Postage Innovations and Their Impact on the History of Postcards
Britain introduced their uniform penny postage stamps in 1840. This laid the foundation for the postcard’s popularity.
People were now able to afford the postage of postcards across the country. Before 1840, they calculated postage on how far a postman had to travel.
Additionally, the introduction of stamps, in general, revolutionized the popularity of posting mail. Initially, recipients of the post were expected to pay, not the sender. The mailman would require payment for them to receive their letters. Often, an extended people wouldn’t accept their post so they could avoid the charges. So this was a lose lose situation for everybody.
However, in 1837 drastic changes were made. Weight now dictated the cost of sending a letter, and the fee had to be paid by the sender.
This is where the history of postcards begins. Before the rise of the postcard, people sent cards in the form of sealed letters. People preferred the privacy associated with an envelope. During this era, the design of envelopes was beautiful, covered in stunning imagery. Arguably, this was the first version of the postcard.
However, on February 27th, 1861, we reached a turning point in the postcard industry. US Congress allowed the production of privately printed cards, providing they weighed under one ounce. Shortly after that, John P. Charlton copyrighted the original postcard.
Meanwhile over in Austria – Hungary the first ‘correspondence card’ was issued in 1869. Printing a yellow color two-kreutzer stamp onto the card was mandatory. This measured 122×85 mm.
Similarly to American postcards, one side was for the address, and the other was blank. This allowed the sender space to write their message. Within the first three months, approximately three million ‘correspondence’ cards were sold.
What Impact did the Communication Card in Austria Hungary Have?
Its impact was substantial and left its mark on the history of postcards. Evidently, this form of the postcard was a great success in Austria-Hungary. It was this that sparked the interest of other nations.
The Northern German Confederation followed the craze. Their first cards went on sale on June 25th, 1870.
The size was approximately 163×108 mm, and a stamp had to be stuck using glue. These stamps were the same value as one silver Grosch. At the time, this was a standard fee for posting a regular letter. In just Berlin, roughly 45,000 cards sold on June 25th, 1870 and by the end of 1870, an astonishing over ten million sold across Germany.
When Did Other Countries Get Involved in This Craze?
Soon after, several countries utilized postcards. In 1870 postcards were introduced to the following counties; Bavaria, Wurttemberg and, Switzerland.
A year later in 1871, they appeared in; Belgium, Holland, Denmark, Finland, Canada, and United Germany. In 1872 they spread to Norway, Sweden, Russia, and Ceylon. Then in 1873, they were used in France, Serbia, Spain, Iceland, Chile, and Japan. Eventually, the postcard was a form of communication in 1874 within Italy, Rumania, and Luxemburg.
Under ten years later, Hymen L. Lipman took his inspiration from Charlton and released ‘Lipman’s Postal Cards. Lipman secured his patent in 1861. His postal cards were plain and simple; they only had a decorative border. Similarly, one side was the recipient’s address. This was indicated by three dotted lines, accompanied by a place to stick a postage stamp.
Additionally, the following text was on all Lipman’s cards; ‘Copyright secured 1861 – Lipman’s Post Card – Patent Applied For.’
The industry in the States further grew on June 8th, 1872. This was the date the government approved the production of their postal cards. On May 1, 1873, the first government-issued cards came into circulation. The design of these postcards was as follows: On one side there was space for the sender to write a message and the other there was a place to write the recipient’s address. Despite this development, private publishers were still allowed to distribute postcards. However, they were more costly to send in comparison to cards produced by the government.
What About Britain?
In Britain, Royal Mail didn’t permit publishers to sell picture postcards until 1894. The first British seaside town to feature on a picture postcard was Scarborough. This was a milestone in the British history of postcards.
On May 19th, 1898, it became a level playing field in the States. Legislation demanded the cost to send both private and government-issued postcards to be equal (providing the correct regulations were followed).
In December 1901, there were further changes to the rules associated with postcards. This resulted in the words “Post Card” rather than “Private Mailing Card” printed on the back. However, senders still couldn’t write messages on the address side of the card. During this era, an overwhelming amount of postcards had pictures on them which reduced the space to write a message.
As you can see, this posed a problem.
Meanwhile in Britain
However, over in Britain the hype surrounding postcards was only beginning. To understand how popular they were, you need to compare postcards to what social media is to society today. The Edwardians loved anything novel and postcards were certainly that.
It was popular to send cards shaped of something associated with their holiday destination. To send these cards, you would have to insert the name and address of the recipient alongside a stamp and attach it to a luggage label. Funny enough, these didn’t usually get damaged in the post.
However, by 1914 the hype died down.
This was a pivotal time in the history of postcards. In 1907, the US authorities allowed senders to write messages on the same side of the postcard as the address. However, this only applied to postcards produced by the government. During this time there was a surge in popularity for the postcard in the States. As such, this era’s known as the “Golden Age of Postcards.”
Postcards began utilizing real photos. Pictures were shot, and a negative was printed to fit the size of a postcard. On the back of these cards there was a place to write a message and somewhere to stick a stamp.
For British soldiers fighting in the first world war, soldiers would send beautiful cards to their loved ones back home. These were known as ‘silks.’ These postcards got their nickname because they used beautifully embroidered silk mesh. For many these weren’t just a form of communication, they were also keepsakes and provided hope during an extended period of uncertainty.
During this time, German printers dominated the industry. However, as World War I dawned, American printers began to supply most of the postcards to the US.
Unfortunately, American printers didn’t have access to the same machinery as German printers, so this meant the quality of postcards dropped. It was at this point people began to lose interest in collecting postcards, and it was said to be the death of the “Golden Age.”
Unsurprisingly, printers wanted to save ink during wartime, so they left a white border around the image.
During 1920s Britain, postcards began to have funny pictures printed on them. Bamforth’s postcards pioneered this trend. He would utilize music hall style humor to appeal to those attending seaside holidays.
In the 1930s, new printing techniques emerged. This allowed printers to print postcards with a high rag content. This gave the appearance of linen. Curt Teich & Co., printed the original linen card in 1931. The demand for this style of card spread across the globe. Teich dominated the industry because his processes allowed for a quicker turn around time and higher quality dyes.
However, it was still typical for postcards of this era to have a white border, and the back remained divided. However, photochrome postcards eventually took over. These came onto the market in 1939. They took off when the Union Oil Company delivered this style of a postcard to western service stations.
The postcard industry took a step back during the Second World War. This was due to rationing supplies. However, after 1945, photochrome postcards came back with a bang. They focused on producing cards full of color and images similar to photos.
This is where the history of postcards comes to a close because this is the style of postcard we use today. In modern Britain, royalty fuels the postcard trade. They sell everything from souvenirs of the royal wedding to pictures of the queen’s face. These tend to be purchased by American tourists.
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Hello Maud, wondering if you can answer this question. Approx 1950-1990 was the color RED almost always featured in UK postcards? Usually a little splash of the color, a sweater, a boat sail, just a slight pop of color. Am I dreaming or was it a “thing”?
Hey Anne, what an interesting question!
So I can’t find anything that specifically confirms this – but I do have some thoughts after researching. It seems like red is a color that is very associated with the 20th century because of the rise of Communism and it being associated with revolutions in general (e.g. China in 1949). It was also a color used a lot by popular artists of the time like Henri Matisse who was using a relatively newly invented red pigment. Aside from that, it has really strong connotations with emotion throughout history – love, anger and passion. So it could be that postcard publishers used the color to make postcards seem that bit more personal and emotive! What do you think? I’d love to hear if you’ve come across anything on this topic!
All the best,