This article is a walk down memory lane in pursiut of the history of postcards. Postcard collecting and study is a common hobby shared by individuals all around the world. Even though you may not be a postcard collector, I bet you’ve sent or received a couple over the years. You, therefore, owe it to yourself to have some knowledge of the origin and history of postcards. This dates back as far as the 80s when postcards were mostly uniform and rigged with restrictions.

To better understand and appreciate the journey of the postcard to what it is today, we have to go to the very beginning. We start by shedding light into the mailing system back then and travel through time to date, where postcard designs are a matter of your creativity rather than adherence to regulations.

The History Of Postcards

Like any institution, the mail industry has undergone some tremendous changes that made it what it is today. Things used to run a little different back in the 80s in terms of sending and receiving mails. For instance, mails were charged depending on the number of pages in your letter and the distance traveled. To top it off, the recipient was the one who used to bear the cost of sending the letter.

This, of course, posed a lot of challenges in collecting money as many recipients would refuse to receive the letters to avoid getting charged. Thanks to Sir Rowland Hill, the England Postmaster general, reforms to the mailing system where made and passed by parliament. The cost of sending mail now depended on the weight of your letter and the sender would pay for delivery. This was done by the purchase of a postage stamp. And thus with the potage act, the first stamp, the penny black was sold in 1840, paving way to many other reforms that gave birth to the postcard.

The History Of Postcards
Before Postcards – 1840-1860

Before postcards were the craze, lithographs, woodcuts and mailed cards exited. Later, the picture envelope developed by William Mulready, James Valentine, DICKEY Doyle and E.R.W Hume, became the closest link to postcards. They had all kinds of pictures especially those of Patriots during the Civil War. Comics, landmarks, and music also made it to these envelopes.

The History Of Postcards
The Beginning – 1860- 1875

The first privately owned postcard was created by J.P Charlton in 1861 it was also the very first postcard to exist. Unfortunately, Carlton’s postcards did not catch on due to interference by the Civil War. They would later resurface but under ownership of Lipmann who got a patent for them.

The first government postcards were made in Austria in 1869, however, the idea of government postcards did not originate here. The idea originated from Germany, as a result of the efforts of postal official Dr. Heinrich von Stephan. The German government was reluctant to green-light the idea due to delegations hence producing their first postcards a year after Austria. Other states swiftly followed suit with the United States issuing its government postcard in 1873.

The History Of Postcards
Message At The Front

Unlike today’s postcards where the picture was at the font and message at the back, these postcards had everything printed at the front.

To top this, private postcards (not issued by the government) had to bear the term “Private Mailing Card” at the back which was mailed at two cents. The government postcards were the only ones allowed t bare the term postal cards and were mailed at a cent. As I said, postcards were highly restricted!

The postcards were largely used for keeping up with friends and family especially by soldiers at war. With time, advertisements were made on postcards. Eventually, landmarks such as the Eiffel tower made it to the cover sometimes to the degree of having natural disasters printed too!

The History Of Postcards
Postcards Go Private. 1898-1901

Finally, private postcard printers caught a break when the government allowed the private postcards to be issued at one cent, same price as government postcards. They still had to bear the title private mailing cards and have writings at the front.

The History Of Postcards
Message Still At The Front But More Organized. 1901-1915

A lot of changes took place during this time hence many refer to this period as the “Golden Age” of postcards. For one, private postcards in the US were allowed to bear the title “Post Cards”. With time, many counties decided to change the orientation of postcards dedicating the right side to the address while the left side was for the message. The fact that literacy had increased further encouraged sending of postcards hence giving more weight to the Golden Era” title.

With time, things changed further giving room to the divided back postcard where the message was at the back exposing the beautiful image in front. England was the first Country to permit this which opened door for other countries to follow suit.

The History Of Postcards
Post Modern Era. 1916-1945

Things were changing in terms of the appearance of postcards. Between 1916 and1930, white border postcards were common. They consisted of a white border line around the picture.

Then later came the linen postcards thanks to technology allowing printing on linen  During this time, humor was quite common in postcards with people sending funny postcards, some even for World War Two.

The History Of Postcards
Photographic Cards.

Finally, real modern postcards came to be! It started in 1939 after the beginning of the Union oil series. This has seen the number of postcards sent throughout the years increase despite the increase in cost of sending the postcards. This also came with the ease in sending postcards and the freedom of printing whatever you like on your cards. Nowadays, you can even send postcards electronically, how cool is that!

Last Word

That’s pretty much every important moment in the making of postcards. While traveling back in time is fun, take a little time and send a postcard today. Help keep the postcard culture going on. If not for the sake of history, at least do it for the sake of putting a smile on someone’s face!


Hiya, I’m Maud. I’m an English girl who's moved to Berlin - because who wouldn’t fall in love with a country which has words like ‘Kummerspeck’ hidden around every corner... I love traveling and finding out the quirks of each country - and what better way to remember them than on a postcard?


  1. Hi Theresa! My name is Margit, from Hungary. I also deal with the history of postcard and I read in a book, that the first government postcards were made in Austria and Hungary in 1869 – not Australia. In the era (1867-1918), it was the Austro-Hungarian Monarhcy.
    My source: László, Erős Képeslapok könyve (The books of postcards), Bukarest, 1985.
    Have a nice day and best wishes,

    • maud Arnold Reply

      Dear Margit,

      Thanks so much for your comment! I think Australia may have been a typo, because you’re definitely right with Austria. 😀 What a fascinating era! If you’re interested in learning more – here’s an article celebrating the 150th anniversary of the postcard:

      Thanks again for commenting and hope you have a nice day too,

  2. Emma Meaghan Reply

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    • maud Arnold Reply

      Hey Emma, thanks so much for the lovely feedback! We’re really glad you enjoyed the article!
      Best wishes,

  3. Ethan Bill Reply

    it really was interesting and informative. you explained it in extraordinary way. Totally agreed with you on this.

    • maud Arnold Reply

      Hi Ethan, thanks so much for your lovely feedback! We’re so glad you enjoyed reading!
      Happy Wednesday,

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