•Social study from the history of postcards•

1.) Introduction

Social history is the study of people and society over time. It is a way to look at people and their relations and how society organizes itself over time. Social history focuses on the behaviors of people and social patterns, such as values, and attitudes, of certain ethnic groups or areas of land. A postcard is a card sent through the mail at a lesser postage rate than a sealed envelope, which usually has a side with a picture and a side for a written message.

Many postcards were, and still are, made from photographs. Photographs can depict social history without words. They can show change over time in a certain area. Aerial views can be used to show the urbanization of a town into a city, or any other type of developmental, or demographic change. Photographs can also show the change in the styles of buildings, clothing, and transportation in different societies. Postcards can be an outstanding source of social history, because they show what was popular or seen as important in the area in which the postcard depicts. The photographs on the postcards themselves can show the changes of an area over time. Postcards are a good source of local history and can tell a story of a specific area.

The picture postcard was not invented as much as it evolved from other sorts of cards. Playing cards were used as visiting cards during the 18th. century in Europe. They were usually the size of a playing card and had pictures printed on them. Also, there was a space for the name to be printed on the front. Occasionally, messages were written on the back. In 1777, a suggestion was made by a French engraver to publish and send engraved cards through the post for a penny. However, this idea was not well-liked because servants or those who handled the card could read the message. Trade cards were also used in order to advertise a business.

Towards the end of the century and into the 19th. century, the style of visiting cards changed. They became smaller, no longer had pictures, and had the names boldly engraved on them. As visiting cards went out of style, more and more people began decorating their writing paper and envelopes. The picture engraved as a heading for the letter would depict the area from where the author was writing. These pictures, which were extremely realistic, evolved into the first postcard.

The German government in 1865 initiated the thought of the first postcard. However the first postcard wasn’t sent until Dr. Emanuel Herrmann wrote and published an article about the use of postcards. The Austrian Post Office was impressed enough to issue the first postcard on October 1, 1869. It was yellow and on the front had a two-kreuzer stamp on the upper right hand corner. Also on the card were three lines printed for the address. The message was written on the backside of the card. The postcards became extremely popular, as close to three million cards were sold in the first three months of sale in Austria-Hungary. The use of the post card spread to Belgium and Holland in January of 1871, and then onto Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. Then the postcard appeared in Canada, followed by Russia in 1872, and France in 1873.

Stamp Austria 1860 3kr

The first postcard was issued by the United States Post Office Department on May 13, 1873. The marks for mailing on the card depicted the bust of Liberty and a circle with the postage amount of one cent. Most cards were used widely as advertisement in the U.S., until they were in general use after the World Columbian Exposition in 1893. Colored cards of the Exposition went on sale and they became extremely popular. On May 19, 1898, an Act of Congress was passed so that privately published postcards were given the same message privileges and rates as government issued cards. All those privately published had to be labeled as such. This marked the start of the Golden Age of postcards in the U. S., which lasted until about 1920, when popular use of the telephone began.

The reason why postcards became so popular is because of the price. Postcards cost less to send in the mail than a sealed envelope. When first issued and all through the Golden Age, postcards could be sent for one cent. Post cards were also popular because they were an easy way to keep in touch while someone was away from home or on vacation. Many postcards took the place of family albums with pictures of families on vacations.

While, postcards show the interesting areas of a certain place, they are also interesting themselves. Pictures can be sent from all over the world to those who have never actually been there. During the Golden Age, postcards were popular because people send a quick «hello» or show a friend or relative where they were staying for a small amount of money. Today postcards are still sent and collected for the same reasons.

2.) Uses of Postcards

Why use a postcard? Why not a regular size piece of paper, you can fit more information on it? Postcards have many uses and they are not only used to write to a loved one or a friend. It is true; postcards are used to write to a friend or family member from a vacation. They can also be used to see a distant place that someone would want to go to. Postcards, in that sense, can be used as advertisement. Postcards can also be used as a way of showing that you are a tourist, by collecting them wherever you go. Along with these uses, postcards have also been used as propaganda during war times and for many political purposes.

Postcards can be a means to simply say «Hi.» People often send postcards from vacation or use local postcards as greeting cards. Also, postcards can be used to show someone how nice of a time you are having on your vacation. Before postcards were developed, many tourists would have used a gazetteer. A gazetteer is a geographical dictionary containing any landmarks or specific attractions of the place a person is going. People would tend to look at a gazetteer before or after they went on vacation to see what they were going to see or what they did see. As tourism became a bigger industry, postcards became more popular as a way to show where you have been and where you are going.

Postcards also serve as advertising functions. As stated before, a tropical island can be shown on a postcard, and automatically anyone who looks at it wants to go there. Even if one’s vacation was dreary and filled with disappointment, postcards still portray the beauty of the vacation spot. Also it would help to make your tourist dream come true.

Postcards can also be used as a means of communication. There are two aspects of communication within a postcard. The front of the postcard contains the picture, which visibly shows where a person was. Most importantly, the back includes the writing.

Postcards can be used to send a note to check up on someone or just say hello. Another use of postcards is as a collector’s item. Collecting postcards was a common pastime and still is today. Many people collect postcards to learn more about history. Modern postcards can be compared to one from hundreds of years ago to learn more about lifestyles back then. Postcards portray how people used to dress versus the present.

Architecture is another aspect of why people collect postcards. Buildings today have changed from those of the past, which you could see using these architectural postcards. Historical buildings are an important factor to find out about different jobs or businesses of the time.

Improvement of buildings is another aspect where postcards can be used. You can take a postcard of a building from fifty years ago and compare it to a picture of a building now and see the major improvements. Postcards are a great source for any historical information needed.

Postcards have been used as propaganda during war times. For instance Uncle Sam may have been used trying to persuade people to get involved in the war efforts. As for politics, postcards were used to show who was running and to tell people who to vote for.

Many people think that postcards are just something that gets sent to friends when they go on vacation. Although that is true, one can see there are a number of other reasons. The most common people who would use postcards today would be historians and postcard collectors. Historians would use postcards to learn more about cultures and lifestyles of the past. For example, comparing the dress of people or the crowded streets of a city. Individuals who collect postcards may do it as a pastime or they may be interested in social history. Postcards are an ideal approach to portray these transformations.

4.) Use of Colorization

Colorization is the process that is used in postcards in which the photograph on the front of the postcard is sent to other countries to enliven the photograph with color, making it more attractive to the consumer. Before postcards were printed in color, greeting cards for certain holidays such as Christmas and Easter were colorized. The first firm for color manufacturing was in Leith, Germany. Called «Lundy», they were the first ones to start printing business messages in color. Soon, color was what people liked most about postcards. Although the first postcard was published on 1869 in Germany, it was not until 1893 that the photos on the postcards were colorized. The popularity of colorization arose when the postcard act was changed in 1898. It transformed the postcard regulations, the development of postcards and the color was changed to beautify the postcards and make it a more profitable product. After the colorization of postcards the postcards sold in stores became more successful than ever.


Publishers often sent their photographs for postcards to India and Italy. These countries specialized in using exotic colors on photographs to catch the eye of the common person. At first this was an ingenious idea, but it caused many problems later. All the postcards were sent to Europe and India because there Lithography was an art. Since the people in India and parts of Europe had never been visit some places showed in an image before, when they received the postcards to be colorized they used their artistic imagination. They used lush colors, although the photos were extravagant one could usually see that the colors were not accurate with the photo. Tourists could see a certain photo of a landmark in a postcard and be disappointed because the colors of the original landmark were completely different from the photo.This shows that in the twentieth century for postcards, people did not care about the authenticity of a photo on a postcard, but only the attractive colors that intrigued the consumer.

The photographs show how colorization could make the ordinary look like paradise, even though it was not authentic. The more color that was used the more people were attracted to the place on the photo.

Today when postcard collectors and historians are looking at pictures they prefer the photos that are in black and white. They find them more genuine and precise. The colorized postcards are useless when trying to find a historical landmark. In the twentieth century colorized postcards were a fad, but today there is certain nostalgia for postcard that is in black and white. The colors that once seemed remarkable and beautiful are now unreliable and artificial.

5) The Dynamics of Postcards

The dynamics of postcards have evolved greatly over time, changing their overall look. There are some postcards that look much different than those from the time of their creation. The sizes, shapes materials, and the overall set up have all varied over time. Some of these changes affected, while others didn’t.

Postcards as you may already know are not very large. They have always been rather small since their creation. Early on in the life span of the postcard there was a standard size widely used in the United States of 3 1⁄2 inches by 5 1⁄2 inches. Almost as large as the majority of modern cards which are approximately 4 inches by 6 inches. Not all postcards have to follow these size restrictions, and there are many exceptions to these rules, but for the most part these are the sizes of postcards.

There are many differences on the front and back of the postcards. One thing that was always the same on the back of the postcard was the area for the stamp in the top right hand corner. It remained in this spot throughout all the changes and remains the same to this day. The earlier cards used the entire back of the card only for the address only, reading «This Side For Address Only». To compensate for this lack of room to write on the back, the majority of these postcards had an area to write on the front, this area was blank could be found on any edge of the card. These cards could be of anything. Some, however, did not have any space to write which left people scribbling over the picture, or writing in the empty sky. As time went on the law restricting writing on the backs of postcards was lifted and a new appearance of the back was introduced. This new appearance had a line splitting the left and right sides so that the right side could be used for the address and the left for the message. After this happened the percent of cards with a space on the front dropped greatly. A rather small number of cards had lines or the address, the non-divided had the least percent, but it seemed that more of the more recent, divided back cards had them.

Older postcards had no color when the photo was originally taken. The only way to have color postcards was to ship them overseas and have them colorized. For this reason, many were just left black and white or an odd shade of brown. The ones that did have color seemed rather phony and the color schemes were unrealistic. Many don’t just look unrealistic but they look almost hand drawn. They are of streets and other places of interest such as post office. The more modern cards can be, and are taken in color. There are a few that are black and white, maybe to give a more authentic look. The most recent cards have the best color and have views that were not obtainable at earlier times. This comes with the invention of the helicopter. There are many pictures of the waterfront and other spots that can easily catch a person’s eye.

6) What’s written on the back?

A telephone call today is equivalent to the postcard of the early twentieth century. Postcards were used to convey everyday messages. This occurred not only in large cities, but also in small towns, where people communicated primarily with postcards. A scribbled message was worth a thousand words, as a whisper is worth just as many interpretations.

In one such postcard dated 1942, questions arise as to what was really meant by the author’s quick message, «Will see you in about 1 week. Hope your mother is well. Are you satisfied with the way you are treating me?» followed by a «Kind regards to all»?

There appears to be evidence of irony in this conversation. We only catch a glimpse into their world, and find ourselves being detectives, trying to uncover the mystery of their lives. Is there a deeper meaning? Perhaps a secret code derived by friends or lovers, to prevent strangers from unrevealing the hidden message within the lines? Yet our first impulse would be to ask who would go through all that trouble to scribble this onto a postcard, when wouldn’t it be more private to speak of such matters in person? However, whoever wrote this message was without the luxury of a telephone.

The backs of these sometimes-plain postcards carried messages, whose real meanings may have remained a mystery to all except those whose eyes were meant to read them. Their words ranged from boring, ordinary how-do-you-dos to exciting, life altering news, worth the attention of the maids. However, messages as such were not so common. The usual message asked the recipient how they were, what they have been doing, and then told a brief description of their present life, nothing out of the ordinary, for the most part.

Punctuation, grammar, and spelling were paid less attention to, as postcards became more and more popular. People began to favor a less formal message system, rather than one of stiff letter writing, especially by the younger generations, who did not quite know how to follow the strict regulations of the proper form and etiquette of a formal letter. It became acceptable, and almost appropriate to converse using this simple way of communication. «Your photo received ok. We think it´s very good intended to see you before this but will sometime soon.» A quickly scribbled message, not restricted by punctuation or clear thought; an acceptable postcard in 1911.

Communication by postcards was not always so simple. When first introduced, the postcard was used more frequently as an advertising tool, rather than a communication device, and followed many strict rules related to size, form, and dynamics. Prior to March 1st 1907, the postal law stated that no words other than the address were to be written on the back of postcards. However, society was much too eager to be restricted by this limitation, and did not dawdle in their want for change. They insisted on using the space intended for the lovely picture on the front, as their letterhead. This appears to answer the question of why any postcard found before 1907 has no split back, and why words are often scribbled across scenic treasures. This also explains why some postcards contain no words, but are simply mailed to a friend, for the benefit of the card, to add to one’s collection.

To classify postcards into systematic time slots, there are more than merely dates, which are capable of this task. The language, for instance, used during the turn of the century, was more carefully laid out and enunciated, than the diction of individuals during the mid-century. A postal written in 1909 reads: «Perhaps we won’t see you as we are at Weirs Beach for the day.»  Its language flows elegantly, like a poem. A look at a more recent postcard shows the change of cultural ethnicity, written to a friend between the late 1970’s to the early 1990’s. «Hey Erin what’s up! I’m having fun down here just chilling in the sun maxing. The beach is gorgeous you should come down and see. Well. By yours truly DEL.H»

It is sometimes hard to decipher what a person wrote more than hundred years ago. A slang word, which may have been everyday then, is now a complete mystery today. The cursive of today has strayed away from the Old English language of a few hundreds of years ago; however, it was still visible during the early twentieth century, especially how a capital «F» or «J» was strung. A jumble of letters to us formed a word to them, or perhaps an abbreviation, which is no longer used.

The telephone and now the internet is the center of our universe, connecting millions of people from all corners of the planet. We communicate, taking this luxury for granted. When the postcard was first introduced, people’s thoughts could be passed from one to another without leaving one’s home. Just as we do, they took this new communication for granted, as theirs words were like the voice we now hear on the other end of the telephone, or even more recently, the pop-up chat box online.

7) Postcard Publishers

When you think of what’s on the back of a postcard one usually thinks of an address and the quick letter one writes to one another. The written messages wrote to one another in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is both interesting and intriguing, however, most people would not think publishing companies fit these criteria.

Although publishers are neither interesting nor intriguing they are very helpful. The names of publishing companies and when they were in business can be extremely beneficial. The name of the publisher is located on the back of the postcard usually vertically written on the left side. The basic identification of postcards begins with the publisher. Postcards can be dated using the time the publisher existed and was in business. If a collector comes across one postcard, which is part of a set, and he wants to find the rest, it is easy to do so if you know the name of the publisher. Most do not realize how useful knowing information about publishing companies can be.

Since postcards originated in Austria, publishing companies formed in Europe before they did in America. The major publishers in Europe were Wolff  Hagelberg, Raphael Tuck and Sons, and Marcus Ward and Company. Wolff  Hagelberg was from Berlin Germany and printed some of the more beautiful postcards. He is known for using poems in his cards by E.E. Griffon and M.S. Haycraft in the mid to late 1800’s. Raphael Tuck and Sons had publishing houses in Paris, London, and later in New York. They are most famous for publishing cards for the King and Queen of England. While they were in business from the mid 1800’s to the early 1900’s they published postcards but also books, die-cut cards, fringed silk cards, and scrapbooks. From the mid 1860’s to the mid 1890’s Marcus Ward and Company published postcards in London, England. They published high quality decorative Christmas cards from that time.


Soon the United States caught on and publishing companies started to spring up in the U.S. Some of the more famous publishers were The New England News Company, The American Art Postcard Company, The Tichnor Brothers Incorporated, The Hugh C. Leighton Company Manufacturers, and the most recognized The Detroit Publishing Company.

William A. Livingstone and Edwin H. Husher formed the Detroit Publishing Company in 1898. They were the owners to the American rights to a process for lithographically adding color to black and white negatives. The process was known as photocroms or later Aac, and it permitted the mass production of postcards. In the fall of 1897, Livingstone persuaded William Henry Jackson to become a partner in the company. Jackson was a landscape photographer and they added the thousands of negatives produced by Jackson to the Detroit Publishing Company’s inventory. By using Jackson’s file of negatives and the photocrom process to make Jackson’s black and white negatives colorized they became one of the largest American publishers of postcards. The Detroit Publishing Company issued thousands of high quality photographs showing buildings, historical sites, natural landmarks, sports activities, and more. With the declining sale of photographs and postcards during World War I and the introduction of new and cheaper printing methods, the Detroit Publishing Company went out of business in 1924; but not without first leaving an important imprint on the country. By mass-producing their postcards, The DPC allowed many Americans to view places in America that before postcards and the photocrom process existed people would not have been able to see in such color and perfect detail.

Information about publishing companies is extremely helpful to postcard collectors. Publishers can aide in many different things such as finding a particular postcard one desires, dating postcards, and/or find a particular type of cards, an example of this is Christmas cards or a publisher that specialized in the work a of a certain artist.