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Postcards are one of the most commonly collected types of vintage ephemera, in part because many are readily available but also because they are fascinating little snapshots in time, intriguing glimpses into the past that everyone can enjoy.

Especially in the case of the earliest postcards, many of the scenes and events they capture were often recorded nowhere else, making them a valuable addition to the historical record.

The history of postcards is also quite interesting. As early as 1848, some people were sending “mailed cards” through the postal system, although these weren’t technically “postcards.” But on February 27, 1861, the U.S. Congress passed a law that allowed privately printed cards weighing one ounce or less to be mailed, and that same year, John P. Charlton copyrighted the very first postcard in America.

As enjoyable as collecting vintage postcards is, dating them can be quite challenging and usually requires a fair amount of detective work. In a few instances, a date may actually appear in the postcard image itself, as with the Trube photo postcard entitled “Oh You Sea Wall,” but this is the rare case.

With one notable exception, postcard companies did not date the postcards they produced. Chicago-based Curt Teich & Co. was the only one to devise its own unique system for dating its postcards and included an alphanumeric code on each one that, when decoded, identified the year it was published. One noteworthy example of the value of the Teich system is this Balinese Room postcard whose code reveals that it was produced in 1942. The Balinese Room debuted in 1942, and because we can date this postcard to precisely this year, we can be certain that the view presented is a very rare glimpse of the club’s original interior design, just as it looked the year it opened, a design very different from the interior in later years.

The only other company to provide any kind of dating information for its postcards was Tichnor Bros. Unfortunately, Tichnor simply specified a very broad range for its postcards (1930-1945), which is not particularly helpful.

One obvious way of dating an old postcard is simply to look at the image displayed on its face. Depending upon what’s depicted there, the clothing worn by people in the image or the models of vintage cars that are present can provide a rough approximation of the postcard’s date. Additional clues are the buildings and other structures that are present in a scene—or not. If we know, for example, the year that a certain hotel was built, that fact can help narrow down the date of the postcard.

Another obvious, but also sometimes misleading, clue is the postmark on the back of postcards that were mailed. While a postmark is useful in generally dating a postcard, it only indicates when the card was mailed, and in some cases, this could have been years after the postcard was originally produced. If the postmark has faded or is otherwise illegible, the stamp that was used to mail the card can also be helpful since postal rates for postcards changed over time.

For vintage postcards that were never stamped and mailed, a more solid clue for dating them, especially in the case of the older ones, is the “stamp box” on the back of the card, which indicated where the stamp was to be affixed. The interesting and unique designs of these stamp boxes can be traced to certain periods of production which, in turn, can help date the postcard itself.

POSTCARD PERIODS: To assist in the dating of vintage postcards, and based on the fact that postcard producers followed the trends of their times, researchers developed a classification system using a postcard’s material and design as a basis for approximating its period of production. Of course, postcard types produced in one period could also have been produced in another, although not in the same volume as the trending card type of that period. While the dates for these time periods vary slightly from source to source, they are in general agreement, as follows.

Pioneer Period (1870-1898): On June 8, 1872, Congress passed legislation approving the government production of postal cards, and the first one was issued on May 1, 1873. One side of the postcard was for the sender’s message, and the other side was for the recipient’s address. By law, government-issued postcards were the only ones allowed to bear the words “Postal Card.” Private publishers were still allowed to print their own postcards, but they required more postage (two cents versus one cent).

Private Mailing Card Period (1898-1901): New legislation was passed in 1898 that allowed private companies to produce postcards displaying the statement “Private Mailing Card, Authorized by Act of Congress of May 19, 1898,” distinguishing them from government cards. These cards could now be mailed for the same one-cent postage. Messages were still not allowed on the address side. Many PMCs also contained the words “Postal Card—Carte Postale,” indicating that they could be mailed internationally.

Undivided Back Period (1901-1907): In December 1901, the Postmaster General gave private printers permission to use the words “Post Card” on the back of postcards instead of the longer “Private Mailing Card” and act citation. This period is so named because messages were still not allowed on the address side, and it is also referred to as the Post Card period due to the new labeling. By this time, most postcards displayed images on the front, leaving very little space for a message.

Early Divided Back Period (1907-1914): A major shift occurred in the postcard industry in 1907 when Congress passed an act allowing postcards to bear messages on a card’s back. The new “divided back” reserved space for the message on the left half and the address on the right half, and thus this period’s name. This change caused a surge in popularity of postcards, and for that reason, this period is also known as the “Golden Age of Postcards.”

During this period and through the White Border period, another type of postcard emerged, called a “real photo” postcard, or RPPC. These postcards were first produced using the Kodak “postcard camera,” which could take a photograph and then print the image on postcard-sized photographic paper, complete with a divided back and a place for postage.

White Border Period (1915-1930): Throughout early postcard history, German printers dominated the postcard market due to their superior technology. With the onset of World War I, however, American printers began supplying most of the postcards in the United States. As a result, quality fell, and people lost interest in collecting postcards, effectively ending their “Golden Age.” This period is so named because printers saved ink during this time by not printing to the edge of the card, leaving a white border around the image. Postcards from the White Border period also began to include a description of the image on the divided back.

Linen Period (1930-1945): In the 1930s, the Linen period was ushered in when new printing processes made it possible to produce postcards with high rag content, giving them a distinctive texture and the look of being printed on linen. Curt Teich & Co., whose postcards became popular around the world, printed its first linen postcard in 1931. During this period, some postcards were printed to the edge of the card although most retained the white border. Linen postcards eventually gave way to photochrome cards but continued to be produced for over a decade into the Photochrome period.

Photochrome Period: Modern photochrome postcards, which are in color and which closely resemble photographs, first appeared in 1939 and eventually came to dominate the postcard market. These are the postcards most familiar to us today. With the advent of the Internet and online technologies, the postcard’s popularity declined, and today they are usually purchased simply as souvenirs.