The internet era has revolutionized communication, enabling instant and electronic transmission. Today people seem to have almost forgotten the hand-written modes of correspondence, since there are a multitude of ‘e-cards’, which are available at the click of a mouse for every conceivable occasion and purpose. Lost in this electronic buzz is the humble postcard, which has been in vogue for more than a hundred and fifty years.

In the western world, the term ‘postcard’ refers to only picture postcards; but in many Asian countries the postcard consists of a blank pre-stamped card, with one and a half sides available for writing. This piece of stationery is the cheapest mode of correspondence, and is widely used by the poorer segments of the population. Often the entire family news and village gossip is narrated in these epistles, and they provide frank and uninhibited information and entertainment to all those who handle the communication from source to destination.

The picture postcard is a fascinating phenomenon, and has a huge fan following. In fact, deltiology, or postcard collection, ranks along with philately and numismatics in terms of interest and popularity among collectors. Postcards are immensely valuable as historical records; they can chronicle people, places and monuments, as well as private and public events.


Plain postcards were in vogue in some European countries in the early years of the nineteenth century. They were issued only by the governments of these countries, carried their official stamps, and were called ‘postals’. In the United States the earliest postcards were private issues, permitted under a patent obtained by one John Carlton in 1861; the patent was later acquired by H. L. Lipman, and the postcards were superscribed with the somewhat quaint legend, ‘Lipman’s postal cards, patent applied for’. Although the United States Government’s official postcards were issued in 1873, the first postcards available with deltiologists are those from the exhibition held in Chicago in 1893. During this period the postcards sold by the Government were priced at one cent apiece, whereas the private cards could be posted only with a two-cent postage stamp.


The first private cards, which were also known as souvenir cards, were succeeded by the ’Private Mailing Card’. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the United States Government accorded permission for private printing and sales of postcards. Since writing was not permitted on the address side of the card, short messages were written over the picture, or in the narrow border provided sometimes at the bottom of the card. In 1901 license was granted to private printers for the first time to call their stationery ‘Postcards’, and a few years later the address side of the card was allowed to be bifurcated and used for messages.


These measures gave a huge fillip to the card industry, and postcard messaging became a national pastime and passion. Along with the rapid developments made in the field of photography and printing technology, it was now possible for people to create their own special photographs and have them printed on to cards. Most of the cards were imported from Germany, which had a flourishing and innovative printing industry .New materials such as linen were combined with paper to produce variations in texture and finish. This period witnessed individual and family creativity at its best, with very picturesque and interesting postcards being put together and mailed to relatives and friends. Postcard collection took on the aspect of a collective mania and was the biggest national hobby of the United States. Families would boast of albums of cards with a huge collection of pictures and photographs. The popularity of card collection can be gauged from the fact that in 1908 the number of postcards mailed was eight times the population. Postcards suffered a decline after the war, partly due to the altered global economics, and partly owing to the development of audiovisual media such as the cinema.


Postcards are still an integral part of the souvenir merchandise at tourist spots all over the world. Apart from the glossy cards on sale at these places, hand-painted and hand-printed cards are also available. It is of course possible today to click a picture and transmit it instantly across the world by cell phone or email; but the pleasure of receiving a picture postcard with a hand written message remains unique and timeless.


By: Michael Russell
Article Source: Postcard Guide
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