The History of the Picture Postcard
Deltiology is the official name for postcard collecting – and along with stamps and coins, they are one of the three most collectable items in the world. You can trace world history through postcards, from historical buildings and famous people to holidays, art and much more.
The world’s first adhesive postage stamp was the Penny Black. With a portrait of Queen Victoria, it was issued in 1840 in England. Prior to this, postcards as we know them didn’t exist. Small cards, created through lithograph prints and wood-cuts, were normally hand delivered. Other early predecessors were envelopes with a printed picture.
In 1861 in the United States, John Charlton of Philadelphia invented a postcard decorated with a small border – obtaining a copyright. The first privately-made postcard sent through the mail with an adhesive stamp was manufactured in Austria in 1869. By 1870, picture postcards were being used in various countries.
The first multi-coloured postcard was the Heligoland card in 1889, followed by picture postcards in France of the landmark Eiffel Tower in 1889 and 1890 – which boosted postcards’ mass popularity. In the US, the first picture postcard produced as a souvenir went on sale at the Columbian Exposition in 1893 in Chicago.
In 1900, postcards using real photographs were first printed on film stock paper. Many were advertising and trade cards, although some featured entertainers or family members.
In 1906, the increasing popularity of photo and lithographed cards prompted Eastman Kodak to launch an affordable camera – the folding pocket camera – so people could take black and white photos and have them printed on to postcards.
Between 1915 and 1930 American technology advanced, enabling the production of higher-quality cards. To bring costs down, white borders were left round the cards. New equipment – rotary drum printers – enabled publishers to print thousands of cards containing the same image and racks of postcards sprang up for the first time at tourist attractions.
Hand-tinted postcards were produced in Belgium and France – black and white photographs coloured by hand, giving them a realistic appearance. This was labour intensive, with the cards being painted mainly by female assembly line workers, with each employee responsible for a particular colour.
By 1930, new technology enabled postcards to be printed on a linen-type paper in bright and vivid colours, with views and comic postcards being the most popular. In 1939, new colour “Photochrome” postcards were invented and after World War II, they were mass-printed by American manufacturers. By the 1950s, they dominated the marketplace. These postcards, usually based on colour photographs published on glossy card, are still in use today.
In the 1930s, saucy cartoon-style postcards were first printed – selling a massive 16 million a year. The bawdy pictures made use of innuendo and featured stereotypical comic characters. Saucy seaside postcards, in the same vein as the Carry On films, became particularly popular but during the late 1970s and early ’80s, their popularity began to wane in a more politically-correct climate.
The British Post Office issued their first PHQ – Postal Head Quarters – collectors’ postcards in 1973, depicting the design of their commemorative stamps. They began with the cricketer, WG Grace.
Past designs have included the Queen Mother’s 80th birthday in 1980, the Prince of Wales’ marriage in 1981, navigation and astronomy in 1984, the bicentenary of The Times in 1985, Wilding’s photograph of the Queen in 1986, the Queen’s 70th birthday in 1996, the Rugby world Cup 1999, classic Carry On and Hammer Horror films in 2008, the London Olympic and Paralympic Games of 2012 and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in the same year. Hundreds of commemorative postcards have been released over the years.
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