By Linda Sivasi-Kelly
Door County Almanak, No. 5, 1990
Sending postcards is a curious custom we’ve had with us for over 125 years.
In 1861 John Charlton, an American, produced the first private mailing card. The printed cards were highly embellished with a decorative border and a small space for a brief message. The cards were the same size as the basic mailing envelope and took the standard ½ penny envelope postage.
On October 1, 1870, the Swiss and British post offices simultaneously introduced the first official ½ penny postcard. The thin buff 4 ½” x 2 ½” cards immediately became popular with the public. In the same year, M. Leon Besnardeau, a stationer from Sille-le-Guillaume, France, produced some special postcards for the use of the troops stationed at a nearby village. Those first pictorial postcards had military and patriotic postcards had military and patriotic designs. Thus, a fad had begun for the specialized picture postcard.
By 1896 more printers were producing postcards. They followed specific government guidelines. The cards featured a small scene on the backside with a space left open for a brief message. The front was completely black for the address.
In 1899 the standard size of the postcard was enlarged to 5 ½” x 3 ½”. The postcard era began. There were printed cards for every occasion – birthdays, weddings, and holidays. The most popular was the Valentine postcard. Inexpensive hand coloring was developed, and postcards became more elaborate.
A worldwide craze for collecting postcards hit in 1900. Almost every home had a postcard album. Postcard trading was quickly becoming the number one pastime. Postcard swapping parties were the social rage.
Countries around the world were producing postcards. Out of Germany came intricate woodcuts of historic buildings. France had engraved cityscapes and horse-drawn traffic scenes. Crests and coat-of-arms were best sellers in England. In the United States, advertisement postcards were most popular.
F. Hartmann designed the divided postcard in 1902. He persuaded the British post office to use his new format. Soon, the United States and other countries followed. This card was much more practical. A longer message could be written on the left side of the back and the address on the right. This revolutionary card freed the whole front side of the card for the “picture”. Printers of postcards now ha more space to work with. Soon every subject was put on a postcard.
By 1907 the postcard collecting craze had really taken hold with the general public. Postcard producers were always looking for new ideas. This led to the novelty card. The 3-D card was developed. These could be viewed through a portable or box stereoscope. Every fashionable Victorian parlor had a scope on its tea table. “Meteor” transparency cards by the H.T.L. Company of Germany were most spectacular. When held up to the light, hidden figures or objects mysteriously appeared. Silk portrait postcards with brilliant colors were produced by Steven & Grant of France. Max Ettlinger, an American, produced one of the most popular and unusual novelty postcards – the “squeaking” card. Pictures of animals, birds, and even children let out a sound when pressed.
Thousands of different postcards were available worldwide in the 1900s. Satirical humor of scantily clad bathing beauties graced the front of postcards. The Art Nouveau postcards of this time promoted a special type of “art” postcards collector. Works of Mucha and other fine artists were published on postcards. These postcards brought art to the middle class.
With the rise in popularity of postcards came a rise in postage. By the mid-1900s, it cost one cent to mail a card.
During WWI, postcards were sold by the YMCA and the American Women’s War Fund to raise money for worthy British and Allied causes. These postcards often have emotional poems or songs about soldiers or patriotic themes such as national flags or emblems. Some of these cards were linen with beautiful embroidery. They were suitable for framing.
After the war, the world entered into a lighter lifestyle and cartoon characters began to show up on postcards. Felix the Cat debuted on a postcard in 1917 and the first Mikey Mouse postcard was published in 1928.
The 1920’s started the era of personality postcards. Actors such as Charlie Chaplin and sports greats like Jack Dempsey graced the front of postcards. Teenage girls collected movie star cards and boys collected sports heroes. Royalty cards were also popular. Famous world events were recorded on postcards. The 1923 earthquake that hit Japan, the first Wembley Cup Match in England, and the discovery of King Tutankhamen’s tomb by Howard Carter were all depicted on postcards.
Postcards of the Art Deco era captured the rebellious spirit of the time. Bright splashes of color and a mix of designs embellished postcards. Often real gold leaf was added to the designs.
By the mid-1930s travel was easier and available to the masses. Vacations become commonplace. Vacation picture postcards became a popular way to send a message to friends and relatives back home. These postcards had beautiful pictures. Sometimes they were hand-colored photos of the most popular tourist spots. Elaborate postcards in the form of folders could be found in some of the local curio shops. These folders contained up to eight scenes and took additional postage to mail. Vacation postcards took a long time to reach their destination and often the vacationer was home before his or her cards!
Postcard sending is just as popular today. Greeting card companies have once again come out with postcards for every occasion. Stationery shops sell reprints of antique postcards. The United States post office prints special commemorative postcards and postcard stamps regularly. These have become popular collectibles.
Today postcards not only announce a greeting but everything from dentist’s appointments and department store sales, to the fabulous vacation Great-aunt Josephine is having in Europe. Postcards are a convenient and inexpensive way to communicate long or short distances.
The next time you send or receive a postcard, stop and think about the colorful past this small paper invention has had!