Back in Time: The History of Postcard Design

Over the last year or so I’ve found myself picking up old postcards every time I visit an antique shop. I’m drawn to the grainy, nostalgic feel of a lot of the old photographs that they feature. But most of all I love how postcards can serve as small pieces of local history. I think that they can be beautiful little representations of a specific time or place.

Postcards can feature countless different types of subject matter. Postcards that depict landscapes, cityscapes and other scenes are known as view cards. Postcards can also serve as greeting cards, or they can depict a historical event. They can feature works of art, or often have photographic portraits of women, children and lovers, sometimes with hand tinted details. The possibilities are endless.

The idea of the postcard was created by German postal official Dr. Heinrich von Stephan. Once the first postcards were sent in North Germany in 1870, they quickly spread to other parts of Europe and North America. Early postcards from 1898 to 1901 were printed with the words “Private Mailing Card” on the front which also featured both small images and hand written messages. By 1907, the design of the back of postcards was divided in half. The left side was blank for writing messages and the right side featured stamps and addresses. This time was considered the golden age of postcards. From 1915 to 1930 many postcards began to feature a white border around the image in order to save on ink. During the 1930s and  early 40s postcards were printed on paper with a high rag content which gave them the appearance of linen rather than paper. By 1945 this finally gave way to photochrom postcards. Photochrom is a method of colourizing black and white images and printing using halftone offset lithography. The result is usually images with vivid, unreal colours.

The postcards I’ve picked up are all either white border postcards (left), real photo postcards (middle), or photochroms (right). The white border postcards could date anywhere from 1915 to 1930. I have one postcard from Windsor, Ontario that has an American 2 cent postage stamp which, according to my research, dates more specifically from 1925 to 1928. Even though postcards from the white border period are considered lower quality, the ones that I’ve found from this era are some of my favourites. The real photo postcards (postcards developed from actual negatives) could date anywhere from 1910 all the way up to 1962, according to this online database which dates real photo postcards according to the paper manufacturer and the appearance of the stamp box. The photochrom cards are a bit newer and could date anywhere from 1945-present.

Unassuming objects like postcards can serve as artifacts of design history. They can also tell us a lot about photography, printing processes, and local history. But more than anything, I think they’re just super pretty!

Thanks for reading!