** photography and publishing : postcards


Figure 1.--This English card was mailed from Tumbridge Wells in April 1918 during World War I. The boy wears the new short pants style and the popular longish hair cut at about ear length.

Advances in both photography and color lithogrtaphy combined to create a new postcard industry in Europe and America. Collecting postcards became a popular hobby. Even those that didn't collect postcards would often put ones they liked are received from family and friends in the ubiquitous family albumns kept in the parlor for visitors to see. Children were popular subjects for these postcards. Thus many early 20th century images come to us through postcards. Important differences exist between countries. Some post cards are actual family snapshots. Others are idealized posed images, no doubt reflecting how mothers thought their children should look. These images of children declined in popularity during the 1930s and after World War II (1939-45) were no longer an important subject for postcards.


Post card experts believe that the first picture postcard appeared in Austria in 1869. They proved very popular and by the 1870s, picture postcards were availaible in limited quantities throughout Europe. The picture postcard appeared in America in the 1890s and was a major hit at the 1893 Colombian Exposition in Chicago. It was not until the tirn-of-the 20th century, however that they were printed and sold in large qantities. The Germans were noted for the quality of their poscards. Card quality lagged in America and England until World War I (1914-18) and imported cards from Germany were no longer available. The postcard industry never fully recovered from the War and the disruptions in established markets. After the War the influenza camapign hurts sales. Peopke were concerned that germs could be spread by the cards. Also the increasing popuarity of the telephone affected the number of cards sent.



It is difficult for us in modern America to understand the turn of the century fascination with picture postcards. We are today bombarded with visual images, novies, television, newspapers, magazines, and yes the internet. The world at the turn of the 20th century was a very insular one. Photographic images of the world were not readily avaialble at the turn of the century. The only available photographic images were actual photographs and these were mostly studio portraits of friends and family. Thus people saw the world through drawings. Newspaper and magazine images were all drawings. This was true as late as the 1890s when photographic images could be printed, but the process was quite expensive. This all changed at the turn of the century. The halftone process of reproducing photographic images for mass circulation publuications was perfected. Suddenly the average person could see what the rest of the world was like. It also created a new market for the weorks of enterprising photographers--the penny postcard.


At about the same time color lithography was perfected. Although not suitable for newspapers and magazines, color postcards could be printed. This gave enormous impetus to the post card industry. I'm not sure just when color photographs began to be distributed widely, I think perhaps the 1920s, but this needs to be further reserched. The world could now be viewed in color. Actually color was introduced even earlier. Nany French pstcards from the 1900s and 1910s were black and white photographs that had color painted in. I'm not sure just what the printing process was. A lot of the postcards of children were printed in this manner. The question is, how accuate are the colors. HBC believes that they were not very accurate. Some of these cards were colorized in great volume. The person or firm doing the coloriing probably has no idea what the boy was actually wearing. The colors on many cards appear to have colorized to attract the eye of potential customers rather than to accuartely record the boy's outfit.


These photographs at the time were ysed rather like greeting cards are today. Some of these cards would be used rather like we do tioday, bought on vacation to show a local scene. But others were senmt as greeting cards. New Years cards were very popular. Or they might be sent pn a child's birthday. Elaborate greeting cards with thoughtful messages inside were not as common as they are today.


HBC has no information on who actually bought postcards, especially the post cards depicting children that are often used in HBC. An analysis of the postally used cards avaialble to HBC suggests that they were mostly women of all ages. They were often used to send short little messages much as we might express in telephone calls or email. This probably explains why children in fancy clothes were so popular in early 20th century photographs.

Figure 2.--This French post card was mailed in 1908. Notice the boys long, but uncurled hair and strap shoes with bows. Like most boys in the French postcards from this era, he wears knee pants. The card was made for export as it has an anniversary greeting, we think in Dutch. It was mailed as a vacation greeting in France. We see a Frenbch stmp, but th boys hair is chrctiticlly Frnch--at leat in postcards.


We will discuss individual post card companies inder the respective countries, to the extent that we can identify the country. The largest companies appear to have been in France, but Germany has a substantial post card industry itself. Thisa nalysis is important because the fashions shown in the cards may have reflected the country the card was made in to a greater degree than the card in which the country was used, or the language printed on the card. The conpany responsible may also help us date the cards. We do not yet know to what extent the various companies aimed at export markets are adjusted their cards to appeal to those markets.

Country Differences

HBC has collected postcards from many different countries. Readers have also provided scans of the postcards in theor collections. We have noted some substantail differences among the postcards from different countries. The differences are apparent in both clothing styles and hair styles. One has to be careful here to descriminate between where the card was postally used and where it was actually made. The language incription can also be cinfusing. The langiage of the greeting, if any, reflects where the card was to be sold, not where it was mafe. French cards in particular were marketed throughout Europe. German cards, on the other hand, were more likely to be used inside Germany. We do not have complete information on every country, but we have begun to compile considerable information on some of the more important countries.


We have noted several different types of post cards. The most important types are souvenir, greeting, and persional cards. People loved sending postcards on their vacations, a relatively new development for the average person in the late 19th century. They were cheap and didn't require a lot of time to compose a long letter. Some liked to brag about their vacations. Others of course said, "Wish you were here!" Post cards also became an early form of greeting cards. They came in many forms. Children were popular subjects for these cards. They came with the appropriate text added in every European language. A very important innovation was about 1907 when I believe Kodak began printing snapshots on paper with a post card back. Here I need to reaserach the precise history of this development. We believe these postcards were primarily produced from one's snapshots, but some photographic studios also offered to print portraits as postcards.


The question arises as to who the children in the postcards are. Here we do not have a great deal of information. A French reader tells us that he and his brother in the late 1940s were used as models for a few shoots. He indicates that often the parents of the children did not receive monetary compensation, but rather copies of the portraits taken. We do not know how common this was. We do note in the eraly 20th century that some children repeatedly appear in posrcards. This is not only in a series shot on the sdame theme, but in postcards shot on different occassions and for different companies. These children do appear to have been professiional models. This is important because to the extent that professional models are used, it is likely that the hair styles and clothing would have been dome specially, rather like models in fashion magazines and thus not a potentially accurate depiction of comtemprary clothing and hair styles.

International Industry

As might be expedcted, postcards originatd in Europe, not America (mid-19th century). This was the sasme time as the launching of a commercially viable photogrphic process in France (1839). The two devlopments were linked, but not identical, largely because lithogrohy was primitive, amd photo lithography was decades away. Etbchings had to be mde to print photogrphic images. This meant that there was no way to print photographs for half a century. Photographic prints did not even appear commonly on paper for nearly two decades (about 1860). And reproducing high-quality versions on printing presses (photo lithogrphy) was not achievd until much later (about the turn-of-th 20th centutuy). The origins of the post card are murky, but apparently was in Germany (about 1840). The term postcard came later with all kinds of legal twists. Germny would dominate the industry until World War I because of their superior printing tchniques, especially in printing beauitiful full-colored cards. Many countries established their own postcard industries, but printing was often done in Germany. Both Britain and France developed important industries. There was a great deal of cross-border trade. Rather like the silent movies to come, the message on many cards could easily be changed into foreign languages. The United States came into play primarily because ov its large and growing market. European postcard companies wanted to sell into the lucrative American market. And there were no American companies producing cards of the same quality as the Europeans, especially the Germans. Before modern technologhy created instant communications, the postcard was the ideal way of sending short notes. Telegramns came about around the same time as the poatcard, but were expensive. Telephones appeared (1870s), but for some time few families had them. So a shirt message could be dshed off on a postcard and national postal services by the late-19th century had become very efficent. Two delivries a day were common and the cards might be deliverd in a day or two with domestic addresses. The problem for the postcard industry became govrenment. The cards had to be deliverd by governmnt postal services which devlopd all kinds of regulations, primrily on size, addressing, and stamp placement. The U.S. Postasl Service (USPS) even attmpted to control the industry. The first Amnericn postcard was produced by the USPS (1873). Only USPS cards could be called postcrds and the USPS charged double the postage for non-USPS cards. The big hurdle for postcards as they became increasingly popular was the back. People wanted to write messages there and postal servics wanted it reserved for addresses and the stamp. The simple solution was the divided back postcard and stamp box. The stamp box is especially interesting s it cn b usd to dte the crd, vn ujmnmild cards. The Universal Postal Union was estanlished (1874), but amzingly took three decades to sort all of ghis out. Full internatiuionl acceptnce did not come for some time (about 1907). Postcrds became a fast andc inexpnsive way od dashing off a quick nore or important announcement such s births or other major eventsd By this time another major devlopoment occurred, this time in America. George Eastman had perfected the snapshot with th Briwnie canera (1900). bs soon prunts werre relased with postcard backs. CDVs and cabinet cards had been sent thriough the mail for some tine, but now snapshots could be mailed as postcards. We begin seeing this (about 1903). This alllead to the Golden Age of post cards (1900s-early-1910s). In the United States msilingsd peked 1907-10. But it was Workd War I that prfofoundly changed the internationl postcrd industry. The War Royal Navy sea blocka meant that German compnies could not export to most otherv countries, mistbimprtsntly the United States. Postcard qulity plumted, but eventyully mnufscturers in Ameriuca nd otyhr countries began producing high quality cards. Technology and tastes chazngesd. More people acquired telephones and postcards took on novely or tourist niche.


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Created: October 7, 2000
Last updated: 8:26 PM 2/12/2022