Postcard history begins in the latter half of the 19th century. The introduction of postcards and any changes that occurred with vintage postcards was regulated by law. This makes it fairly easy to use postcard history to determine a vintage postcard’s date.
The major eras in American Postcard History:
- Postcard Pre-History and Lipman Postal Cards
- Beginning of American Postcard History – Pioneer Cards
- Private Mailing Card Era
- Undivided Back “Post Card” Era
- Divided Back Postcard Era
Before the 1860s postal mail in all countries was either a package or a letter. With letters, because envelopes would have to be made by the sender, usually the actual sheet of paper that the letter was written on was simply folded to leave the outer sides blank and one of these blank sides would bear the address and any indication of postage paid.
Some informal precursors to modern postcards were lithograph prints, small personal cards and woodcuts that were hand delivered, not mailed through the federal post. These may have been used as novelties or as a sort of personal calling card.
Prior to 1861 there was no law or regulation relating to postcards and any that were mailed may or may not have been delivered depending on whatever the postal carrier or post master involved in their transport thought of them.
Postcard Pre-History – Lipman Postal Cards (1861 – 1872)
1861 was an important year in postcard history. On Feb. 27, 1861 the 36th Congress of the United States passed “An Act establishing certain Post Routes.” Section 13 allowed the mailing of post cards. The section reads:
And be it further enacted, That cards, blank or printed, blanks in packages weighing at least eight ounces, and seeds or cuttings, in packages not exceeding eight ounces in weight, shall also be deemed mailable matter, and charged with postage at the rate of one cent an ounce, or fraction of an ounce, to any place in the United States under fifteen hundred miles, and at the rate of two cents an ounce or fraction of an ounce, over fifteen hundred miles, to be prepaid by postage stamps.
This act, which was the first in the world allowing for post cards, caused a bit of an uproar over concerns that the government would lose money and that the contents of these cards would not be private. However, after Fort Sumter was attacked little over a month later on April 12, 1861 igniting the American Civil War, the issue of post cards was forgotten by most people for a time.
Later that same year Mr. John P. Charlton of Philadelphia, PA was granted a copyright on privately manufactured postcards. This copyright was transferred to H. L. Lipman of Philadelphia. However, the earliest postmark found on a “Lipman’s Postal Card” is from October 25, 1870.
Government Issued Postcards
Austria became the first country to issue its own postcard in 1869. These cards were sold with the postage stamp imprinted on them and were blank on both sides. The address was written on the same side as the stamp and the message was written on the reverse.
It is important, at this point, to note that postcard collectors use two terms to refer to the two main types of postcards.
- Postal card refers to a card that is issued by the postal authority and has the postage imprinted on it – this is the kind Austria was using.
- Postcard is the term used for a privately manufactured mailing card that needs to have proof of postage paid affixed to it – this is what Lipman held the copyright for.
However, the usage of these terms on the cards themselves was not regulated for some time and can not solely be used to determine whether the card was privately or federally manufactured.
After Austria issued their postal cards, the idea became very popular in Europe. This was probably at least partly because they were less expensive than regular post.
Official Beginning of American Postcard History – Pioneer Cards (1873 – 1897)
Pioneer Card is the term generally used to refer to postcards created before the Private Mailing Card Act of 1893 allowing privately printed postcards to receive the discounted postage rate. Although people disagree on when this era in vintage postcard history should begin, we at Vintage American think the issuance of U.S. Government “Postals” marks the official beginning.
Government Postal Cards – “Penny Postcards”
On Nov. 15, 1870, Postmaster General Creswell recommended that Congress approve the issuance of a one cent postal card. Because of privacy concerns, Congress didn’t approve the issuance of postal cards until June 8, 1872.
This act from the 42nd Congress was entitled, “An Act to revise, consolidate, and amend the Statutes relating to the Post-office Department.” The relevant sections to U.S. postcard history read:
- Section 130. That mailable matter shall be divided into three classes: first, letters; second, regular printed matter; third, miscellaneous matter.
- Section 131. That mailable matter of the first class shall embrace all correspondence, wholly or partly in writing, except book-manuscripts and corrected proof-sheets passing between authors and publishers.
- Section 132. That mailable matter of the second class shall embrace all matter exclusively in print, and regularly issued at stated periods from a known office of publication, without addition by writing, mark, or sign.
- Section 170. That to facilitate letter correspondence and provide for the transmission of the mails, at a reduced rate of postage, of messages, orders, notices, and other short communications, either printed or written in pencil or ink, the Postmaster-General shall be, and he is hereby, authorized and directed to furnish and issue to the public, with postage-stamps impressed upon them, “postal cards,” manufactured of good stiff paper, of such quality, form, and size, as he shall deem best adapted for general use; which cards shall be used as a means of postal intercourse, under rules and regulations to be prescribed by the Postmaster-General, and when so used shall be transmitted through the mails at a postage charge of one cent each, including the cost of their manufacture.[2b]
The Post Office Department in Springfield, MA became the first to sell a Penny Post Card on May 12, 1873. They were sold in other cities the following day. Reportedly 200,000 were sold in 2 ½ hours in New York City.
The Penny Postcards measured 3 in. by 5 1/8 in. The stamp was printed in the upper right corner and is described as a “profile of the Goddess of Liberty surrounded by a lathework border, with the words ‘U.S. POSTAGE’ above and ‘ONE CENT’ below.” The other side was completely blank for messages.
Privately Produced Correspondence Cards
Because of the 1872 Act, only postcards issued by the U.S. Postal Department could bear the words “Postal Card.” All other privately produced cards had the words “Correspondence Card,” “Mail Card,” or “Souvenir Card” printed on their backs.
Also, only the government Postal Cards or private cards with no writing on them could be mailed at the one cent rate. Private postcards with writing on them were charged the two cent letter rate. This effectively ended the use of privately manufactured cards for personal correspondence – because they cost at least twice as much as the government postal cards.
Companies and merchants continued to use Private Mailing Cards after 1873 as advertisements. According to the law, companies could print an advertisement on one side of the mailing card and only be charged the one cent rate. (Example: Vintage advertising postcard from Hurst Publishers to the left)
At this time in America’s history a large portion of the population was rural and spread across great distances. Radios and automobiles didn’t exist. The telephone wasn’t invented until 1876 and most rural people didn’t receive a newspaper regularly. Private mailing cards used as advertisements quickly became a very inexpensive and popular way for businesses to advertise.
Picture Postcards & Souvenir Cards
The first popular picture postcards in America were released in 1893 to commemorate the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. These were made from uncut sheets of the government penny postal cards with images of the exposition buildings printed on the blank sides. Although this extra printing was done privately, causing the postage rate for these cards to go up to two cents, the demand was very high. In fact these cards are the first to be massively collected as souvenirs.
The pictures to the right are one example of a Chicago Columbian Exposition picture postcard. This one features “The Women’s Building.” Unfortunately, the sender of this postcard wrote the address and the personal message on the wrong sides of the card, which is why it has a red “UNMAILABLE” stamp.
Private Mailing Card Era (1898 – 1901)
In 1898 the U.S. Government changed the law regarding postcards again with the “Private Mailing Card Act” of May 19th. This act made the postage rate for all postcards one cent – whether they were private or government issue, written or printed. The only restriction was that the privately printed cards had to contain the words: “Private Mailing Card, Authorized by the Act of Congress of May 19, 1898.”
Even though the government let go of their monopoly of private correspondence postcards there were still some restrictions put on the private manufacturers by the Postmaster-General, not specifically from the act itself. The new Private Mailing Cards (example to the left) were mandated to be slightly smaller than the government postals and the allowed print colors were limited.
Undivided Back Era in Postcard History (1901 – 1907)
New postal regulations from Dec. 24, 1901 ushered another change in postcard design and gave us the “undivided back” era of postcard history. The new regulations allowed private cards, which bore the words “Private Mailing Card” on the postcard back, to have the words “Post Card” instead. The size and color restrictions that had been put on the Private Mailing Cards were also lifted for the new postcards.
Through this period of time the government postals still retained the words “Postal Card,” but the private ones sometimes also used this term. Also the entire back of the postcard was still used for the address only. So even though the pictures on the fronts became larger and more colorful any personal message had to still be written on the front.
Modern Postcard Era – Divided Back Postcards (1907 – Present)
The final major change in postcard design came with the new postcard regulations of March 1, 1907, which allowed the back of postcards to be divided down the center. The right side of the back was now for the address and postage and the left side was for the personal message that used to be written on the front of the card.
Because this is essentially the same basic design that is still in use today for postcards, March 1, 1907 is considered the birthday of the modern postcard. However, printers wanting to save money continued using their old designs for a time. So it is common to see postcards that were made after 1907 that still have some white space on the front for writing or to see the undivided backs with a line simply drawn down the middle.
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 “An Act establishing certain Post Routes.” 36th Congress of the United States, Session 2, Chapter 57, Section 13.
 “An Act to revise, consolidate, and amend the Statutes relating to the Post-office Department.” 42nd Congress of the United States, Session 2, Chapter 335, Sections 130 – 132.
[2b] Section 170.
 “Search history for Postal Cards, Stamped Cards, and Postcards.” U.S. Postal Service