Almost everyone taking a vacation today uses their own camera or phone to capture memories of places they’ve been and things they’ve seen.
But a century ago, few people had their own camera and, when they went on a trip, they would typically buy a postcard view of the place they were visiting.
They might mail the postcard back to a friend or relative. Or, they would carry it back home and put it in a postcard album.
Then, they could share memories of their trip with their family and neighbors.
One hundred years ago, collecting postcards was one of the top three hobbies. People might collect coins, stamps, postcards, or all three, and millions of postcards have survived the passage of time.
If you see a vintage postcard that had been mailed, but is missing a stamp, it’s a good indication that a stamp collector removed the stamp for their stamp collection.
Postcards evolved from being solely an official form of government correspondence to a means of transmitting beautiful lithographed subject matter and real black-and-white images of landscapes, buildings and people.
Postcards started out as an official product of the U.S. Postal System. One side of the postcard was reserved for an address and the other side was for correspondence.
Illustrations were eventually placed on both government and privately printed cards. The Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago is generally seen as the catalyst for encouraging private publishers to expand their efforts in printing the postcards illustrated.
Responding to lobbying by both private publishers and the general public, an act of Congress in 1898 allowed private printers to print and sell cards that bore the inscription “Private Mailing Card.”
A dozen or more printers started producing postcards with a view on one side. The other side of the postcard was still reserved for the address. Printers often left a wide margin around the view allowing people to write a message on the card.
In 1901, the federal government granted permission to private printers to replace “Private Mailing Card” with the shorter term “Post Card” on their product.
Originally, postcard views were lithographed images, with Germany printing the most lithographed postcards.
With the beginning of World War I in 1914, printing shifted to the United States and England.
As smaller, better cameras became more available, real images were printed on postcard stock. These photograph-based postcards became known as “Real Photo Post Cards.” Writing was still not permitted on the address side yet.
In 1907, a dividing line was permitted on the address side of postcards. On one side of the dividing line was space for the address and the other side had room for a note to the recipient of the postcard.
The boom in placing black and white photographs on postcards and having an authorized place to write notes were two factors ushering in a golden age of postcard production and collection.
Postcard collecting even came to have its own official designation as deltiology. By 1910, postcard collecting became a favorite hobby of people around the world.
To provide an idea of how quickly postcard collecting caught on with the general public, the U.S. Post Office processed over 5 billion pieces of mail of all kinds in 1895.
By 1905, the volume of processed mail doubled to 10 billion pieces. By 1913, the volume had increased to 18.5 billion pieces of mail moving through the postal system.
The large majority of that increase was due to people mailing postcards. A card typically cost a penny and it only took a penny stamp to mail the card.
There are two major categories of postcard types. There are “topics” which can have almost any subject matter. There are postcards of clowns, the circus, the military services, movie theaters, trains, automobiles, animals in costumes, etc.
The other major category is “view” cards. These are cards showing landscapes, buildings, and streets in communities around the world. This second category is the source of images for many visual history books.
Arcadia Publishing is famous for printing visual history books of communities across the United States.
The authors of over 8,000 Arcadia titles often use RPPC images to illustrate each community’s history. There are events where postcard dealers set out boxes and boxes of postcards for potential buyers to browse through looking for an old lithograph postcard of a favorite topic.
They might also be looking for a unique view of their hometown from 100 years ago.
A black and white image on a vintage postcard might be the only surviving record of a building that no longer exists.
Another source for acquiring old postcards is eBay. If your family comes from a small town in New York or Kansas or Colorado, you can go onto eBay here in Oregon and search by simply typing the town of your ancestor in the search field.
The Washington County Museum’s Archives and Research Center, located at the Portland Community College (Rock Creek Campus), has a large collection of both lithograph and real black and white photograph postcards.
The three Arcadia Publishing books on Hillsboro, for example, contain images that the authors of those books obtained from the Archives. Many of those images are from old postcards.
Public institutions like historical societies, archives and museums strive to preserve and protect their collections.
Postcards are paper and need to be protected from moisture, sunlight and creasing. There are soft acid-free plastic sleeves designed specifically to hold a single postcard. There are acid-free paper envelopes, which can be used to store postcards as well.
Collectors will use both the soft plastic sleeve for individual cards, but they also use a specially designed four-pocket plastic protector which holds four postcards. That style of protector can be placed in a three-ring binder for storage and easy access and recovery.
If you have a postcard collection, take steps to preserve it or donate it to your local archive, so they can take care of it for you and make it available for research and education. You may have the only image that exists.
(This article, written by Arthur J. Sommers, is courtesy of the Washington County Museum. Sommers volunteers in the museum archives. Postcard photos courtesy of the museum as well.)