THE GOLDEN AGE OF POST CARDS
Shortly after the turn of the 20th century an accumulation of factors led to a worldwide explosion in the popularity of postcards. The middle class had grown much larger in size, and the excess money it had to spend on nonessential goods was enough to support a large industry. Technical advances in photography and printing also allowed businesses to meet this growing demand. Advertisements now promoted and helped legitimize postcards as photo an alternative way to stay in touch with friends and family without the need of lengthy letter writing. Over 7 billion postcards were mailed worldwide in 1905, almost one billion in the United States alone; and this does not account for those that ended up in collections rather than the mailbox.
Adding to demand was public’s growing interest in collecting cards, not just using them for correspondence. This is evident in the large number un-canceled cards we now find from this period. Some have speculated that perhaps up to 50 percent of all postcards produced were collected. While many other collecting manias visited this time, it was the postcard album that families kept in their parlor, where it became the centerpiece of social gatherings. The production of most other types of paper collectables dating from older traditions faded away as it was replaced by this new desire. Postcard exchange clubs arose like The Jolly Jokers that had more than 2300 members, The Society for the Promulgation of Post Cards with 5,000 members, and the Post Card Union with and astounding 10,000 members. Those who couldn’t fathom the changing times often referred to these clubs as cults. Soon card dealers began to outnumber booksellers.
The new distribution systems made available for postcards played a major role in their growing popularity. Photographers representing printers would cross the country capturing views of many different places, both obscure and well known. They then made deals with proprietors to sell these local view cards through their local stores. German printing houses even set up offices in large American cities to help process orders. Anyone could send in a photograph to a printer for a mail-order postcard contract. Many small pharmacies, stationers, and five & dimes suddenly became postcard publishers. This allowed nearly every small town resident to find some cards representing their community, something that no longer holds true today. While postcards tended to capture that which a community saw as its civic achievements, many obscure aspects of these times also found their way onto cards in an attempt to satiate the public’s thirst.
Part of the draw to postcards was that they also providing a snapshot into the world and its people in an age when the public had little alternative access to pictures. In the 1890’s no more than 30 percent of all advertising contained illustrations, and most newspapers were not illustrated. This absence of imagery did not derive from a lack of appetite as much as the inability to print illustrations cheaply. The desire to acquire imagery seems to be a natural human trait that perhaps stems from the disposition of our pre-language ancestors to understand and control the world. Only the ability to produce and procure need be added to the mix for a mania to ensue.
As postcard sales shot up into the hundreds of millions, certain trends among their consumers became apparent. Of those that were mailed a good portion were sent from one collector to another, not as correspondence but as an equal exchange. When not sent between friends these exchanges could take place between members of a postcard club that operated in a similar manner to a pen-pal service. In this way it was possible to acquire cards from faraway places without ever having to travel. The messages relayed on many other cards were often practical and strait forward, usually relaying travel arrangements. Some publishers took advantage of this audience on the move by providing interesting cards where boxes could just be mark off or lines filled in with a minimal of fuss. The vast majority of postcards however seem to carry messages about nothing of any particular importance. There were common complaints about the weather or the sender’s health, a brief comment on something seen, or even just a simple hello. From all this written small talk that is barely worth the price of a penny stamp, we can ascertain that the purpose of most mailed postcards was not to convey a message but to connect to another person. Postcards became a tool through which people could reinforce social and personal bonds as circumstances put more and more physical space between them./font>
POST CARD (Divided Back) 1907 - Present
Great Britain was the first Country to issue divided back postcards in 1902 soon followed by France and Germany. This quickly led to a sharp increase in card sales, even though the new format caused problems with dispatching cards overseas. To keep in step with Europe the United States released new postal regulations on March 1, 1907 that divided the back of its postcards in half, the left side for a message, the right for postage and address. This date is often referred to as the birth of the modern postcard, for it created the same card format that we use today. On some of the earliest cards of this period the dividing line is left of center often accompanied by printed instructions of what could be written and where. The most obvious effect of this new measure is that it allowed an image to take up the entire front side of a card, though some publishers still maintained a small border tab for a few more years. Older cards also continued to be used, often seen with a hand drawn dividing line down their back. The advantage to collectors was that most people of the period stopped writing long messages across the card’s image.
Cheap reproductions produced through halftone printing and the more expensive gravures were both techniques that produced images through the accumulation of many small markings. Text printed with these techniques tends to look fuzzy, and so the back of most cards was printed in letterset. A second printing run was also often made to place text on top of an image. As more undivided back cards started assuming the form of full bleeds, many began printing their titles exclusively on their backs. The greater space available on a card’s back side led to ever increasing amounts of narrative being added alongside the title. Although short narratives have found their way onto the backs of postcards since the days of private mailing cards, this format became more common in the 1930’s and is still prevalent today.
Most early real photo postcards were made through contact printing because the gaslight papers they used were too slow for the enlarging process. Since contact printing did not utilize photo easels, commercially made masks were available in different shapes and designs to create a white tab or decorative border around the photograph to write a message. Amateurs rarely would spend money for these commercial products and improvised their own. This method was not only cumbersome, it meant loosing part of the image, and few went through this trouble. After the divided back postcard was authorized in 1907 real photos became more popular for there was now a place to write a message other than on the photograph itself. Masks would continue to be used, but mostly for creative purposes.
Since the advent of the exposition card, postcards have been sold in sets. It was easy to provide them with a uniform look because many cards could easily be printed at the same time from a single large plate or stone. The driving force behind sets however was simply to get consumers to buy more cards. It was only in the years following the private mail card that this trend was widely used as a marketing ploy. Not only were cards issued around themes such as state capitols, famous people, or presidents, they were also issued for view-cards of cities and tourist attractions. They were often sold wrapped or in an envelope, or sometimes even boxed, so the series could not be broken up until purchased. Few of these sets exceeded twelve cards though sets of over a hundred cards are known. Retailers were also creative and would often bundle postcards into their own sets to increase sales and move out those cards that sold poorly.
Many of the sets produced for hotels and resorts have a wide range of imagery capturing the various aspects of that place that would be experienced by the tourist or visitor. This may mean that some mundane images might be included just to balance out the subjects. In this way cards that may not normally have enough appeal to sell are sold anyway for they are part of a set. This all or nothing approach brought in more money for everyone at the receiving end of the sale. But even cards that may have once been admired due to the personal connection to a place when first purchased, now seem to be out of place curiosities when sold individually to the modern collector. With most early sets now broken up there are a vast array of generic looking driveways, entranceways, and lobbies available that make one wonder why they were ever made.
While mass consumerism began to take hold of the nation in the latter half of the 19th century, it was in full swing by the beginning of the 20th. Vacations and trips were not just taken; they had become a competitive marketed commodity. Railroads in particular made efforts to associate travel to the locations they serviced, with becoming a better Citizen. Lacking the multilayered history of Europe, Americans had long connected their identity to this country’s vast landscape and its scenic wonders. With the frontier largely tamed the landscape was now easily approachable, where the tourist could act out nationalist fantasies in a safe controlled setting. Subjugated Native Americans could also now be romanticized and cast as objects of tourist interest. Tourism was largely oriented away from the South so not to have to deal with uncomfortable realities around race, and it focused instead on creating regional mythologies surrounding the founding fathers and the pioneer spirit. Much of America depicted on view-cards were not the ordinary slices of life they seem to be, but carefully selected compositions designed to present the Country within a particular set of ideals, just as tourist destinations were chosen to reinforce national identity. Tourism as a whole creates an insulating bubble from which we can view other peoples and places without leaving the comfort of our own beliefs and habits. Postcards do not depict how we live as much as how we define others and ourselves.
The wide open rural nature of our county combined with the absence of good roads made comfortable travel very difficult even in the more populated Northeast. Settlement outside of cities tended to concentrate along reliable rail lines or points that could be serviced by steamboat. It was the centralization of so many people at so few points that made the construction of huge hotels possible. Large hotels in the mountains or at the shore had been an important feature in the American landscape for much of the 19th century, often viewed as a necessary refuge from unhealthy city air. As our populace grew wealthier so did the number of these establishments that catered to them. Even the purchasing power of the new middle class now allowed them to partake in the type of travel once reserved only for the privileged.
The grand hotel was a subject captured by countless postcards in these years. Many hotels became card publishers themselves and more importantly large distributors of postcards. The high number of visitors their presence attracted allowed nearby businesses to join in on the sale of postcards as well. Despite their large size, many of these hotels quickly became antiquated with their small rooms, and even luxury suites often lacked plumbing. As vacationers became motorists a wider variety of destinations opened up to them that increasingly siphoned off attendance at the traditional grand hotel. This new trend left many bankrupt by World War One. Often built completely from wood and far from help, many of these firetraps burnt down and were never rebuilt, especially during the harsher postwar economic climate.
To avoid looking too provincial, many grand hotels adopted the American Queen Anne Style beginning in the 1880’s. This was expanded on with the closing of the West at the turn of the century. As the American wilderness took on a popular romanticism to an extent previously unseen; and hiking, camping, and hunting passed from a way of life to become recreational activities, the new grand hotels tried to capture this spirit. Many were built in the Arts & Crafts style, and others borrowed cultural motifs from the design of Spanish missions to the Swiss chalet. While the images chosen for postcards centered on this new romanticism largely for purposes of commercial self-promotion, they also represented a growing confidence in an American identity while at the same time being part of an effort to define that very identity.
Even though this Country’s Spanish and Native American heritage was incorporated into the national myth, far beyond hotel design and the postcards they sold, members of those same communities remained unwanted in the society. Their existence was largely hidden on postcards except when the need arose to provide local color for tourists. Postcards were helping to rewrite history to conform to the needs of the tourist industry. Grand hotels allowed visitors to travel far from home without leaving behind the luxuries of city living; likewise this environment could provide for a rich exotic experience but with insurance against having to actually mingle with members of another class or race. Residing at a grand hotel was not just for relaxation or health concerns; it provided a way of confirming one’s social status by being seen at the right place with only the right people.
The first bungalow in the United States was designed by William Gibbons and built at Monument Beach on Cape Cod in 1879. While larger than what became the typical Craftsman Style bungalow with a low profile and central living space, it was still symbolic of the country getaway. The original bungalows or bengla were the traditional homes of the Bengal Province of India, often used as summer retreats by British officials. After the style was brought back to the West, it became popular in America where they provided many with an inexpensive second home. They were primarily built in rural environments like the mountains or at the shore that would have previously attracted tourists. Their wide verandas with sheltering overhangs provided a comfortable outdoor space, which was an important feature to many in an age when Tuberculosis was rampant and fresh air thought a cure. As automobiles became more prevalent it freed those wishing to escape the city from dependence on resort hotels, and more and more bungalows began dotting the landscape. These homes and the surrounding environment they were built in became an important new focal point for postcard production. Areas not previously captured by cards were now being focused upon by publishers eager to attract the attention of these new summer people spreading out across the land.
SAN FRANCISCO EARTHQUAKE 1906
One of America’s greatest natural disasters was the earthquake that hit San Francisco on April 18th, 1906 and the subsequent four days of fire that leveled half the city. News of the event spread far and wide and the world became hungry for pictures. Many photographers rushed to San Francisco supplementing those who already had studios nearby. The fire, rubble, refugees, and cleanup were all carefully captured in the ensuing hours, days, and weeks. Postcard publishers were the primary disseminator of news images at this time as newspapers carried few if any pictures. Though San Francisco had a number of important card publishers, there facilities were damaged in the quake and it took some time for them to begin printing again. This hardly mattered as the public’s desire for imagery did not quickly fade. Other publishers from around the Country who had never produce a single view of California were now publishing cards of this City in ruins. Many postcards depicting this disaster were poorly printed; no doubt due to the rush to provide images in an environment that now lacked quality printing houses. The City was largely rebuilt within ten years but fewer cards depicted its reconstruction as San Francisco was still too closely entwined with the earthquake in the public psyche.
THE PANIC OF 1907
During the 1890’s and soon after the turn of the century a number of businessmen entered into postcard publishing who would grow to become leaders in this field. The Albertype Company, Curt Teich, Detroit Publishing, Illustrated Post Card, Hugh C. Leighton, Edward H. Mitchell, and the Rotograph Company are but a handful of major American publishers that were in business during these years. Though they may have produced a variety of items, the main output and focus of their enterprise was postcards, and these publishers created the bulk of cards that found their way into the market. As postcard collecting grew into a craze, others saw the possibilities of making a fast profit and this inspired many small speculators to become publishers for a quick buck. Many large well established companies also began to see the possibilities in producing postcards. This can best be seen amongst the firms that already had some connection to the printing industry such as fine art and book publishers; and the images on their cards were often borrowed from the pages of their books. Newspapers, with their access to images and printing facilities also began turning out postcards. Even insurance companies and paper manufacturers got into the business. Though many of these companies were much larger than those who produced cards alone, their total output of postcards was usually far less for it was only a sideline for them.
The production of postcards was not just greatly expanding due to ever increasing public demand for them; the publishing business was riding a general economic boom that extended across all sectors of the economy since the end of the Spanish American War. The optimism and greed of this time translated into the growth and formation of a vast amount of new companies, often propped up by unwise extensions of easy credit. At the time of the San Francisco earthquake, the U.S. economy was growing at its fastest rate and postcard sales were booming. Observing the public’s seemingly insatiable demand for postcards many profiteers suddenly became publishers creating an economic bubble. In the short term the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 was a boon to publishers throughout the country who created cards depicting the destruction, but the disaster that hit this wealthy city also initiated a liquidity crunch that would eventually come back to hurt the publishing industry. In 1906 San Francisco was the center of Pacific trade and the heart of our Western economy. The loss of this wealthy city along with its important government mint triggered an immediate sell off on the New York and London stock markets, which dropped about 12 percent in value. Insurance companies that could made record pay outs, others simply ran out of money. International relief funds and gold reserves would begin heading west just as extra credit was needed to help bring in a bumper harvest. The spiraling shortage of credit quickly increased public anxiety over the economy.
By October of 1907 fear had grown into a panic and there would be runs on the banks in New York. A month later the market crashed devaluating stocks by another 37 percent. Banks would fail, municipal bonds would go unsold, and a scarcity of money prevented economic expansion and increased unemployment. While this recession only lasted for about fifteen months the postcard bubble had burst. This stopped many new publishers from entering the postcard business as speculators while others left as fast as they had entered it and went back to doing what they knew best. Those that tended to keep up the production of cards as a sideline were those that relied on them for advertising. Postcards would still continue to be produced in great numbers, but cracks could be seen in the market for them and in the publishing industry that was still dependent on borrowed money. Few lessons were learned by the panicÕs survivors who thought that the profits from postcard sales would continue to grow forever.
THE GREAT WHITE FLEET
Sixteen newly built battleships of the U.S. Navy’s Atlantic Fleet left Virginia in 1907 on a 43,000 mile, two year voyage around the world by order of President Theodore Roosevelt. They were to make a demonstration of American might in an age of conflicting territorial ambitions. The need for powerful navies had grown in proportion to the expanding imperialist ambitions of European nations. The defeat of the antiquated Spanish Fleet in Manila Bay at the hands of the Americans in 1898, and the destruction of the Russian Fleet by the newer Japanese Navy in 1905, demonstrated that modernization was imperative if empires were to be secured. These wars and the sudden race to construct larger and better armed ships inspired great public interest in warships, and nearly every craft afloat from every nation found its way onto a postcard. As the Great White Fleet made its voyage around the world many postcards were published not only of the squadron, but all their domestic and foreign ports of call. Like many other postcards they expanded the public’s interest in international affairs. Navel subjects had already been a growing genre for postcard publishers for it was attracting many men into card collecting, a hobby that had been originally dominated by women.
Ships have been carrying United States mail since 1845, and even mail arriving from overseas on ocean liners was transferred to smaller mail boats when they stopped for inspection at quarantine stations in the years between 1897 and 1937. Once on land, all this mail was carted off to a post office for processing. An exception was made to this procedure by the Congressional Act of May 27th, 1908, which authorized the U.S. Navy to establish post offices aboard their vessels so seamen would always have a reliable method of sending mail home. One month latter the battleship U.S.S. Illinois joined the Great White Fleet carrying the first naval post office capable of canceling letters and postcards. Within these cancels are the names of the United States Ships they originated from. The ability of seamen to have access to a post office not only expanded the use of postcards but increased the demand for naval subjects. Most postcards with ship cancels are dated between 1908 and 1914. A number of photographers were given official status to work aboard ships, and they produced and sold real photo postcards.
At the beginning of the 20th century, railways, newspapers, and the telegraph had united Europe more than ever before. Even so, the growth of nationalism in the previous century had created deep cultural and ethnic divides, and there were many small pockets of unique identities within single nations. While there was constant hostility between some of these groups struggling to preserve their own identity, the differences between most were nothing more than friendly rivalries. These differences were exploited by European postcard publishers in a number of distinct ways, but they all fall under the category of types. Customs and rituals were not always easy to capture in a still image, so most cards present people posing in their traditional local dress. Although most of these cards were generally neutral, some take on political overtones. Internal divisions may be shown as a celebration of diversity, while groups residing just over the border may be presented in disparaging ways. While the recognition of cultural differences on cards could be used to unite a nation by showing respect for diversity, these types of cards could also be used by ethnic minorities as a display of pride amidst overbearing nationalistic urges of the majority or even as a symbol of defiance against a real or perceived foreign authority when open rebellion was not possible.
As Europeans colonized the world, their businessmen, soldiers, and civil servants that found themselves in foreign lands sought to share the unfamiliar sights they encountered with their families back home. Picture postcards not only fulfilled this demand, they provided imagery for a public that was starved for information from the far-flung regions of the world. Many of these cards featuring native peoples can also be categorized under the theme of types, but they are far different from those displaying their European counterparts. While depictions of Laplanders or Balkan Muslims may have fell outside of the European norm, those that shared Western culture were expected to be shown with respect. Differences may be played up to generate sales, but in the end white Europeans are all one in the same.
Real differences were reserved for those residing in foreign lands where they take on the role of the exotic. The term exotic can be applied to any place, culture, or people different from oneself, rendering its definition fairly relative. Their purpose is to act as a foil to the West so that definition and identity can be formed through the contrast. While that which is different will often stimulate a natural curiosity, presenting it in exotic terms is one way of creating a safe mastery over it. It allows other cultures to be only partially engaged at a safe distance without seriously facing realities that may force a questioning of one’s own beliefs or superior status. Here real differences can also be combined with Western fantasies so that forbidden narratives can now be displayed with foreign actors. The practice of portraying a foreign land or people as exotic was nothing new; it was common practice among artists for ages, for the more novel a place is found to be, the more interest it will draw. The most common example is in Orientalism, which still taints Western views of the Middle-East to this day.
While American publishers produced cards of its own native peoples, they were perceived of as a dying race and could be afforded a presentation in a more positive light than Europeans depicted foreigners. This did not come from respect but a desire to match images with prevalent romantic fantasies so more sales could be made. Americans came to find more interest in the exotic after the United States began to seize new overseas possessions of its own. These cards look little different from their European counterparts as they were produced for the same reasons. While many of the scenes shown on these cards might capture true customs, they are presented in ways that no American family would ever be subject to.
People that are presented as exotic never see themselves in those terms. It is meant strictly for the observer, for the application is more about reinforcing the viewers’ superiority than displaying the foreign. While this relationship is quite clear between the people of Europe and their colonies, there is a bit of irony in American tourists buying cards of Europeans posing in their native costumes for their exotic flavor. Though less common, some European publishers also added images of Americans to their gallery of types. While nearly all postcards were produced for a white middle class, and they reflect the tastes of this audience, the concept of the other could be projected on nearly anyone if the need arose. While some of these cards were made in jest, the true depth of these divisions would soon be exploited in propaganda after the Great War broke out.
While voyeurism is usually associated with pathology, there is an argument to be made that all our interests into the lives of strangers, whether it is through the form of books, movies, or even postcards is a type of voyeurism. Some of this behavior may in fact be an inescapable part of our evolutionary heritage. From the stand point of our visually saturated society, it is difficult to comprehend the appeal that the sudden influx of postcard imagery had a hundred years ago. For many it was their first contact with a world outside of their own isolated community. In many ways the images we seek out, or those that are provided for us, are not snippets of reality, but a means of creating standardized precepts that can provide a safe barrier between the viewer and the subject. Postcards are attractive because they provide the necessary distance for the observer to feel safe from the object of desire. This can often be seen in ethnic postcards that give no true insight into people’s lives, but present them in a manner that is comfortable to our eyes. By limiting viewpoints and reducing them to objects of interest, ethnic people become as two dimensional as the cards they are printed on. Many postcards of East coast Native Americans show them wearing the headdress of Plains Indians because that’s what they were expected to look like. Those from other cultures could also be used to provide a socially acceptable outlet for erotic fantasies as they could be publicly presented in ways that no proper Westerner could ever be.
Beaches of the late 19th century were usually sexually segregated even though there was little flesh to see. Woman’s beach attire, complete with bathing shoes, differed little from their street cloths where no more than face and sometimes hands in the absence of gloves could be publicly exposed. Few women dared stray from the secure grip of bathing lines that extended out into the water in fear of drowning while being weighted down in layers of heavy wet fabric. It wasn’t until the 1890’s that women’s bathing dress started to show some forearm. While the trend toward covering less and less flesh continued, its progress was much slower than implied by the postcards of the age. Seaside postcards often deal with the overt sexual nature of voyeurism as most were designed to be risqué. The swimsuit styles displayed on cards were often based on costumes of the burlesque theater rather than anything that could be found at the shore. Postcards continually influenced fashion trends, but the actual styles available to the consumer would not catch up for decades. As they tended to be twenty years ahead of what was considered socially acceptable.
Many small town newspapers could not afford to include illustrations even after the new halftone printing process was introduced. This gap was largely filled by postcard publishers, but only stories with long standing interest could be covered because of the long lag time in the printing process. Most news events were captured by local photographers who could quickly transform their work into real photo postcards that might be sold soon afterwards if not on the same day while interest was fresh. Real photo postcards ended up capturing many of the non-picturesque social concerns of the day, along with dramatic events such as fires, floods, and shipwrecks. These photos however have an appeal well beyond documentation, as there is also a strong voyeuristic connection to violence. The tragedy of others demands our gaze, and a whole genre of disaster postcards emerged from this compulsive desire. As more newspapers and magazines took on the responsibility of printing this type of imagery, postcards began to confine themselves to more tourist oriented subjects.
POST CARD RACK 1908
The public’s great demand for postcards not only helped support the printing trades, a whole new category of businesses emerged to support their collecting habits. Decorative metal storage boxes and finely decorated albums of all kinds flooded into the market. Many clever devices were also made for the commercial display of postcards. The most enduring of all of them has been the revolving metal card rack, invented by E. I. Dail in 1908. It allowed for the self-service dispensing of merchandise while taking up less space than conventional wall racks. Dail managed to sell 5,000 racks in the first nine months of production. A rival to the rack was introduced from Europe in 1911 in the form of a card vending machine. While these machines and all subsequent innovations have come to pass, it is the simple basic low tech design of the postcard rack that has outlasted all other fads over time. While they are rarely the subject of postcards, these racks can be found in the background of many different types of cards.
In ever increasing attempts to allure consumers into buying more postcards, various methods of adding metallic fragments or mica to its surface were introduced that might catch the buyer’s eye. Publishers would sometimes add tinseling to stocks of slow selling or monochrome cards in the hope of increasing sales. In this process glue is printed onto a card’s surface after the ink has dried, and then it is dusted with metallic powder. Silver was traditionally used, but as it grew too expensive, cheaper substitutes were found in a variety of colors and textures. Kits with glue pens were eventually marketed to the public that allowed tinsel to be added to postcards at home. Unlike the fine powders used in bronzing that lied flat on a card’s surface, this method produced raised and rough sparkling lines. The U.S. Post Office Department considered these cards hazardous as clerks often cut themselves, and began requiring that they be mailed in envelopes. It reached the point where twenty thousand tinseled cards a day were sent to the Dead Letter Office for want of a cover. Tinseling is still widely used on folded greeting cards.
To gain an edge on competition, publishers often designed postcards outside of the expected norms. Their roots are in the printed paper novelties that were popular before the advent of postcards, though many innovations also began with the advertising cards issued in the 1890’s. Some used flexography to print on unusual substances such as wood, leather or metal; others were die cut into strange shapes or puzzles. Images of volcanoes were charred on the edges while other images were adorned with delicate embroideries of silk. Windows were colored with metallic paints to imitate the passage of light while others were die cut so they could sandwich transparencies. Many, known as mechanicals had moveable parts. Objects like coins, feathers, and even real hair were pasted on, and some cards began to make sounds. Many of these cards were so delicate it was necessary to mail them in envelopes for protection. As sales started to decline many more novelty cards were issued in more wildly elaborate forms in an attempt to attract attention and renew the public’s interest in postcards. Novelty cards still exist today but they are rarely as creative as those made at this time.
Postcards were usually printed in quantities of 500-8000 at a time. For large contracts the printer might hold cards in storage for the publisher, sending them out in lots bit by bit as requested but this was rare. Most printers only produced small quantities to satisfy immediate demand, but some cards turned out to be more popular than others requiring their reprinting a number of times. Whenever this was done, a new printing plate was created, which could never exactly duplicating all the characteristics of the original image. The most common differences to be found are in the sky and in coloration. The sky’s appearance on most cards was derived from an artist’s imagination by necessity. Between poor exposure latitude and the inability of most film to capture anything more than the blue spectrum of light, the sky in photographs was often very light to completely washed out forcing a retoucher to draw features in. When an image was later remade there was usually nothing on the negative to refer to, so clouds were drawn in differently each time. Very often it’s the style of the clouds that create the greatest distinction between printers, since they are derived from the stylistic temperament of the company’s artists rather than static negatives. With rare exceptions, the photos used to print color cards were also shot in black & white. While the customer would sometimes request specific colors, they were most often made up by a retoucher or his manager. Again these qualities were rarely ever duplicated and can vary wildly between reprints.
There were many other factors that created variations in postcards as well. After postal regulations allowed for divided back cards, many early cards that had been printed with a writing tab were reissued as full frontal bleeds. Cars and people on older images were sometimes removed or changed to match more current fashions. The images typically made from large format negatives needed to be cropped down to postcard size during contact printing, and when reprinted the compositions were almost always cropped differently. Sometimes the negative was just taken to a different printer that used a different technique in production. Since it was difficult to photograph in low light many night scenes on cards used the same negative as the midday version; they were only printed in darker colors with a moon added in for effect. Of course some variations were printed to give an old image a new look so the same customers might be enticed or even tricked into buying the same image twice. Others printed variations in an attempt to disguise stolen images protected by copyright laws. In later years, some publishers just reprinted old negatives to save money. This can all be confusing when attempting to date a postcard. The card’s printing date and the photograph it was produced from could have been created decades apart.
(See the Guide to Postcard Variations in the Guide section of this website for more information on variations)
With millions of different images produced, it was inevitable that printing mistakes were made. Colors printed out of registration with one another were probably the most common of all errors. This is usually a sign of poor workmanship and oversight because this problem appears more often on cheaply made cards of three colors than with twenty color cards from fine printing houses. The second most common error to be found on cards is in spelling, which can be carried further to include grammar. While these errors could occur anywhere, they are most prevalent when English text was set by German printers who did not understand the language but only copied what they saw. Sometimes foreign printers lost the entire concept behind a title and mangled their meaning.
When whole titles were occasionally misprinted, they would be struck through with a heavy dark line and the correct title printed next to it. Strikes were also used to change place names on cards. While this became necessary to get more life out of cards from places that changed their names, it was sometimes used to purposely reset the scene depicted on a card to a more sellable location. In this way a site specific card could be turned into a generic after the fact. Errors were not only limited to text as imagery can be erroneously altered during retouching. Parts of objects or scenery were sometimes accidentally removed and not replaced while separating colors by eye. It was not uncommon for flaws or vague features in a negative to be misinterpreted by the retoucher. A common mistake was for low lying clouds to be turned into a mountain range or distant islands on the horizon. Cars and boats were often added into scenes by transferring preprinted decals to the drawing’s surface. Rarely were they placed into the proper spatial plain leaving these objects noticeably out of scale with the rest of the composition.
Postage stamps with these types of mistakes usually fetch high prices because strict quality control procedures make it rare for them to slip through. Privately printed postcards with errors on them are an entirely different matter. Few publishers were willing to take a financial loss, and so these cards were just dumped into the market. It is very possible that printers who made mistakes offered these cards to the publishers at cost or at a discount. They were probably sold to the public at a discount rate as well, if the error was very noticeable. The messages on many cards have no association with the image, so we can see that they were bought without much care for fast correspondence. The card’s sender in these cases probably sought out the cheapest card available. Though cards with errors are collected as curiosities they are not very rare and do not tend to demand higher prices. Most often errors make any card less desirable.
It is difficult to determine when the first generic postcard was made, but it is safe to say they have been around a long time. Probably the most common use of these cards has been in wartime. They allowed many sought after views of military camps, fortifications, and equipment to be illustrated without giving away any crucial information as to their whereabouts. When the local was specified on a military card it was usually only to increase the sales at a given post, but there is never a guarantee that it actually depicts the place. Generics were also widely used at amusement areas and beaches where demand for cards were high and tell-tale features were low. It was much less expensive to just print a new caption over an existing card than to send a photographer out to capture an actual scene. Many Greetings From cards did not even attempt to hide their generic nature. It was not uncommon to find a depiction of a Midwest prairie labeled with the name of a big city, or a scene from the Rocky Mountains that was presented as an Atlantic beach resort. It is now impossible to tell if such cards were a foolish attempt to save some money or to make an actual joke as many seem very amusing today. With other cards it is difficult to tell if they are generic or not. Wood lined roads with no discernible features are often labeled as the Lover’s Lane of a particular town, but there is never any way to truly know. The only thing for certain is that if the image was not hand drawn, it is true to the one place they actually come from even if it’s unknown.
As much as it may seem that every small town had a publisher who produced postcards, there were plenty of places that lacked the population or visitors to make card production profitable. This problem was solved with the introduction of stock cards. These cards would be produced in the same quantities of a normal press run, but they would contain no text beyond a standard greeting and their imagery would be so generic they could pass for anywhere. This allowed stores or even individuals equipped with a small hand press to buy cards in numbers less than an expensive press run would require, and then print their hometown name onto them. Shops could also stock less inventory this way. A variation on the stock card was the pennant card that usually contained little or no imagery at all, just a general greeting. A place name would be printed onto a piece of felt, cut into the shape of a pennant, and then glued onto the card. This practice eventually took on various forms. Although blank stock cards were printed in number, the nature of the hand press makes it impossible to determine the quantity of finished cards printed in any location.
PAYNE-ALDRICH ACT OF 1909
When postcards were introduced, many thought they would just be a passing fad, but with every passing year the demand for them just grew greater. As postcard sales approached nearly a billion a year many others came to believe it was only the beginning of continual growth for this industry. To gain an edge over heavy foreign competition, American printers began petitioning Congress for price protection, which they finally received in 1909 with the passage of the Payne-Aldrich Act. Though this tariff imposed taxes on many foreign items it also included postcards. Stores and jobbers fearful that higher prices would kill their business quickly began stocking up on as many cards as they could before the tariff took effect. As it turned out the public was willing to pay more for quality goods, but this glut in supply wound up severely depressing the price of cards and the flow of imports slowed. American printers, who boasted, we can make it here, soon found themselves unable to produce enough cards of the same quality to fill the gap of lost imports. At the same time alien contract laws prohibited German printers from bringing their skills to this Country. Instead of protecting their market printers had created a downward spiral as the public’s interest in postcards waned.
In 1912 the printing industry made attempts at stabilize price-cutting practices when postcards began being dumped on the market at five cents a dozen, an all-time low. They accomplished little as other factors continued to drive down demand. The following year the French-fold greeting card was introduced which was an immediate success. Postcard racks were emptied to make room for this new hot seller. Same day mail delivery that turned the postcard into a valuable tool for daily correspondence was also challenged by new technology. Foremost among these was the ever expanding use of the telephone. As more people added phones to their home, speedy mail service began to seem slow by comparison. When its use passed from a fad to a widely available service, it placed severe limits on the practical use of postcards. Movie theaters, which were now opening in most towns, siphoned off those at the collecting end of postcard purchases as many found this novel animated media more entertaining. Adding to publisher’s woes was the new crackdown on risqué images initiated by the U.S. Post Office Department that gave individual postmasters the discretion to confiscate cards they personally deemed unfit to be mailed. All this quickly contributed to the demise of about 25 percent of publishing firms. What was once the largest collecting craze to seize the world was now nearing its end.
TRUTH FROM FICTION
There are many stories of famous Americans and important historical events that are so ingrained into our culture that we now take it for granted that they have always been held in reverence. Many parts of our nation&rsqio;s history however are just pure fiction, some of which our ancestors would be astonished to hear. As tourism began to be promoted in earnest, there were many budding entrepreneurs who saw there was much money to made in this fast growing industry, and if they had nothing of true historical value to offer the public they simply made some up. The phrase, “George Washington slept here” was so widely employed that it became a joke on historical falsehoods within its own time. Postcards were widely deployed in creating this fictional history of the United States, and the millions of cards printed only helped create a national identity that was based on fiction. As these stories became generally accepted they found their way into textbooks and were taught in schools for decades as legitimate history. In some cases this was done knowingly for heroic myths better fostered the status quo than the controversies truth could bring. Once a national myth was clearly established, anything that supported it was acceptable as the truth.
The year 1911 marked the 50th anniversary of the start of the American Civil War and it was remembered in encampments, oratory and through the publication of numerous postcards. By this time however the telling of this conflict was colored by political agendas, personal rivalry and long standing vendettas, plus personal attitudes not just of the War but towards history itself. Monuments honoring individuals and the recruits of entire States had sprung up all over this Nation, but while some of these simply acknowledged their dedicated service and sacrifice, the placement and wording of others were purposely meant to skew the telling of history. Reputations that could not be made on the battlefield were now being forged in granite and ink. Myths embodied in monuments such as the one to the High Water Mark of the Confederacy on the Gettysburg battlefield are still widely promoted to this day with few realizing that this concept was nothing but a political afterthought. The forces behind such myth making were more complicated than what can be attributed to simple tourism, but postcards wound up supporting these myths in much the same way.
(See Forgetting the Truth, dated September 25, 2013, in the Blog Archives of this website for more information on the monuments at Gettysburg)
LYCHING LAW 1912
At the time postcards depicting lynching were made, many did not see them as depicting a heinous crime but as glorifying justice served. While this view is based on the tradition of Lynch Laws that allowed the administration of justice without resorting to the inefficiencies of the legal system, it most often functioned as the ritual murder of Blacks, especially by hanging, to maintain white supremacy. Between 1882 and 1968, newspapers alone reported on 4743 cases of lynching in the United States. A lynching was usually a festive community activity that attracted local photographers. They in turn would try to produce as many real photo postcards of the event as possible with attendees often posing with the mutilated corpse so they could be sold as souvenirs afterwards. Though some of these images eventually made their way on to printed cards the vast majority issued were as real photos. Even though President Teddy Roosevelt began making public anti lynching statements in 1903, little could be done as the efforts of those denied political and social equity only went so far in the Jim Crow South. In 1912 they managed to get Congress to officially prohibited postcards depicting lynching from being mailed, though they refused to make this domestic act of terrorism a federal crime. There would not be a conviction for a lynching until 1946.
Even though postcards depicting lynching were sold as souvenirs, many if not most seem to contain little factual information on them. While this may be nothing more than a problem inherent with all real photo postcards, it begs the question of cover-up. Those involved in this practice may have participated willingly to satisfy a personal sense of justice, but they must have also known that lynching was condemned by others, and that postcards could provide evidence of a crime. The anonymity of so many of these images poses another problem in that they can now be confused with the many unlabeled cards depicting hangings of rebels during the Mexican Revolution.
While many postcards captured views throughout the world, there were other cards where no location was indicated. If they were titled at all it was usually in some poetic fashion. While most were artist drawn and signed they are not art reproductions for they were usually created by lesser known illustrators for the specific purpose of being placed on postcards. These cards are also not to be confused with generics for they were never meant to pose for actual places, just pass for scenery. They were designed to be attractive to the general public by incorporating pleasant colors and romanticized subjects. The sentimental formulas that guided their creation did not lead to great art but were a very successful for mass marketing. While their lack of specificity and artistic depth makes most of them less desirable today, they were the most popular postcards of their time, at least in terms of sales. They were not sold as souvenirs but for notes and as greeting cards where the speedy comprehension of their simple message was essential to their purpose.
In 1913 the publishers of greetings introduced a new type of folding card that was printed on paper instead of card stock. They were French folded by machine to give them added substance, and they were designed be mailed in an envelope that was sold along with them as a single item for convenience. This novelty quickly became a popular fad and postcards that were currently diminishing in the public eye were removed from store racks and replaced with these folded greetings. They tended to be artist drawn and carried the same type of anonymous sentimental subjects that had made similar postcard greetings so popular.
As folded greeting cards eventually grew more complex they took on the qualities of early novelty postcards being designed in die-cut shapes, with embossing, and added paper lace. Since they were to be mailed in envelopes they no longer had to comply with postal regulations that guided postcard use, and this freed them to appear in many different shapes and sizes. These new types of cards would soon replace the postcard when sent out as a greeting or holiday card. In later years as publishers looked for ways of saving money, the French fold would be abandoned for the now common double folding card.
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