National Park Quilts

A Brief History of Postcards

Many of the quilt blocks we produce are reproductions of vintage postcards. These postcards date circa 1898 through the 1930s. Susan and I were antique postcard collectors and dealers and accumulated an extensive collection of early postcards over the years, with a focus on the national parks. Yellowstone National Park was the main subject matter of our collecting in the beginning, but our interests soon included all national parks. We are experts on national park postcards and our personal collection of more than 10,000 Yellowstone National Park postcards is part of the archives of the Heritage and Research Center in Gardiner, Montana. This article will discuss the history of postcards. We will be writing more articles about national park images and collectibles as time permits. Please let us know if there are any specific topics you would like for us to address.

The history of postcards is closely associated with the history of printing, and the history of the postal system. We will discuss these two subjects and how they relate to the production of postcards in general. In the next article in this series we will go into a more comprehensive discussion of national park postcards in particular.

Many of the national park quilt blocks we offer for sale are reproductions of vintage postcards. Postcard images, and messages, are a reflection of social history and have played an important role in shaping and influencing the perception of national parks in this country, and throughout the world. Postcards are the quintessential national park souvenirs of the 20th century and they continue to be one of the most popular gift items sold to tourists today.

Postcards derived from trade cards and greeting cards in the late 19th century. Trade cards were small cards published for advertisement of products, services, and businesses after the Civil War. Greeting cards were both seasonal and occasional and had their orgins in England. Lithographic printing processes were developed and improved in the second half of the 19th century, lead by the German-American Louis Prang. Prang was born in Breslau, Prussia in 1824 and moved to America in 1850. Prang and a partner established the firm Prang and Mayer in 1856 to produce lithographs, prints made from hand carved stones. In 1860 Louis started L. Prang and Company and began work in colored printing of advertising and other forms of business materials. Prang designed and produced the first Christmas cards in America in 1874 and is known as the Father of the American Christmas Card. In a later article under Yellowstone Park Quilt Blocks I will discuss in more detail Prang’s association with Thomas Moran and how their work influenced Yellowstone National Park.

The name chromolithography translates as colored lithography. The ability to print in color made a dramatic impact on the general public, and chromolithographic prints became extremely popular after the Civil War. For the first time in history high-quality colored prints were accessible to the common man on the street. This new, revolutionary color printing process was often referred to as Democratic Art. Some historians see the fifty-year period following the Civil War, 1864-1914, as the Chromo Civilization. The chromo printing movement embodied the attitude that fine art should be reproduced and offered to the masses to enrich the lives of everyone, not just the wealthy who owned or had access to the original paintings.

Peter Marizo writes in his book, The Democratic Art, that in 1869 there were approximately 60 lithographic printing firms in America, employing 800 people, with a capital investment of $450,000. It was estimated that by 1890 there were as many as 700 lithographic establishments, employing 8,000 people, with a yearly production valued at more than $20 million. The United States was striving to establish a national identity after the Civil War. Colored prints of the artwork of American artists, including images of American national parks, were useful in promoting and developing an independent national identity, both here and abroad.

Two major developments occurred at the end of the 19th century that would forever change the way people communicated. First, Rural Free Delivery, RFD, was established in the United States in 1896. It soon became possible to send mail to almost anyone throughout the world. Next, Congress approved a one-cent mailing rate for Private Mailing Cards, PMCs, on March 1, 1898, effective July 1, 1898. The United States government reduced the postal rates for PMCs as an experiment to increase revenue, and it was successful beyond all expectations. Previous to this time privately printed cards, also known as postals, required two-cents postage rather than the one-cent postage on government issued cards. There was little incentive to produce or use privately printed postals before July 1, 1898 because of the higher cost and the limited space for the message. Government issued cards, for the most part, were monochromatic and did not appeal to most collectors.

Deltiology is the term for the study or collecting of cards.  Postcard collectors refer to themselves as deltiologists. Postcards became the most popular collectible in the world during the Golden Age of Postcards, circa 1898-1918. Postcards would not have been nearly as wide-spread or popular without the effective distribution system of the RFD. Postcard collecting was prevalent throughout Europe at the turn of the century and by 1905 had reached comparable proportions in North America. A more pragmatic and enduring quality of postcards was that they were the primary form of communication prior to World War I, before telephone and radio became popular. Postcard clubs were established throughout the world and members exchanged postcards through the mail with personal messages. This period is often referred to as the Postcard Craze.

The beginning of the end of the Golden Age of Postcards was the passage of the Payne-Aldrich Tariff in 1909. Germany was the most prolific printer of postcards in the world. This tariff increased the price of imported paper, including postcards, and dramatically affected the export trade of European, and German, printing companies. The second, and more serious, event to adversely affect postcard production was World War I. European printing companies suffered serious setbacks when a number of their factories and buildings were damaged or destroyed in the war. The German printing industry never regained the superiority and dominance of the international printing trade they enjoyed during the Golden Age of Postcards.

The next period of postcard production in the United States, beginning circa 1915 through 1930, is referred to as the White Border Era. Most postcards printed in the period had a white border around the edges of the card. American printing companies, with one notable exception that we will discuss in the third article in this series, used inferior printing techniques than were used in Germany. The economy after World War I was weak and the papers and inks used in the production of postcards were cheap and of a lower quality than those used before the war. Chromolithographic printing was a very labor-intensive process that was expensive. The German printers in particular strived to produce the finest quality and best-printed postcard possible to offer to postcard collectors. The world economy after World War I also had an impact on postcard production and sales.

Chromolithographic printing from Europe was replaced with less expensive 4-color offset printing after World War I. Postcard collecting had fallen out of favor by this time, and postcards were no longer the most important form of communication. This resulted in prints, and postcards, that were of a lower quality and were not as colorful or detailed as the German chromos. The world economy was weak and most of the postcards on the American market were printed in America. Postcards from the White Border Era are often collected because of the image on the card and not the quality of the printing. Postcard collectors who are searching for images from the 1920s are limited to white border postcards.

Postcard publication underwent a major change beginning in 1930 and lasting through World War II. The Curt Teich Company of Chicago developed a printing technique for printing bright colors on a paper stock composed of a heavy rag content. These postcards were called linens and this period of postcard production was called the Linen Era. Unfortunately the development of these colorful linen postcards took place at the same time as the Great Depression. One style of linen postcards produced by the Curt Teich Company is known as large letter. Large letter postcards are art deco style designs of large letters with images inside the letters. The popularity of large letter postcard designs was recognized by the United States Postal Service when they released the Greetings From America stamps in 2002. This set of 50 stamps featured large letters from each state and became one of the best selling sets of commemorative stamps. Curt Teich published large letter postcards of several of America’s national parks, including a number of parks that were established in the 1930s. Several large letter national park postcard designs are available as quilt blocks on our web site.

The last, and most recent, change in postcard production began in 1939 and continues through today. This period is known as the Photochrome Era. Do not confuse this with Photochrom, chromo or chromolithography. Photochrome refers to photographic based images printed on a glossy surface. Standard Oil first produced chrome postcards, in large part, because an oil base was used in the production. There are two general periods within the Photochrome Era; pre-zip code prior to 1964 and post-zip code. Postcard production in the modern era includes a wide range of printing techniques and postcard types. In the past twenty years or so there have been a number of different printing techniques developed to produce postcards. These modern printing techniques are outside the scope of this article and merit an independent study of their own.

In the second article in this series we will discuss the history of national park postcards in general. We will take a look at postcards of different national parks, publishers, photographers, artists, and other subjects related to national park postcards.

Susan and I are members of the International Federation of Postcard Dealers and have collected national park postcards for more than 30 years. If you have any questions feel free to contact us and we will help you however we can. Thank you!