Postcards may seem a little redundant now, since we’re so used to being instantly connected to one another from opposite sides of the world. Maybe that’s why they now have a certain charm, and the novelty of sending someone a message that takes a week to arrive in the mail but lasts a lifetime is actually something people are impressed by all over again.
The origins of the modern day postcard are, as with many of our favourite inventions, somewhat unclear. Various countries saw important milestones in the development of the product that later became a phenomenon. For example, the first postcard is credited to the London-based writer Theodore Hook in 1840, and featured a hand-painted image on one side. The first commercially produced postcards were made in the US eight years later, complete with Hymen Lipman branding but without images. It wasn’t until more than 20 years later that printed picture postcards started being produced in France, Austria, Germany and eventually Great Britain.
In the period following this, throughout the 1880s and ‘90s, postcards had their first major boom in popularity. Thanks to recent industrial progress and a spike in interest in modern architecture, iconic images like the newly constructed Eiffel Tower were perfect to market on printed postcards. French postcards were also famous for featuring nude women.
In the US, the first souvenir postcard was produced to promote the World’s Columbian Exposition, hosted in Chicago in 1893. Many designs featuring images of buildings were made for the event, which significantly boosted Americans’ interest in sending them. For several years only the Post Office was permitted to print postcards, and later companies were allowed to produce them but couldn’t refer to them as “postcards”. Finally in 1901 the US government lifted this restriction, and the decade that followed became known as America’s Golden Age of postcards.
Meanwhile in Britain, it was around this time that commercially printed postcards made it across the pond. They were mostly based around seaside scenes, since domestic tourism was taking off due to the popularity of travelling on steam trains. Unfortunately the outbreak of World War I disrupted the trend for postcards globally, due to a high proportion of postcards being imported from Germany at the time.
After the war during the 1920s, firms such as Curt Teich and Company (which originated in Germany and moved to the US before the turn of the century) led the way in developing more most effective printing techniques and new designs, such as the wildly popular “large letter linen” postcards which featured place names spelled out in letter-shaped images. Meanwhile, comedy postcards featuring (often “saucy”) cartoons of current events, politicians and everyday scenes were the most popular form in Great Britain. Following this there was another interruption to the supply of postcards when war broke out again at the end of the 1930s, although their popularity held strong.
US postcard designs gradually moved away from painted or drawn designs, initially featuring artist’s images based on photographs and later becoming straight reproductions of original photos on glossy card. This “chrome era” fully took hold by the 1950s and the concept remains unchanged to this day. The “saucy” style of postcard that was so popular in the UK lasted until the 1980s, when their popularity finally diminished. Despite the different trends for postcards in different countries, rare editions in both the US and the UK are now worth thousands to avid collectors, and serve as a reminder of exciting milestones in history.