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A Brief History of Postcards

Posted by Jane Metters LaBarbara.
December 17th, 2015

Blog post by Lori Hostuttler, Digital Projects and Outreach Archivist, WVRHC.


I was attending the Harrison County Historical Society Christmas Party last weekend and some friends and I were trying to identify a postcard that was labeled as Main Street, Clarksburg.  It was unrecognizable as Main Street as we knew it, so we started talking about the clues that the postcard presented us about the time period it was created so we could use Clarksburg City Directories to find the location of the home in the photo. 


Postcard labeled Main Street Showing Parr’s Residence, Clarksburg, WV (probably actually Lee Avenue)

Main Street Showing Parr’s Residence, Clarksburg, W. Va.
This is the postcard that spawned this blog post.


As I looked for information that could help date the card, I found that much can be learned about the content of postcards from the history of their production.  There are several distinct styles of postcards that can be categorized by era.  Examples from the West Virginia & Regional History Center’s Postcard Collection are used to illustrate the eras when possible.


Pioneer Era (pre 1898)

In 1861 legislation passed allowing cards that weighed one ounce or less to be sent through the mail.  That year John P. Charlton copyrighted the first American postcard.  A decade later, Charlton’s cards were reissued as Lipman Postal Cards. In 1873, the United States government started printing postal cards. One side of these cards was for the message, the other side for the address.  The address side often would bear the message, “This side for address only.” Government cards required 1-cent postage, while privately printed cards needed a 2-cent stamp.  Additionally, now only government postcards could use the term “Postal Card.”


Private Mailing Card Era (1898-1901)

In 1898, Congress passed legislation that allowed private companies to print postcards bearing the words: “Private Mailing Card, Authorized by Act of Congress of May 19, 1898.” The term Private Mailing Card differentiated the cards from government cards, but the cost to mail them became the same as government cards, 1-cent.  Private mailing cards reserved one side for the address.  If the opposite side contained no picture, then a message was permitted.  If it did have an image, then usually a small space was left for a message.


Address side of a Private Mailing Card postcard

An example of a rare Private Mailing Card from the WVRHC collection.

Portrait of unidentified man and First Presbyterian Church in Parkersburg, WV

The First Presbyterian Church in Parkersburg on the front side of the Private Mailing Card.


Post Card Era (1901-1907)

In December 1901, the Postmaster General made it legal for all postcards to use the words “Post Card” rather than Private Mailing Card.  The reference to the 1898 Act was no longer needed.  Most of the cards of this era had images on one side.  The other side of the card was reserved for the address only, leaving no space for a message.


Address side of an old postcard with no space for a message

The Address Side of a Post Card Mailed in 1906.

Blue tinted image of Horse Racing Event; Hancock County, W. Va.

Front Side of the Post Card.  Since there was no space for a message, this sender wrote a note on the photograph.


Divided Back Era (1907-1915)

Beginning in 1907, postcards could have a message on the left side of the address side of the card.  This time period is considered to be the “Golden Age of Postcards.”   Millions of postcards were printed and they were extremely popular and collected.  Real Photo postcards also gained popularity during this time period (though they were first produced starting in 1900) and continue to this day. Early Real Photo cards could be created by using a special Kodak camera that produced a postcard size negative that was printed on postcard paper.


Postcard with divided back

An example of a postcard from the Divided Back period mailed from Belington, W. Va. in 1909.  Not surprisingly, the majority of the postcards in the WVRHC collection date from this “Golden Age.” I also saw several examples of the text being written upside down on the message side (as on this card) in the WVRHC collection as well.

People standing on Bridge on Bridge Street in Belington, WV

Front Side of the divided back postcard showing the Bridge on Bridge Street in Belington.


White Border Era (1915-1930)

German printers produced most of the early postcards.  After World War I began, American printers supplied the cards in the United States and white borders were added to save ink.  Due to differing technologies and increased labor costs, the overall quality of cards declined.  Interest in collecting postcards waned as a result.


Lobby of the Waldo Hotel in Clarksburg, WV

A White Border postcard of the Lobby of the Waldo Hotel in Clarksburg, mailed in 1925.


Linen Era (1930-1945)

Postcards during this era were produced with a high rag content making them look like they were printed on linen rather than paper. These cards used bright dyes for colorization and generally had a white border.  The Curt Teich & Co. was a prominent printer of these cards.  This brand of postcards was popular around the world.


Guyan Country Club and Golf Course in Huntington

The Guyan Country Club and Golf Course in Huntington are shown on this Curt Teich postcard that was mailed in 1941.


Photochrom Era (1945-present)

These color postcards were initially introduced in the United States when the Union Oil Company started selling them in their gas stations in 1939.  World War II delayed their mass popularity, but they became the prevailing postcard style after the war.


Jefferson County Courthouse in Charles Town, W. Va.

A photochrom postcard of the Jefferson County Courthouse in Charles Town, W. Va.


Beyond these stylistic eras, other information can also be used to date and identify a postcard.  The size of the card can provide clues. The Private Mailing Card Act specified that private mailing cards would measure 3.25 x 5.5 inches.  This size card would have been produced from 1898 to 1901.  Cards prior to 1898 and after 1901 are generally sized 3.5 x 5.5 inches.  Some postcards in the 1960s expanded to 4 x 6 inches.


If the card was mailed, then the postmark can give you an approximate date of the image. The postage amount can also supply important details.  Major postcard publishers such as the Curt Teich & Co. and the Detroit Photographic Company used numbering schemas that can be used to date their postcards.  This website provides helpful information regarding postage rates, company numbers and other tips on identifying postcards.


One postcard piqued my curiosity to such an extent that I ended up learning a great deal about postcards overall!  And what have I discovered about the postcard in question?  The postmark date is indistinguishable on the back of the card, but is a divided back card which tells me it is after 1907.  I believe that this postcard is mislabeled as Main Street and that it is actually Lee Avenue in Clarksburg.


Back of a postcard, with writing on it

The back of the mislabeled postcard.  The sender had moved to Clarksburg from Pennsylvania and “took a chance but did not make out very good.”  Since they were not from the area, they may not have noticed the incorrect location on the front of the card.


I had suspected the card was mislabeled because I knew that a Parr mansion was demolished to build Washington Irving High School which opened in 1914.  Looking at Clarksburg City Directories from 1907-1913, I was able to determine that Lee Avenue was the only location of a Parr home in Clarksburg that bears any resemblance to the one in the postcard.  The Parrs moved to East Main Street in 1913, but that part of Main Street could not look like the image in the postcard.  The houses on East Main sit next to the street, not on a hillside above the street.



A postcard showing Washington Irving High School, my alma mater, which sits on the site of Parr’s residence on Lee Avenue in Clarksburg


Although this was no great mystery that was solved, it was still fascinating to explore all of the evidence and to find out that postcard styles can provide helpful clues to their identification.




Postcard History, Smithsonian Institution Archives,


Dating Postcards, Smithsonian Institution Archives,


Tips for determining when a U.S. postcard was published, Center for Southwest Studies, Fort Lewis College


All of the postcards shown here can be found in the WVRHC’s online database of images, West Virginia History OnView.

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