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Chronology of the Picture Postcard

The United States Postal Service began issuing pre-stamped postal cards in 1873. The postal cards came about because the public was looking for an easier way to send quick notes. The USPS was the only establishment allowed to print postcards, and it held its monopoly until May 19, 1898, when Congress passed the Private Mailing Card Act which allowed private publishers and printers to produce postcards. The public could mail the private mailing cards for 1¢ instead of the letter rate of 2¢. The term "private mailing card" came into use because the USPS wanted to keep the postcards it produced distinguishable from those being produced privately, so it was required that private publishers print "Private Mailing Card" on the backs of their cards. Postcards went through many phases when particular design features were popular, so even if a postcard is not dated or was never mailed, it is still possible to determine an approximate time when it was printed.

Private Mailing Cards Period, 1898 - 1901:

During the Private Mailing Card era, messages were not allowed on the back of the cards, so a small space was left on the front, for notes from the sender. The sender had to purchase a 1¢ stamp for the Private Mailing Card. The words "Private Mailing Card" were printed on the back of cards along with the statement "Authorized by Act of Congress of May 19, 1898" and "This side is exclusively for the Address" indicating that messages could be only be written on the front. Also found on many of them was "Postal Card - Carte Postale" which indicated it was allowed to enter the international mail system.

pmc front               pmc back

Post Card Period, 1901-1907:

In December 1901, the United States Post Office issued Post Office Order No. 1447 which allowed the words "Post Card" instead of the longer Postal Mailing Card. Messages were still not allowed on the back of cards. This is also called the Undivided Back Period.

undivided back front                undivided back back

Divided Back Period, 1907-1914:

On March 1, 1907, a major change on the backs of postcards occurred. The left side of the back of the card was allowed for messages, while the right side was for the address. During this era, the blank space on the front of post cards, which previously was for messages, disappeared.

Divided Back Front               Divided Back back

White Border Period, 1915-1930:

Until this period German printers dominated the market in postcard printing. With the beginning of World War I, postcards were supplied mostly by printers in the United States. During these years printers saved ink by not printing to the edge of the card and leaving a white border around the image. Also during this time, the pictures on postcards were described in more detail on the back.

White Border Front                White Border back

Linen Period, 1930-1944:

With the development of new printing processes, postcards could be printed with high rag content, which gave them a look of being printed on cloth or linen. This period is also characterized by the use of bright colors. Most postcards also retained the white border, but some were printed to the edge of the card. The back remained virtually the same.

Linen front               Linen back

Modern Photochrome-style Period, 1939 - to date:

Modern Photochrome-style postcards first appeared in 1939 with the Union Oil Company carrying them in their western service stations. Production of the postcards was slowed during World War II because of supply shortages, but after the war, they dominated the postcard market. The photochrome postcards are in color, are the closest to real photographs, and are the ones most familiar to us today. Since 1952 post card rates have increased from 2¢ to 21¢.

Modern front               Modern back

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Smithsonian Institution Archives, Institutional History Division