Dating Postcards

­­­­­­There are several ways to date postcards that are seemingly undated. This page provides a few general methods for determining a time period or date for postcards.

GENERAL POSTCARD CHRONOLOGY

Postcard of the Old National Museum, by Capitol Souvenir Company, April 13, 1939, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, SIA2011-2285 (front) and SIA2011-2286 (back).

Postcard producers printed cards that followed the current trends of postcards. Dates can be approximated by the material and design of a postcard. Our Postcard History page provides information about these general trends. For example, a card printed on linen was most likely produced between 1930 and 1945. However, it is important to remember that these dates and time periods are not concrete—they are only generalizations of trends in the postcard industry.

POSTAGE

Postcard of the Castle Sent to Miss Harman, June 21, 1921, B.S. Reynolds Co., Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 95, Box 84, Folder: 25, Negative Number SIA2011-2304. siris_sic_13875 (left); Postcard of the New National Museum and DC, May 24, 1928, Curt Teich & Co., Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 95, Box 33, Folder: 12, Negative Number SIA2013-01126 (right).

The rate of postage for postcards has changed throughout time and can be used to find an approximate date for postcards. Not all postcards have the required postage amount printed on them, so this method can only be used in instances when the postage is known. The following list is postage for postcards mailed within the United States.1

 

Date Rate (USD)
Pre-1873 0.02
May 12, 1873 0.01*
November 2, 1917 0.02
July 1, 1919 0.01
April 15, 1925 0.02
July 1, 1928 0.01
January 1, 1952 0.01
August 1, 1958 0.03
January 7, 1963 0.04
January 7, 1968 0.05
May 16, 1971 0.06
March 2, 1974 0.08
September 14, 1975 0.07
December 31, 1975 0.09
May 29, 1978 0.10
March 22, 1981 0.12
November 1, 1981 0.13
February 17, 1985 0.14
April 3, 1988 0.15
February 3, 1991 0.19
January 1, 1995 0.20
July 1, 2001 0.21
June 30, 2002 0.23
January 8, 2006 0.24
May 14, 2007 0.26
May 12, 2008 0.27
May 11, 2009 0.28
April 17, 2011 0.29
January 22, 2012 0.32
January 27, 2013 0.33

 

*The postage rate for most government-produced postcards was $0.01. However, depending on which government-produced postcard it was, the postage could range between $0.01 to $0.04.2 The postage for privately produced postcards was $0.02. This rate for privately produced postcards went down to $0.01 on May 19, 1898, with the passage of the Private Mailing Card Act.

POSTCARD SIZE

Postcard of "The Wedding Procession of Prince Dara-Shikoh", by Unknown, 1997, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, SIA2013-07761 (front) and SIA2013-07762 (back).

In the early stages of postcard production, government-produced postcards varied in size, depending on the type of postcard.3 Privately produced postcards, also known as private mailing cards, did not need to adhere to the government restrictions. On June 1, 1878, the General Postal Union, an international postal organization, signed a new treaty, changing its name to the Universal Postal Union. This treaty set the maximum size for postcards produced by governments of member nations at 3.5 x 5.5 inches.4

The Private Mailing Card Act of May 19, 1898, stipulated that private mailing cards measure 3.25 x 5.5 inches. After 1901, postcards typically measured 3.5 x 5.5 inches, although variations in size exist.  In the 1960s, some printers began producing 4 x 6 inch postcards. Today postcards vary greatly in size and shape, so it is more difficult to use size to date them—but if the  size or shape of the postcards differs from the above standards, it’s safe to assume that they were probably made within the past few decades.

CURT TEICH POSTCARDS

Postcard of Manicuring Day for Soko, by Curt Teich & Co, 1935, Smithsonian Archives - History Div, SIA2013-07820 (front) and SIA2013-07821 (back).

Curt Teich & Co., a postcard printing company, operated from 1898-1978 and specialized in view (postcards that have scenic views) and advertising postcards. Curt Teich was the largest volume printer of these types of postcards in the world from the 1920s to the 1940s. Many of the postcards we have at the Archives were printed by Curt Teich & Co. It is easier to give Curt Teich postcards an approximate date because the postcards’ print numbers correspond to production years. This dating guide compiled by the Curt Teich Archives, a wonderful wealth of images and information, provides detailed information about the postcard print numbers and dates.

 

 

Further Resources

Postcard History,” Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Evolution of the Smithsonian Postcard,” Smithsonian Institution Archives.

Leah Tams, “The Mystery of the Undated Postcards,” The Bigger Picture (blog), Smithsonian Institution Archives, July 23, 2013.

Guide to Dating Curt Teich Postcards,” (PDF) Curt Teich Archives, Lake County Forest Preserves.

Heather Johnson, “The Curt Teich Company - Part 1,” The Curt Teich Postcard Blog (blog),  July 5, 2012, http://teicharchives.blogspot.com/2012/07/curt-teich-company-part-1.html.

Postal History,” US Postal Service.

National Postal Museum.

US Postal Regulatory Commission.

Universal Postal Union.

Footnotes

1  The postage rates for postcards have been compiled from three separate sources. United States Department of Commerce, Historical Statistics of the United States: Colonial Times to 1970, Bicentennial ed. (Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1976), 807; US Postal Regulatory Commission, “History of Postcard Rates,” United States Postal Regulatory Commission, last modified 2012, http://www.prc.gov/PRC-DOCS/aboutprc/offices/PAGR/TABLE_POSTCARD_RATEHISTORY_1926.pdf; USPS Historian, “Rates for Stamped Cards and Postcards Since 1873,” United States Postal Service, last modified January 2013, http://about.usps.com/who-we-are/postal-history/postcard-rates-since-1873.htm

2 For more details, see: Post-Office Department, Annual Reports for the Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1900. Report of the Postmaster-General. Miscellaneous Reports (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1900), 793-794. 

3 For a detailed listing of the different types of postcards and sizes, see: Post-Office Department, Annual Reports for the Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1900. Report of the Postmaster-General. Miscellaneous Reports (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1900), 792-795. 

 4 Post-Office Department, Report of the Postmaster-General of the United States; Being Part of the Message and Documents Communicated to the Two Houses of Congress at the Beginning of the Third Session of the Forty-Fifth Congress (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1878), 27.