Introduction and History
1898-1930: Exterior Buildings Period
In contrast to later periods, postcards produced during the "Exterior Buildings Period" had little to no information on the message side about the subjects of their images. Part of the reason for this lack of information is because until March 1, 1907, the backs of postcards were only allowed to have space for mailing information. Even after March 1907, Smithsonian postcards still did not contain much information, if any, on the message side about the images.
The lack of information on the back of postcards also reflects their purpose and usage: during the "Exterior Buildings Period," Smithsonian postcards were used as a means of communication between individuals. Postcards were a quick and easy way to send messages and updates, the same way we use text messaging and social networks like Twitter today. Using postcards as a means of communication between individuals stands in contrast to usage in later periods, when the Smithsonian utilized postcards to reach out to the public.
1930-1980: Exhibit Collections Period
Postcards created during the "Exhibit Collections Period" generally contain more printed information on the message side than those produced during the "Exterior Buildings Period." A partial factor in this increase, as mentioned above, was the March 1907 act that allowed the back of postcards to contain more than just an address. Though printed information became more frequent from 1930-1980, the amount of information depended on the producer of the postcard. Cards produced by The Albertype Co. contain paragraphs of printed text about the image on the front of the card, while cards produced by Capitol Souvenir Company generally have only a couple sentences. Cards produced by Curt Teich & Co., in contrast, have little to no printed information on the message side.
The change in image types and amount of printed information on the back suggests the Smithsonian’s desire during this period to reach out more to the public. The postcards of objects highlight the Smithsonian's collections and show people the kind of exciting things they could expect to find inside the museums, rather than just the buildings themselves. The objects and included information also displayed the wealth of information available at the Smithsonian to truly meet its mission for the "increase and diffusion of knowledge among men."
Though the images and printed information changed on postcards during the "Exhibit Collections Period," the primary function and usage of postcards did not. Postcards remained a quick and convenient way for individuals to communicate.
1980-Present: Advertising Period
The final period of Smithsonian postcards stretches from 1980 to today: the "Advertising Period." Postcards from this time period continue to display objects from exhibits, but the function and use of these postcards are drastically different from earlier periods. Rather than simply showing the object on display, these postcards overtly advertise and promote the objects and exhibits. The Smithsonian also began to use postcards to encourage membership and museum attendance. For example, many of our postcards from the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) include a sub-type of advertising postcards: RSVP postcards. These cards have prepaid postage and were a way for individuals to RSVP to NMAI exhibit events.
Because the Smithsonian used these postcards for advertisement purposes, the amount and content of printed information on the message side of postcards is markedly different from that of earlier periods. The backs of almost all of these postcards are filled with printed information about the museums and exhibits they are promoting; content of the exhibit, opening and closing dates of the exhibition, museum operating hours and admission, and other information. The RSVP postcards are simpler, with a space to indicate attendance and number of guests, but they still speak to the promotional nature of the postcards from this period. The shift to promotional postcards during the "Advertising Period" shows how Smithsonian postcards evolved from being a means of communication between private individuals to being a way for the Smithsonian to communicate with the public about upcoming museum exhibits and events.