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Picture Postcards, A Window to the Past

© Jill Livingston 2004

Are you a deltiologist? Perhaps you are and you don’t even know it. This exotic-sounding word has Latin roots that mean “small writing tablet” and “specialist” and is nothing more than the official word for “postcard collector”.

Postcard collecting has its fans and fan-atics, many with “specialties” based on such things as the location pictured, the publisher or photographer, or a special event. The collector should feel no guilt for squandering a dollar or two on a favorite scene, for while it’s true that, even at this low price, the card’s cost has increased a hundred-fold since the first time it was sold, this is still a relatively inexpensive hobby to get in to.

Early in the 20th century, a decade-long postcard-collecting craze that started first in Europe and spread to the US reached almost manic proportions. Not only did hundreds of thousands of the illustrated epistles pass though post offices weekly, but those on the receiving end of the “wish you were here” missives seem to have cherished them. Post card albums were displayed on tables and houses were equipped with “postcard closets” to store the postcard-overflow.

The decline of the thoughtfully-written letter was declared imminent, yet it appears that the postals supplemented rather than supplanted newsy tomes from friends and relatives. It took the telephone with cents-per-minute long distance charges and, finally, instantaneous email to hammer the nails in the letter-writing coffin. We still scratch out a few postcards when we are away from home or the send the occasional greeting card, but one seldom has to write a personal letter.

Postcard collectors exhibit the typical collector’s organizational strategy to catalog and categorize their finds, and in addition have neatly divided the history of the humble postcard into Eras, some of which overlap. But what it boils down to is that, previous to the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition, all postcards were of the plain government-issue sort. At that time Exposition promoters convinced the postal service to let them print some Exposition scenes on penny post cards, and thus started the tradition of “picture post cards”.

But until 1907, a Big Year in postcard history, by law only the address could be written on the reverse side. Any message was either pre-printed on the illustrated side, such as “Greetings from Wherever,” or scrawled alongside or on top of the picture.

To Page 2, and postcard samples