A postcard or post card is a rectangular piece of thick paper or thin cardboard intended for writing and mailing without an envelope and at a lower rate than a letter. Stamp collectors distinguish between postcards (which require a stamp) and postal cards (which have the postage pre-printed on them). While a postcard is usually printed by a private company, individual or organization, a postal card is issued by the relevant postal authority. The United States Postal Service defines a postcard as: rectangular, at least 3-½ inches high x 5 inches long x .007 inch thick and no more than 4-¼ inches high x 6 inches long x .016 inches thick; (in metric; 12.7 cm x 8.9 cm) however, some postcards have deviated from this (for example, shaped postcards).
The study and collecting of postcards is termed deltiology.
John P. Charlton of Philadelphia patented the postcard in 1861, selling the rights to H. L. Lipman, whose postcards, complete with a decorated border, were labeled "Lipman's postal card." Nine years later European countries were also producing postcards.
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.
Initially, the United States government prohibited private companies from calling their cards “postcards,” so they were known as “souvenir cards.” Although this prohibition was rescinded in 1901, it was not until 1908 that people were permitted to write on the address side of a postcard.
The first postcard in the United States was created in 1893 to advertise the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Shortly thereafter the United States government, via the United States Postal Service, allowed printers to publish a 1-cent postcard (the "Penny Postcard"). A correspondent's writing was allowed only on the front side of these cards.
Postcards, in the form of government postal cards and privately printed souvenir cards, became very popular as a result of the Columbian Exposition, held in Chicago in 1893, after postcards featuring buildings were distributed at the fair. In 1908, more than 677 million postcards were mailed.
1901 brought cards with the word "Post Card" printed on the reverse (the side without the picture). Written messages were still restricted to the front side, with the entire back dedicated to the address. This "undivided back" is what gives this postcard era its name.
The "divided back" card, with space for a message on the address side, came into use in the United States in 1907. The back is divided into two sections, the left section being used for the message and the right for the address. Thus began the Golden Age of American postcards, which lasted until about 1915, when World War I blocked the import of the fine German-printed cards.
The "white border" era, named for obvious reasons, lasted from about 1916 to 1930. The "linen card" era lasted from about 1931 to the early 1950s, when cards were primarily printed on papers with a textured surface similar to linen cloth. The last and current postcard era, which began about 1939, is the "chrome" era, however these types of cards didn't begin to dominate until about 1950. The images on these cards are generally based on colored photographs, and are readily identified by the glossy appearance given by the paper's coating.
In France, erotic postcards appeared in 1910.
In 1973 the British Post Office introduced a new type of card, PHQ Cards, these have since become a popular collecting area, especially when they have the appropriate stamp affixed and a First day of issue postmark obtained.
In the early 1930s, cartoon-style saucy postcards became widespread, and at the peak of their popularity the sale of saucy postcards reached a massive 16 million a year. They were often bawdy in nature, making use of innuendo and double entendres and traditionally featured stereotypical characters such as vicars, large ladies and put-upon husbands, in the same vein as the Carry On films. In the early 1950s, the newly elected Conservative government were concerned at the apparent deterioration of morals in Britain and decided on a crackdown on these postcards. The main target on their hit list was the renowned postcard artist Donald McGill. In the more liberal 1960s, the saucy postcard was revived and became to be considered, by some, as an art form. This helped its popularity and once again they became an institution. However, during the 1970s and 1980s, the quality of the artwork and humour started to deteriorate and, with changing attitudes towards the cards' content, the demise of the saucy postcard occurred. Original postcards are now highly sought after, and rare examples can command high prices at auction. The best-known saucy seaside postcards were created by a publishing company called Bamforths, based in the town of Holmfirth, West Yorkshire, England. Despite the decline in popularity of postcards that are overtly 'saucy', postcards continue to be a significant economic and cultural aspect of British seaside tourism. Sold by newsagents and street vendors, as well as by specialist souvenir shops, modern seaside postcards often feature multiple depictions of the resort in unusually favourable weather conditions. The use of saturated colour, and a general departure from realism, have made the postcards of the later twentieth century become collected and admired as kitsch. Such cards are also respected as important documents of social history, and have been influential on the work of Martin Parr.
The initial appearance of picture postcards (and the enthusiasm with which the new medium was embraced) raised some legal issues that can be seen as precursors to later controversies over the internet. Picture postcards allowed and encouraged many individuals to send images across national borders, and the legal availability of a postcard image in one country did not guarantee that the card would be considered "proper" in the destination country, or in the intermediate countries that the card would have to pass through. Some countries might refuse to handle postcards containing sexual references (in seaside postcards) or images of full or partial nudity (for instance, in images of classical statuary or paintings).
In response to this new phenomenon, the Ottoman Empire banned the sale or importation of some materials relating to the Islamic prophet Muhammad in 1900. Affected postcards that were successfully sent through the OE before this date (and are postmarked accordingly) have a high rarity value and are considered valuable by collectors.
Embossed - Postcards with a raised surface.
Hold-to-Light- Also referred to as 'HTL', postcards often of a night time scene with cut out areas to show the light.
Intermediate Size - The link between Court Cards and Standard Size, measuring 130mm x 80mm.
Kaleodoscopes - Postcards with a rotating wheel that reveals a myriad of colours when turned.
Midget Postcards - Novelty cards of the size 90mm x 70mm.
Novelty - Any postcard which deviates in any way from the norm. Cards which do something, or have articles attached to them, or are printed in an unusual size or on strange materials. An example is cards made of leather
Oilette - A trade name used by Raphael Tuck to describe postcards reproduced from original paintings.
Real Photographic - Abbreviated to 'RP'. Used to describe postcards produced by a photographic rather than a printing process.
Reward Cards - Cards that were given away to school children for good work.
Standard Size - Introduced in Britain in November 1899, measuring 140mm x 89mm.
Topographical - A term used to describe postcards showing street scenes and general views.
Undivided Back - Describes postcards with a plain back where all of this space was used for the address. This is a term often used to describe Early cards, although undivided were still in common use up until 1907.
Vignette - Usually found on undivided back cards, consisting of a design which does not occupy the whole of the picture side. Vignettes may be anything from a small sketch in one corner of the card, to a design cover three quarters of the card. The purpose is to leave some space for the message to be written, as the entire reverse of the card could only be used for the address.
Write-Away - Used to describe a card with the opening line of a sentence, which the sender would then complete. Often found on early comic cards.