Collecting Antique Postcards by Subject, Type & Publisher

It’s quite understandable for collectors new to the hobby to become overwhelmed with the astounding number and types of antique postcards available. When the private sector wrestled control of the medium from the Post Office in 1895, the number of players involved and types of cards published rose exponentially until the First World War (1914–1918). Postcard publishers vying for market share came up with better and better designs to attract customers, and introduced some clever marketing gimmicks. Britain’s Raphael Tuck & Sons, for example, initiated the first-known postcard competition. Tuck boldly offered prizes of up to £1,000 to the collector who amassed the most Tuck postcards sent through the mail within the following 18 months. Although £1,000 was a colossal sum in 1900, the competition was a stroke of genius in that sales of Tuck postcards skyrocketed (see Figure 1). For the record, the £1,000 first prize went to a collector who managed to accumulate over 20,000 cards.

Canadians were also caught up in the so-called postcard craze. In the 1919 edition of the Canadian Almanac there’s a table showing the estimated number of postcards mailed in Canada from 1881 to 1915. During the golden age (1900–1914) the number of cards mailed climbed from just over 27 million in 1900 to almost 65 million in 1914. With just under 8 million people in Canada in 1914, that’s at least eight postcards for every man, woman and child! And that just covers the cards mailed by Canadians, not those entering the country from the USA and abroad. So, with all the trading and collecting going on during the golden age and beyond, it’s no surprise that there’s an enormous quantity of antique postcards available to today’s collector. This is the reason why most deltiologists end up specializing. In other words, they focus on a particular postcard subject, type, publisher or combinations thereof (see Figure 2).

Although the number of different subjects portrayed on antique postcards is virtually limitless, a good summary of the most popular subjects can be found in Britain’s Picture Postcard Values catalogue. This annual, all-colour handbook groups postcards alphabetically by subject, and gives each card an average retail price derived from the market as a whole. Although card prices in Britain don’t necessary reflect the prices of similar cards in Canada, if you look at enough back issues of these catalogues you can see trends. In the "A" category for example, advertising cards made from early 20th century posters have really increased in value over the years. Similarly, in the "M" category’s military postcard section, First World War (1914–1918) propaganda cards are especially hot these days (see Figure 3).

With respect to postcard types, the two main categories are real photo cards and printed cards. As mentioned in an earlier article, real photo cards were made by developing photographic film directly onto specially marked photo paper. Usually produced locally in photographic studios, real photo cards tend to be much scarcer than their printed clones and have an air of authenticity that actual, unaltered photos always bring to the table. As such, they are much in demand these days and prices for them have risen accordingly (see Figure 4).

Understandably, the vast majority of postcards in collectors’ albums are the printed versions. Produced in the millions during the golden age via chromolithography and other high quality processes, printed cards are the mainstay of the hobby today, just as they were a century ago. Novelty postcards, an example of which was shown as Figure 2, are those printed cards that deviate from the norm by having objects applied to them, or are made from nonstandard materials like leather, wood and aluminum. Note that if you find antique aluminum cards that were stamped and mailed (see Figure 5), snap them up because after a short period of use, the Post Office demanded that they be put in envelopes before mailing. It seems that mailmen cut their hands on uncovered aluminum cards when reaching into their bags – ouch!

Over the past 15 years or so, there have been a dozen or so handbooks written specifically about Canadian postcard publishers. This has prompted many collectors to focus on the publisher side of the hobby as they build their hoards. In the next several articles then, we’ll introduce readers to some of our big kahunas.

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