Wish You Were Here

A pack of antique photos of the sites of Los Angeles. Postage 1 and 1/2 cents.

Are you a deltiologist? Not sure. Probably like millions of others you sent or have saved some postcards over the years. Deltiology is someone who collects postcards. The first postcard appeared as a Christmas card in 1843. The same year that Charles Dickens’ "A Christmas Carol" and the story of Ebenezer Scrooge was published. Sir Henry Cole, the director of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum has been recognized as one of the greatest entrepreneurs in the history of England. He was an inventor, and artist, devised the Penny Post and planned the Great Exhibition of 1851.

In November 1843, he looked at his mailing list and realized it had grown to several hundred people to whom he would have to send a letter. The list included friends, and businesses associates.

This was an impossible task, so he commissioned the famous artist John Callcott Horsley to design a postcard with a simple greeting that he could sign and send that would convey the message of the Christmas season. Horsley produced a three-panel, hand coloured lithographed card. The simple postcard measured 3"x5" and depicted a scene straight out of "A Christmas Carol".

The centre panel featured a three generation, middle class family seated around a table eating and drinking. The left panel depicted feeding the hungry during the Christmas season and the right panel, providing clothing to the needy. The greeting in the centre was "Merry Christmas and Happy New Year."

The first Christmas card was not warmly received by everyone, according to Mary Catchpole, art archivist in the art and photography section of the Library and Archives of Canada. "The card ruffled feathers in Victorian society with its depiction of a family celebration that included a child drinking wine. Others were outraged at the depiction of the poor and needy requiring food and clothing."

There may have been controversy over the message on the postcard, but others recognized that postcards could be printed and marketed with other scenes on the postcard. Photos could be employed to decorate the front of the card.

The new photographic technology was embraced by towns, cities, even small villages, all eager to represent their finest public buildings, streetscapes and community festivities in the hopes of attracting tourists, new residents and businesses. Sports teams, bands, theatre troupes and businesses jumped on the postcard bandwagon.

No other media has offered such a wide panoramic of life through the past 160 years as postcards. The photographic postcards were inexpensive to market and proved very profitable. Almost every small town drug store commissioned a local photographer to take pictures of the main streets, post office, government buildings, churches, parks and special events including special patriotic ones.

A 1900 postcard features the famous Orangeman’s Parade in various Canadian cities. Another a 1900 Dominion Day Parade with marching band followed by long rows of children dressed in their white Sunday best. The back of the card indicates it was sold at W. Erskine Druggist, Orangeville, Ontario.

The sales of postcards increased as salesman would visit each town. Many images were for a specific city or town while other postcards were generic scenes and the name of the town was added to suit. One such generic card is of a young couple sitting at a piano kissing and the caption states, "I’m Taking Piano Lessons" and the name of the town was filled in. A card that appeared after World War II was of a grocery store and indicated it was the new "self-serve" store filled with shopping carts to make it easier to pile up the great savings available.

Postcards were mailed to friends or family, or in many instance purchased and kept for one’s own scrapbook. A record of summer vacations, family outings and special events. Memories stored away. Today those cards are tiny patches rubbed clear on the foggy window of the past, fleeting glimpses of ordinary life, culture, the kind of everyday history not available in official documents. Postcards were popular from the late 1880’s to the 1960’s due to the low cost of postage. Originally it was a penny hence the penny postcard. Even when normal postage rates increased postcards remained at an affordable rate due to the simple fact each one is complete on two sides. No extra cost due to the extra weight of writing paper.

Other photographic postcards popular with collectors feature adult and children at work and play, baseball stadiums, football stadiums, hockey arenas, politicians, famous people, amusement parks, county fairs, world’s fairs or exhibitions, fires, ships, aircraft, major holidays, construction projects such as the Empire State Building, Eiffel Tower, Panama Canal. The list is endless and there is an affordable price for every collector. Most postcards only sell for a few dollars. The most valuable cards that sell for hundreds are photos of towns now gone or important events. The postcard that features a captured German U-Boat from World War I docked in Toronto Harbour on its way to destruction on the Great Lakes sells in the $150 range. A rare one time event.

By the late 1800’s many postcards became more colourful thanks to the new process of chromolithography. It was a revolutionary printing style. Rather than being limited to one colour, it allowed for successive applications of colour. The images on postcards began to reflect the new multi coloured style. The J.S. Campbell and Sons of Toronto and G.W. Clarke of Montreal were two major producers of postcards. Other Canadian companies were Warwick Brothers and Rutter, The McCoy Printing Company, The W.G. MacFarlane Company. The largest worldwide producer of postcards was the Raphael Tuck and Sons Company. Raphael Tuck and his wife founded the company in London, England in the 1866. In the United States it was the Stecher Lithograph Company of Rochester, New York.

The North American companies cornered the postcard market during World War I due to the simple fact that German postcard companies were prevented from the major markets due to the war embargo. When World War I ended the major competitors that had been on the losing side never recovered to regain their market share.

Sadly, the postcard according to a recent article is on a severe decline. Due to the internet and the high cost of postage sales and the mailing of postcards has reached a new low. The US Postal Service estimated that about 1 billion postcards were sent in 2013. That is a decline of 4.4 million from 2012. Nancy Rosen, President of the Ephemera Society of America attributes the decline to several factors. "Social media definitely decreases the number of paper missives being sent. Penmanship skills have diminished. Even sending postcards from travel locales is getting to be a challenge as they don’t seem readily available. Postcards are an artifact of the past, when they were a primary vehicle for communications among friends, lovers and relatives."

With the decline of sending postcards it becomes even more interesting to the collector to attend shows, yard sales, flea markets, second hand stores and even check stores that are closing. Not as many are being sent, but in the past 160 years the supply and variety for collectors is endless.

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