Antique Postcards Provide Big Bang for the Buck

Antique Postcards Provide Big Bang for the Buck

How often do you see the words "inexpensive antique" in the same sentence? As a collector of Canadian stamps for over 40 years before selling them off in 2007, I don’t ever remember buying an inexpensive stamp minted before the Second World War. Even modern Canadian stamps can demand premium prices under the right conditions. That’s one of the reasons the collecting bug in me started to stray off course in the early 1980s. And it was love at first sight when I saw my first Canadian patriotic postcard in an antique shop in Holyrood, Ontario. For those scratching their heads, Holyrood is a little village about a 20 minute drive inland from Kincardine.

The shop’s proprietor, Reg Powell, was an affable, semi-retired real estate agent from Toronto. His shop, officially advertised as "Queen’s Bush Stamps," was the farthest thing from a stamp store. It was loaded from floor to ceiling with small to medium-sized antiques, books, flea market knickknacks and, if you could find it under all the old newspapers, a display case with stamps, coins and antique postcards. To make a long story short, I dropped into Reg’s shop to check out his stamp inventory, and walked out with one of the most attractive postcards I’d ever seen (see Figure 1). And it only cost me five bucks!

Above: A circa 1907 patriotic postcard by England’s famous Raphael Tuck & Sons. The card is from a series showing Canadian provincial and several city crests on the Red Ensign

I learned a lot about antique postcards that day in Reg’s shop, including the fact the he was one of the founding members of the Toronto Postcard Club. And like any hobby, club membership, reading the essential handbooks, and checking the trade online, are key to growing one’s knowledge. For example, in 1985 Wally Gutzman’s The Canadian Patriotic Post Card Handbook 1904–1914 opened my eyes to the thousands of beautiful patriotic postcards published during the Edwardian era. In fact, it was on the back cover of Wally’s book where I first saw postcards referred to as inexpensive antiques. But where did all these little works of art come from?

The world’s first official postcard was issued by the Austrian postal authorities on October 1, 1869. This novel way of relaying messages through the post without an envelope was the brainchild of Dr. Emanuel Herrmann, an economics professor at the Wiener Neustadt Military Academy in Vienna. It didn’t take long before the rest of the world’s postal authorities joined Austria on the postcard bandwagon. Britain, Luxembourg and Switzerland inaugurated their first postcards in 1870; Germany, Belgium, Denmark and Canada followed suit in 1871 (see Figure 2); Russia in 1872; France, Spain, Norway, Japan and the USA in 1873; etc. Canada, by the way, was the first country outside Europe to issue postcards.

Above: Figure 2. Canada’s first official postcard was printed by the British American Banknote Company, Montreal & Ottawa. It was launched at post offices on June 1, 1871.

As you can see in Figure 2, our first postcards were really just a postal stationery product. They had an imprinted stamp, were rather blasé, and the government monopolized their production and sales for over 20 years. To control the monopoly, the special 1-cent postcard rate was only available if you bought postcards at the post office. Any postcard wannabes produced in the private sector were charged a higher mailing rate. Fortunately for publishers, printers and collectors, Canadian postal regulations finally allowed the private sector into the postcard business on New Year’s Day 1895. There were initial restrictions on postcard specifications, but for the next two decades free market forces unleashed a torrent of better and better card designs. Incidentally, the identity of Canada’s first privately published picture postcard was identified just last year (see Figure 3). An article about it was discovered in the June 1908 issue of Bookseller and Stationer, an early Canadian trade periodical available online.

Figure 3. Barrie, Ontario’s Alexander Scott published Canada’s first picture postcard in June 1895. It was designed and printed by Toronto’s Grip Co. (From the Steve Hilditch collection.)

One other milestone in the history of the Canadian postcard was the authorization of the so-called "divided-back" design on December 18, 1903. Until that date, sender’s messages were not allowed on the same side of the card as the stamp and recipient’s address. This meant that messages and images vied for space on the postcard’s picture side. The divided-back postcard thus opened up an entire canvas for imaginative publishers. And talented artists, graphic designers and photographers were hired to fill up the space (see Figure 4). In fact, postcards became so popular during what we now refer to as the golden age (1900–1914), it was said at the time that no Edwardian household was without a postcard album. In the days before radio and the proliferation of telephones, these little text message conveyances were all the rage.

Figure 4. The circa 1908 postcard by Valentine & Sons (Montreal & Toronto) is from a 44-card patriotic series. All the images in the series started life as a photo by renowned Goderich, Ontario photographer Reuben Sallows.

Thus we can thank the Edwardians for most of the antique postcards available at antique shops, flea markets and postcard shows. And besides the price, attractiveness, social history and nostalgia aspect of antique postcards, postcard subject matter and design variations appear limitless. In other words, what’s not to like?

Figure 5. This circa 1907 postcard by Toronto’s Warwick Bros. & Rutter was among the oodles of terrific First Nations postcards in circulation during the Edwardian era.

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