Collectible Postcards in the Chrome Era (1939–Present)

Collectible Postcards in the Chrome Era

This is the third of three quick summaries of the development, marketing and collectability of Canadian postcards. Unlike the titles of the first two articles, I chose to use the adjective "collectible" instead of "antique" because chrome-era postcards haven’t really been around long enough to be classified as such. This certainly doesn’t mean that they’re not as desirable as antique postcards. In fact, if one focusses on some of the more elusive publishers, building a collection of chrome-era cards can be a satisfying and rewarding challenge. And now, let’s review the genesis of the chrome postcard, which was so named because of its connection to Kodachrome film. Note that most collectors simply refer to these cards as "chromes."

For those of us born in the 1950s, family albums chock full of black and white snapshots were the norm. After all, for a large part of that decade inexpensive colour film wasn’t available to the public. Colour photography had been around for years but the development process was complicated and expensive. This would all change in 1935. In that year the Eastman Kodak Company of Rochester, New York altered the world of colour photography forever with the development and mass marketing of Kodachrome, the first successful color film used for both cinematography and still photography. According to Wikipedia, Kodachrome was introduced in 1935 as 16 mm colour movie film, and in 1936 was made available in 8 mm movie film, and in 35 mm and 828 formats for still cameras.

Once commercial printers had access to Kodachrome film, the days of making colour postcards by retouching images taken from black & white photographs were numbered. According to the website of the New York’s Metropolitan Postcard Club, the world’s first "natural colour" postcards made from Kodachrome film were published in 1939 by the Union Oil Company of Santa Paula, California. Fortunately for Canadian collectors, Union Oil’s inaugural series of chrome postcards included a numbered 28-card set of Western Canada views. The seventh card from the set, shown as Figure 1, was originally in the Wayne Curtis collection. Interestingly, about a year before this great collector passed away, he told me that the main reason he acquired these particular cards was that he liked the Union Oil logo on their backs. He admitted that he had no idea that he was building a collection of Canada’s earliest chrome postcards.

Figure 1. Union Oil Co. of California published this chrome postcard of B.C.’s Lake Okanagan in 1939. It’s from a 28-card set of Canada’s first natural colour cards. As such, a $15 to $20 price tag wouldn’t be unreasonable.

One could be forgiven for thinking that chrome postcards weren’t available until the late 1940s. You see, Union Oil Co.’s 1939 cards were actually part of a marketing gimmick. The plan was to issue them as freebies at Union 76 stations to promote gasoline sales in the US and Canada. Well, when gasoline rationing was implemented during the Second World War (1939–1945), there was no longer any point to the giveaway. Thus, Union Oil’s foray into the postcard business would sputter until the war was over.

Even at war’s end, it took a while before other publishers jumped on the chrome postcard bandwagon. Given that the colour reproduction on the early chromes had room for improvement, and the brilliantly-coloured linen propaganda postcards made during the war were among the most popular cards ever published, the upstart chromes were like David fighting Goliath. In fact, the Metropolitan Postcard Club’s website says that many publishers considered the whole process of creating postcards from Kodachrome film to be a fad. As we are all aware though, this so-called fad changed postcard production forever. By the mid-1950s most postcards published worldwide were made from Kodachrome film or its imitators.

As the popularity of the chrome postcard steadily increased in the post-war years, more and more publishers got into the act. Many in fact, made sure that "genuine natural colour" or "a genuine Kodachrome reproduction" was printed on their cards as a guarantee of authenticity. Soon, publishers put their own marketing spins on the Kodachrome process and were selling postcards under names such as Spectrome, Flexichrome, Ektachrome, Lustrechrome and Plastichrome (see Figures 2 & 3).

Figure 2. Dexter Press of West Nyack, N.Y. printed this Mountie postcard for the Canadian tourist trade. On the back it boasts: "Genuine Natural Colour," and "Ektachrome by R. L. Donaldson." Most Mountie chromes like this can be had for $5 or less.

Figure 3. The Canadian Post Card Co., Toronto published this chrome advertising postcard in the early 1960s. Since it’s a postcard advertising the company’s postcards, its value ramps up to at least $10.

In Canada, two of the biggest publishers of chromes in the decades after the Second World War were Alex Wilson Publishers Ltd. of Dryden (see Figure 4), and Dexter Colour Canada Ltd. of Cornwall, Ontario. After a quick Internet search, I was pleased to learn that Alex Wilson is still in the printing business under a new name – Alex Wilson Coldstream Ltd. As for Dexter Colour Canada, I found lots of Internet references to the company’s postcards but no indication that the firm still exists. Collectors shouldn’t worry about a diminished supply of Canadian-made chrome postcards though as another major Ontario publisher emerged in 1981 – The Postcard Factory of Markham. With the quantity and quality of the postcards this company has published since then, new generations of collectors will definitely be well served (see Figure 5).

Figure 4. An Alex Wilson Publishers Ltd. comic postcard signed "JOY" by the artist. Artist-signed cards in the chrome era can fetch a premium if the artist is well known. In this case, the card would be priced at $5 to $10.

Figure 5. This quintessential RCMP tourist postcard was published by the aptly-named Postcard Factory of Markham in the 1980s. Chromes like this typically sell for $5 or less at shows.

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