Postcard collectors have a few tricks up their sleeves when it comes to quickly approximating, with just a quick glance, when cards were produced. With a little practice, you can do it too. Although the very earliest postcards were sent in the 1860s, picture postcards began a bit later. Postcard collectors always refer to the address side as the back, and the picture side as the front.
This example of a Pioneer Card has a government Postal Card back and is postmarked 1890.
Pioneer Cards (1893-1898) are also known as Souvenir or Mail Cards. They got their start at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago and marked the first time visitors could send a peek of the sights from their trip to people at home. Pioneers have a U.S. government Postal Card back, and room for the sender to write a message on the front.
PMCs or Private Mailing Cards (1898-1901) began when an act of Congress allowed the private sector to print and sell postcards. The words “Private Mailing Card” are printed on the back, and there’s a small space set aside on the front to write a message. Pre-1901 postcards in excellent condition are scarce, and their prices often start at the $10 level.
Viewed from the front, this Undivided Back scene of Tampa, Fla. with horse-drawn carriages, has a typical white margin for the writer’s message. The back, from a different postcard, allows only the address. Undivided backs (other than scenics and common tourist attractions) are generally valued from $6-$20.
Undivided Backs (1901-1907) were the first to have the words “Post Card” on their backs, which were still reserved exclusively for addresses. Messages had to be written on the front, and you often see a wide white margin for that purpose. Real Photo postcards began during this era, when photographers printed their pictures on paper with Post Card backs. Messages on the front, especially those related to the view, do not lower the value of the cards.
Note the cobblestone streets on this Pre-20 postcard from Nantucket, MA. The card has rich colors and excellent lithographic quality. Pre-20s, as well as Undivided Backs, are highly sought by collectors.
Divided Backs (1907-1914), also called Pre-20s, caused an explosion in postcard collecting. For the first time, the back side was divided in half, and senders could write messages without defacing the picture on the front. Britain allowed Divided Backs beginning in 1902. Millions were published, and this era is called the “Golden Age of Post Cards.”
You may find cards with messages showing exchanges between collectors in different parts of the world. And, since mail was often delivered twice a day, you’ll find postcards with messages such as, “I’ll see you around 4:30.” Prior to this period, most postcards were printed in Germany, which had outstanding lithographic processes. But during the First World War, the U.S. and Britain took the lead in postcard production.
Typical 1920s White Border card shows “Your Home Away from Home,” the Holly Hill Inn, in Davenport, Fla. Colors are nice and crisp, and the texture is smooth.
White Border (1915-1930) postcards are easy to spot, for the obvious reason. These cards, unlike their later sisters of the linen era, have a smooth texture. Average people began traveling more during this time, and White Borders often feature skyscrapers, natural wonders and social advances (such as large high schools, colleges—and even prisons and mental hospitals). The white borders were actually a way for printers to save ink, and the photographic quality was sometimes poor.
This multi-view of the zoo in St. Louis, Mo. has that very garish look for which Linens are famous. While common Linens can still be found for $1 and less, and outstanding advertising cards can sell for $35-plus, most are in the $3-6 range.
Linen (1930-1945) postcards have a coarse texture, so you can spot one with your eyes closed! The paper has a high-rag content, making the colors very bright and often gaudy. Linens can have white borders or they can be “full bleed,” meaning that the picture extends all the way to the edges. Linen advertising cards are particularly collectible now, and prices usually start at the $6-10 mark, with colorful and less common postcards often selling for $25-50.
Rounded corners on this Chrome place it in the 1950s. Showing Humpty Dumpty at the Children’s Zoo in Wilmington, Del., cards of kiddy parks from this kinder, gentler era are often seen in auctions for $3-$6.
Chromes (1940-1970s), also known as Moderns, are postcards made using the photochrome printing process, and you can see the telltale dots under magnification. They have a glossy finish, and are “standard size” (3.5 x 5.5 inches). Chromes are not “real photo” postcards, though they’re often incorrectly described as such at auctions. Those with rounded corners were made during the 1950s. Chromes are gaining in popularity, and while you can still find them in 25¢ and 50¢ cent boxes, views of busy streets, technology and entertainment cards often sell in the $3-$6 range.
Continentals (late 1960s – present) are also called Moderns, but are 4-by-6-inch size. The printing process is the same as Chromes. If cards of this size are European, they may be much older than this. Early Continentals sometimes had deckled edges (they look like they were mass-cut with pinking shears); these cards often have colors that look faded or bleached out. Continentals are a bit too new to be very valuable, and are usually found for 50 cents or less. But some topics (such as roller coasters, defunct roadside attractions and areas dramatically changed by natural disasters) are selling in the $1-5 range.
This RPPC of a bobby sox-clad woman, holding up the big fish she caught, touts Lakeview Camp in Pine River, Minn. Note the typical white handwritten caption. The back, from a different card, carries a DOPS stamp box. A bit of research shows that DOPS photographic paper was used in the late 1930s-1940s.
Real Photos, also known as RPs or RPPCs (real photo post cards) were made throughout the 20th century. An actual photograph was taken and developed, and a caption was handwritten or scratched on the negative (which is why they’re white). Then the photo was printed on postcard-size (3-x-5-inch) photo paper. The stamp boxes almost always show the identifying mark of the photographic paper producer. Under magnification, you won’t see the dot pattern that characterizes Moderns. Some RPs were mass produced, and you’ll notice neater, more professional captions on them. Very hot right now, due to their uniqueness, pre-1920 RPPCs in excellent condition often sell from $25 to upwards of $100.
Of course, there are other clues to dating postcards—like postmarks. But don’t be fooled; you can mail an Undivided Back with a 28-cent stamp today. Study the front for clothing styles, types of transportation and what the buildings looked like. Are the streets paved, cobblestone, or dirt? Are there trolley tracks?
Check the descriptions on the backs for clues too. How many digits does the phone number have? Does the address have a zone number (used from 1943-1962)? A ZIP code (ZIPs started in 1963)? Google the name of a store, school or building to see if you can find out its history.
Beware the term “vintage,” as all it means is “of the era” (meaning the card isn’t a reproduction). It doesn’t mean that the postcard is old . . . there are tons of “vintage 2000” postcards out there!
And a caveat—rules are meant to be broken, so you’ll come across a few postcards, from time to time that don’t seem to follow these guidelines. The vast majority will though, and you can amaze your friends and “talk the talk” with fellow collectors by remembering these simple dating techniques.
Bonnie Wilpon is a Worthologist who specializes in postcards.
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