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Picture Postcards – an Introduction

by Sylvia Jones

       At a time when live TV allows fans all over the world to see the World Cup as it happens, its worth considering how different life would be if the only way we could convey information was by written description.  The introduction of picture postcards (1894 in Britain) suddenly allowing people to send a picture of their home town, holiday destination or local event, must have been an exciting development, so its not surprising that people wanted to keep a collection of postcards from the outset.

       In the days before stamp and postcard fairs, collectors were limited to buying cards locally and sending them to friends, who (hopefully) sent one back . A common message was “Another one for your collection”. Below is an early card, postally used in 1901, on which the correspondent lists contacts all over the world who will exchange postcards.

            At that stage, the writing had to go on the front of the card so a smaller picture, called a vignette, was used. The back of the card was used only for the address, and is commonly called an ‘undivided back’. Around 1903-4, messages were allowed on the reverse so the backs became divided (message and address).

    What to collect can be divided roughly into two categories.

a) Subject Cards - such as animals, children, comic, exhibitions, glamour, greetings, military, railways, royalty, shipping, sport, theatre and entertainment. However, collectors seem to be thinking up new topics all the time. There's nothing to stop you looking for and putting together a collection of postcards showing anything from aeroplanes to zoos, boating lakes to yacht racing. Below is a favourite fairy postcard by Thomas Maybank.

b) Topographic cards - views of places, buildings and events. These fall into 2 broad categories:

    i) Real Photographic types - generally the most valuable. Those produced by small local publishers are scarcer and more expensive than the ones produced in greater numbers by the national publishers, such as Valentines, Judges and Walter Scott. They are usually glossy in appearance and black/white or sepia/white (coloured cards are normally printed).

    ii) Printed types. Mass produced copies from a photographic original. These are usually matt in appearance, the image isn't as sharp, and  they are more common. 

    For town views, the more 'animated', with people and vehicles and interesting things going on, the better. If the view is a tourist or seaside spot, it is likely to be common.

To illustrate this, I have used 4 'local' (to me) cards.

 The first is a coloured printed card of Brierfield Centre 1905, published by Hartmann (a National publisher). Brierfield is not a tourist spot and this card would have been produced for the local inhabitants.

The second is the original photograph, by a local photographer,  from which the first was printed, and is therefore much scarcer.

In the second group, the first is a nice animated street scene of Albert Road, Colne by a local publisher, but printed. The second is an RP of the Market place in Brierfield by a local photographer.

            There is some overlap – a person collecting topo cards of a town would want postcards of its railway station, sports teams and post office, but these might equally be sought after by collectors of these things as subjects.

            Further complication comes in the choice of what to collect – e.g. one person may prefer photographic cards of cats, another may prefer artist drawn, perhaps specialising in one artist such as Louis Wain (one of the most loved and collected of all artists).

            Topographic views can also be artist drawn; a collector may decide to specialise in an artist such as A.R. Quinton who painted many scenic views.

            Another choice is whether to collect used or unused. For topo collectors, a postmark helps date the view, and the message may give an interesting insight into life at that time, or an eye-witness account of a disaster shown. On the other hand, going through the postal system can cause defects – creases, heavy postmarks etc, and some collectors, particularly of artist drawn cards, like them to be in pristine condition.

            Age of cards.  Non collectors instinctively assume that older means rarer, but postcard production, and sending, reached its peak during the ‘Golden Age’ of postcards (approx 1902-14), and a collector may find it relatively easy to find cards from that era. There is a growing trend for topo collectors to want ‘All Periods’, so that they can follow changes, as a town has developed, right up to the present.  Subject and artist collectors may be more confined by the period during which their sort of card was produced e.g. suffragette comics reached their sell-by date when women were granted the vote, and patriotic embroidered silks were largely only a feature of WWI; whereas some subjects, like hovercraft or Prince William, can clearly only be found on modern cards.


Tips for new collectors 

  1. Please don’t stick cards down with glue or sellotape, or put them in the photo albums with sticky pages. Invest in a album with pockets to slide cards in and out of, or put cards in individual plastic sleeves and file in a box.
  2. Exposure to light causes fading. Older photographic cards, in particular, can be quickly ruined by sunlight, so framing cards to hang on the wall is not a good idea
  3. Look out for free advertising cards to supplement a modern collection
  4. Literature: An IPM Postcard catalogue for older cards is a good guide to price trends and also the terminology, but better cards are going up all the time. ‘Shop around’ to get a feel for the going rate for your chosen area/subject/artist
  5. Tourist spots, like Shakespeare’s birthplace, cathedrals, stately homes and holiday resorts are still plentiful and may be found in ‘cheap boxes’
  6. There is a Collect Moderns Catalogue which deals with cards from 50’s onwards
  7. Picture Postcard Monthly is the best postcard magazine, covering old and modern. Its website is . The same people also produce an annual which lists dealers, shops and fairs.

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Copyright © S. Jones  2002   All rights reserved.