Postcard Dating Guide
Styles and Types

By Andrew J. Morris

Conventional thinking on postcard types recognizes the following nine categories, each of which (except #3) is often referred to as an 'era':

  1. Pioneer
  2. Private Mailing Card
  3. Real Photo
  4. Undivided Back
  5. Divided Back
  6. White Border
  7. Linen
  8. Chrome
  9. Continental

(1848?) or ca. 1867-1898 The Pioneer period predates the officially sanctioned private postcards. These are only rarely labeled Postcard or Post Card on the stamp side, but may be called Souvenir Card or Mail Card. Some people include postal cards that have printed pictures or text added to them in this category, though properly speaking postal cards (cards issued by the Post Office) are not considered Post Cards. Pioneer era cards did not qualify for the one-cent postage rate that applied to the government issued Postal Cards. Writing was not allowed on the stamp side, except for the address.

1898-1901 The Private Mailing Card These were the first cards authorized by Congress to be privately printed, yet mailed at the same one-cent rate as the government post-office postal cards. The law (passed May 19, 1898) authorizing these cards went into effect July 1st, 1898, and required the cards to be marked Private Mailing Card on the stamp side. No writing, other than the address, was allowed on the stamp side. Some pioneer era cards were stamped Private Mailing Card so they would qualify for the reduced postage rate.

1901-Present. While most of the types in our list have temporal implications, and are listed chronologically, Real Photos are the exception. Introduced ca. 1901 they have been continuously produced ever since. These are actual photographs, printed on paper that has a post-card back. Beginners are often advised to look at a card with a magnifying glass, to see if it is a real photo, or a screened lithograph. Most picture postcards were made from photographs, but they have been printed by other processes, commonly lithography. These can be easily distinguished by examination with a magnifying glass, as lithographs are screened (made up of small dots). Real photos have a continuous gradation. There are however, printing processes that produce photographic reproductions without the dot-pattern of a screen, such as the Albertype.

1901-1907 The Undivided Back period, is a slight mis-nomer, since Pioneer and Private Mailing Cards (as well as early real-photos) all had undivided backs as well, but this period marks the beginning of cards labeled Postcard or Post Card and having an undivided back. Private printers were authorized to use the term Postcard or Post Card instead of Private Mailing Card beginning December 24th, 1901, but writing (other than the address) was still not allowed on the stamp side.

1907-1915 The Divided Back period, is equally misleading to the novice, since almost all postcards produced since 1907 have divided backs. These might more properly be termed Early Divided Back postcards. Authorized beginning March 1st, 1907, these cards finally allow for written messages on the stamp side, which is divided into two parts, often marked Address this side and Message can be written on this side or something similar. Now postcard makers could use the entire other side of the card for images, although for a while many cards continued to be printed from earlier printing plates that left white space on picture side to allow for writing. An often overlooked early variant of the divided back card had a line about 1.25 to 2 inches from the left side, and is marked something to the effect In space below may be written Sender's Name and Address (no other writing).

1915-1930 The White Border period. Many later cards also had white borders, but it was in this period that the style was introduced and became fashionable. Some writers claim this was to save ink, but I find that explanation improbable. More likely, the white border was made to resemble similar borders found on photographs (caused by the unexposed edge of the negative, which was contact-printed). Since most white border cards were taken from photographs (art cards of the same period rarely have white borders), the border makes them appear more like the photographs people were familiar with.

1930-1945 The Linen era. Most writers describe these as cards printed on higher quality paper, resembling linen. I think they are simply the same old cardstock embossed on front with fine hatchwork lines, to give the impression of better quality. Similar textured surfaces, sometimes with lines but more often with dots or small squares, can be seen on many white-border era cards. Linen cards sometimes have white or colored borders, while others are printed to the edge. Non-linen cards were produced during this period, both view cards and art cards, but the Linen was numerically dominant.

1945-1970 The Chrome era is characterized by the glossy color picture postcards that you can buy today. Like preceding cards, these generally measured about 3.5 x 5.5 inches. The larger Continental size occurs occasionally, as well as other odd sizes, but in terms of frequency the standard size is dominant.

1970-Present The Continental card is made by the same process as Chrome cards, but is a slightly larger format, usually about 4 x 6 inches. Although larger cards dominate this period, (including many odd sizes larger than the Continental, or smaller than standard cards) standard size cards continued to be produced in smaller numbers.

There are several problems with this classification scheme. First, it applies only to cards made in the U.S.A. or for the U.S. market. Second, there are numerous exceptions to each generalization, and cards that fit one description, but date from earlier or later than the expected period. These characteristics should be considered descriptive terms, and used as clues to the date, but are not sufficient in themselves to date any card with certainty.

Further descriptive types may also help date a card:

Wavy, scalloped, dentate or reticulated edges on cards are a relatively recent phenomena, mostly dating 1950s or later. This seems odd since similar shaped edges were popular on Carte-de-Visite and Cabinet cards from the 1880s. Perhaps these were formally discouraged by postal regulations, though I haven't seen any such references yet.

Postcard Booklets have been popular for a long time, but there may be differences in style or manufacture that suggest limiting dates ... I've not seen any references to what those clues may be as of yet.


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Copyright 2002 by Andrew J. Morris
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