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Postcards: A Practical Guide for Historical Research: Where to Start

This guide provides an overview of postcards and is designed to assist researchers in posing historical questions related to, or with the use of, postcards.

Welcome all postcard enthusiasts and researchers! If you are thinking of studying postcards for your latest history project you have come to the right place. The purpose of this guide is to provide you with an overview of the popular media, guide you in formulating a postcard -related research question, and assist you with locating and evaluating primary and secondary sources.

Beginning a new research project can be overwhelming! This "Where to Start" page will help you get a handle on the beginning stages of your postcard research pursuits: from introducing you to the medium to helping you determine key search terms. Once you are ready to begin research the following two pages will help you in your next steps.

This guide is designed with college undergraduates in mind, but can be useful to anyone interested in researching postcards.

Peking, China, no date. Image courtesy of NYPL.

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. "The Ming tombs, Peking." New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed April 2, 2019.

Getting Started

It helps the research process to have a few specific key words or terms when beginning your research. Key words result in a higher number of relevant search results and can save you some time along the way. When searching the university or public library catalogs you want to be as specific as possible in the terms that you use. Mapping out the terms, such as in the example below, can help you form useful combinations. You can combine any term from box 1 with any terms from box 2 by using the word 'and.'

Let's say you want to begin by researching the origins of the postcard.

Concept 1 Concept 2
origin postcards
history of deltiology*
creation of  

* the study and collection of postcards

This will still yield broad results, but once you have narrowed down your topic more you can search by specific publishers or types of postcards or other more topical-related terms.

The Library of Congress subject headings can also be helpful. Head to the LOC's website and locate the heading related to postcards. Then plug those into your search using the subject heading search function in your library's catalog.

Wikipedia has an extremely useful glossary of postcard terms that might also help your search.

Postcard History by Era


Publisher: Ralph Tuck & Sons, 1903. Image courtesy of NYPL.

Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. "Heres a wireless telegram that I will send to you ..." New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed April 3, 2019.

A Quick History of Postcards

Postcard history is usually separated into periods dominated by a particular type of card. This section will list each major era of postcard history as the cards developed over tim. This is intented as an overview only and should not replace thorough readings. The last tab in this section shows current trends in postcards.

Content Source: KapsalisE. “Postcard History.” Smithsonian Institution Archives, September 19, 2013.


Pre-Postcard Period (1848 - 1870)

Before postcards, there were mailing cards. Mailing cards were single cards sent through the mail with postage and no envelope. However, commercially produced cards did not come into play until John P. Charlton begin to print them in 1861, these cards were later billed as Lipman's Cards. That same year, Congress enacted a law allowing privately printed cards to be sent in the mail.

In 1870 the first known picture postcard was sent by Leon Besnardeau, a French soldier fighting in the Franco-Prussian War. Just one year later the first card billed and sold as a souvenir card was sent from Vienna, Austria.

US Government Printing Office, circa 1880.

Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 95, Box 30, Folder: 4A.

Pioneer Period (1871 - 1988)

The Lipman's Cards were instrumental during this period. Cards of this era had decorative borders on the front where messages were to be written and back panels allocated for the address. The cards were meant to be a means of sending a quick message and were not really intended as keepsakes. The postage on these cards was also cheaper than letter postage. 

Private Mailing Card Era (1898 - 1901)

This era was dominated by privately printed cards sold to the public: what we now comes to mind when we think of postcards. At this time most cards were printed in Germany. The medium became wildly popular during this period as picture postcards became both a means of messaging and a collectible item. Holiday postcards were also popular during this period. Two distinct types of postcard that were popularized in this period are worth mentioning.

The Erotic or Pornographic Postcard

Published by Foto Parodi, Mogadiscio, Somalia, Series D, circa 1900. Image courtesy of the LOC                                                             

“Somali Beauty”. Published by Foto Parodi, Mogadiscio, Somalia, Series D (no imprint).  Circa 1900. Library of Congress.


These cards were sometimes sent through the post but usually remained uncirculated as part of private collections. Often, but not always, the women were depicted partially or completely nude and from also often from "exotic" locales. Erotic postcards were especially popular in France around the 1920s.


Real Photo Postcards

Josephine Baker, circa 1940. Photograph by Carl Van Vechten © Van Vechten Trust. Image from NYPL.

Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library. "Josephine Baker" New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed April 3, 2019.


Real photo postcards were characterized by their printing process. Rather than using lithographic images, real photo postcards were printed using photography printing techniques for the look and feel of an actual photograph.These postcards began to appear in 1900 and reached the height of their popularity in the 1920s.


  Hot Springs, Yellowstone, circa 1900. Image courtesy on NYPL. 

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Photography Collection, The New York Public Library. "Fish Pot, Hot Springs, Yellowstone Park" New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed April 3, 2019.


Postcard (Undivided Back) Period (1901 - 1907)

This period was characterized by the picture on the front and the back being entirely devoted to the address. As seen above this made sending a message on the card rather difficult and usually required creativity and small handwriting. Also during this period the words "Private Mailing Card" were replaced with "Postcard" on the cards themselves.

Divided Back Period (1907 - 1915)

In 1907 U.S. Congress passed a law that stated postcard messages could be placed on the back side of the card across from the address. A printed line ran vertically down the back of the card to separate the address from the message much like we see on most of today's printed postcards. This period is also often considered the Golden Age of Postcards (which extend into the 1920s) as postcards and postcard collecting were at their height of popularity. 

 Peking, China 1927. Image courtesy of NYPL. 

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. "Camels at the Tartar Wall, Peking." New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed April 3, 2019.


White Border Period (1916 - 1930)

This period in American postcard history was dominated by American printers. American printing techniques were not on par with German techniques and sales of postcards began to decline. The purpose of the characteristic white border was to reduce printing costs. 

Hebrew Confederate Cemetery, Richmond, Va. circa 1930.

Dorot Jewish Division, The New York Public Library. "Hebrew confederate soldiers cemetery" New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed April 3, 2019.


Linen Period ( 1930 - 1945)

This period was characterized by a style printing that allowed printers to produce cards that appeared to be made of linen or cloth, adding a new texture to the cards. Linen cards were popular until just after World War II.


Smithsonian Institute Arts and Industries Building, circa 1950. Image courtesy of Smithsonian Institute. 

Smithsonian Institution Archives, Collection T90126, Box 1, Folder: Smithsonian Buildings: Smithsonian Institution Buildings (The Castle) 1956 and undated.


Photochrome Period (1945 - Present)

By 1945 new means of communication had outpaced the postcard and its popularity dwindled as it became merely fodder for collections and tourist memorabilia.  Photochrome postcards appear glossy and somewhat resemble a photograph printed on heavy cardstock. These are the postcards you will typically find in shops at museums or in souvenir shops in resorts or other tourist destinations. 

Current Trends

While the heyday of postcards has definitely come and gone there are a few current postcard-related trends worth mentioning. 


PostSecret is a community art project whereby people send anonymously written postcards to a specified address. On the postcards are secrets that the writer wants to share. The cards are then posted online or published in books by PostSecret creator Frank Warren. On the website new postcards are posted each Sunday. The project began in 2005 and is still quite popular. Traveling exhibits, usually hosted by universities, display the cards for people to come view in person. 


Postcard History Series

This line of books, published by Arcadia Publishing, use postcards to tell the history of towns, cities, parks, and historic sites. The books are written for a general audience. For information on how you can use postcards to tell local history see "Using Postcards for Local History Research" on this page.

Postcard Collecting

Postcard collecting is a trend that has lasted throughout the life of postcards, albeit less popular that it was in the early days of the medium. However, there are still postcard trade fairs and collection societies. The above photo links to a an article in the New York Times about one such society. 

Formulating a Research Question

Once you have selected your research topic, you will need to pose a research question (or questions) pertaining to your topic.

A topic alone is too broad. For example:

If your topic is gender depictions in postcards you will have too much information to sort through. Questions such as: How is gender depicted in postcards? will be too broad to research and answer.

But you also want to avoid making your question too specific as you will again have difficulty researching your answer. For example, asking: How are women depicted in postcards sold in Huntington, West Virginia in the 1890s? would likely be too narrow to be useful.


Robert C. Williams advises that a good research question should:

  • "ask how or why an event happened (causation, explanation)"
  • "ask what the consequences were of a particular event"
  • "discuss the intellectual origins of a particular idea"
  • "ask what the cultural context of an event was";
  • "ask whether or not an individual was responsible for a certain act"
  • "ask about the social history of a political event"
  • "quantify broad trends in a society at a particular time" (52)

For visual culture this can mean asking what social, cultural, and political forces were at play when certain postcards were created. You may also choose to frame your question around certain time periods, image themes, particular types of postcards, or geographical locations.

Think of it in this way:

Depictions of colonial stereotypes on postcards is a very broad topic.

Depictions of colonial stereotypes on postcards from Algeria is a little more narrow.

But by asking: How were women depicted on colonial postcards from Algeria in the early 20th Century? is much more narrow and focused. It is a question in search of an answer. Some secondary sources can come from the the above topics and may even be broader than the question posed. However, when reading them you will always want to keep your research question in mind.

Source: Williams, Robert C. The Historian's Toolbox: A Student's Guide to the Theory and Craft of History. Second ed. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2007.

Related Topics of Interest


 Fokurivo Mukden, no date. Image courtesy on NYPL.

The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. "The famous [palace] in Fokurivo Mukden." New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed April 3, 2019.


Topic Ideas

 Choosing a topic can be difficult. Here are some ideas for general topics you may want to research:

Depictions of Gender/Eroticism in Postcards

One topic of interest might be about gender stereotypes depicted in postcards containing images of people. What are the women supposed to be doing in the cards? How are they posed? How is this similar or different to the way men are posed? Erotic postcards can also be examined. What do these cards say about women and their role in 20th Century society?

For a better understanding of this topic see:

Klich, Lynda. “Little Women: The Female Nude in the Golden Age of Picture Postcards.” Visual Resources 17, no. 4 (January 2001): 435–48.



Colonial Stereotypes

Postcards of colonized areas were a large part of postcard trade and production. You might be interested in seeing how these areas are depicted in these images. How are people depicted on these cards? What about the landscape, how is it represented? What does this tell us about social or cultural norms of the time period? You may also want to look at the captions on the cards to see what language is being used.

For more information on this topic see:

Life, Allan. “Picture Postcards by M.V. Dhurandhar: Scenes and Types of India—with a Difference.” Visual Resources 17, no. 4 (January 2001): 401–16.




You may choose to investigate the idea of postcards as tourist souvenirs. How were they marketed and sold? How do cities or cultural institutions depict themselves on postcards? What is it about the place that the postcard seems to want you to remember?

For more inisght on this topic see:

Markwick, Marion. “Postcards from Malta: Image, Concept, and Context.” Annals of Tourism Research 28, no. 2 (January 2001): 417–38.



Postcards as Social Media

Those interested in the messages on postcards rather than the images might be interested to know that postcards were really a very early form of social media. At their advent many critiques were sure they meant the end of letter writing. You may choose to look further in to the aspect. What kinds of messages were people sending? What language was used? How does this compare to more modern trends such as PostSecret?

For more information on this topic see:

Cure, Monica. Picturing the Postcard : A New Media Crisis at the Turn of the Century. Minneapolis: Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2018.


Not what your looking for?

You may choose other topics not mentioned here by focusing on a specific type of card, geographic location, publisher, or image theme. Or you may choose a related topic not mentioned here!

For further ideas on topics you may want to read:

Prochaska, David. “Thinking Postcards.” Visual Resources 17, no. 4 (January 2001): 383–99.


Using Postcards for Local History Research

This purpose of this guide is primarily to assist you in researching postcards to pose historical questions. However, postcards can be used to research local history. Postcards can highlight or serve as a visible reminder of roads and buildings that no longer exist in their original form. When using postcards for local history caution should be used as images on postcards could have been altered or re-imagined. For more information on this topic, the New York Public Library has a wonderful blog post that explains how to use postcards for this type of research. The blog includes relevant links to other helpful information.