Refresher Course

Postal cards are another stamped collectible

By Michael Baadke

The stamp that you find imprinted on a government-issued postal card may look a little different than the stamp that you would choose to put on an envelope you want to send in the mail, but it serves the same postal function and it is part of a very collectible object.

Figure 1. The first postal card issue by the United States appeared in 1873. The example shown here is postmarked May 11, 1873, and is the earliest-known use of the 1¢ Liberty card. Click on image to enlarge.
 
Figure 2. The imprinted stamp on modern U.S. postal cards often shows a full-color image. Most modern postal cards have much simpler designs than the earliest U.S. issues.
 
Figure 3. Some U.S. postal cards fulfill specific mailing needs. Shown in front is a 1985 33¢ airmail postal card. Behind it is a 20¢ Official mail postal card issued in 1995. Click on image to enlarge.
 
Figure 4. Picture postal cards are available from the United States Postal Service, but there is an additional premium added to the cost of the cards. The All Aboard! postal cards were issued Aug. 26 during the American Philatelic Society Stampshow in Cleveland, Ohio. Click on image to enlarge.

Postal cards and postcards are considered to be two different items by most collectors.

Postal cards are created and sold by the government postal authority and have a stamp indicating postage paid already imprinted upon the card.

A postcard does not have that postage stamp imprint. Instead, the sender must purchase a stamp from the post office and apply it to the postcard before it can be mailed.

Postcard collecting is part of a hobby known as deltiology.

Postal card collecting is part of the stamp hobby, which is also known as philately.

However, many philatelists also collect postcards that have stamps and postal markings upon them because they belong to a part of the stamp hobby known as postal history.

The United States Post Office Department issued its first postal card in 1873. The original rate was 1¢, and the first U.S. postal card, shown in Figure 1, was printed in brown with the image of Liberty inside an ornate oval frame.

At the top of the frame is the message "U.S. POSTAGE" and along the bottom is spelled out "ONE CENT."

The example shown in Figure 1, by the way, is the earliest-known use of this particular postal card. It was mailed in Providence, R.I., May 11, 1873.

In the 2000 Scott Specialized Catalogue of United States Stamps and Covers, postal cards are illustrated and listed following regular-issue postage stamps, back-of-the-book issues (such as Official mail stamps and postage dues), booklets and stamped envelopes.

Each postal card is assigned a catalog number to identify it easily. The 1873 1¢ Liberty is identified as Scott UX1.

For the most part, the postage rate for postal cards has been the same as that for postcards. One exception is reported in U.S. Domestic Postal Rates, 1872-1993 by Henry W. Beecher and Anthony S. Wawrukiewicz: From April 15, 1925, through June 30, 1928, the postcard rate was 2¢ but the postal card rate was only 1¢.

The United States Postal Service instituted a new variation in the pricing of postal cards at the beginning of 1999. First-class postage rates for letters increased by 1¢, but the rate for postcard mail did not go up.

However, the Postal Service began charging an extra 1¢ for each postal card it sold. A 20¢ postal card like the Block Island Lighthouse card shown in Figure 2 now sells for 21¢.

The Block Island Lighthouse postal card was issued July 24 and is identified as Scott UX306.

Modern U.S. postal cards usually have a full-color design as part of the imprinted stamp.

The message "20 USA" is all that appears in the stamp imprint on the address side (front) of the Block Island Lighthouse postal card.

This particular card is considered to be a definitive postal card issue because it is printed in huge quantities and is distributed to post offices nationwide.

A second variety of this postal card known as a paid-reply postal card was issued Nov. 10.

The paid-reply postal card is sold as two unsevered cards, one for the original message, and one for the recipient to reply. The reply cards are now sold for the postage value of each card (currently 20¢) plus 1¢ premium for each card.

Some other standard postal cards are part of an ongoing Historic Preservation series and show a classic building, often on a college campus, and include an inscription that describes the subject.

In February, two 20¢ postal cards in the Historic Preservation series were issued showing structures at the University of Wisconsin (UX301) and Virginia's Washington and Lee University (UX302).

These postal cards are issued in smaller quantities and are often on sale for a shorter period of time than the definitive postal cards.

Some collectors save postal cards in mint condition — that is, unused, unmarked and undamaged in any way.

Other collectors like to look for examples that have been sent through the mail.

Values in the Scott specialized catalog show that postally used examples of many modern U.S. postal cards, particularly international-rate issues from the 1970s and 1980s, are harder to come by than mint or unused copies.

For example, the 12¢ (international-rate) Ship's Figurehead issue of 1974, Scott UX67, has a catalog value of 35¢ for a mint postal card and $30 for a postally used copy.

The catalog notes that "Used cards for international rates are for proper usage. Those used domestically sell for less."

Although the Ship's Figurehead postal card is marked with an international rate, it was not imprinted for airmail use. Such cards are marked with the word "airmail," or more recently, with the silhouette of an airplane near the denomination.

The Scott catalog lists airmail postal cards separately following regular issues.

A 33¢ China Clipper airmail postal card from 1985 is shown in the foreground of Figure 3.

Behind it is another type of U.S. postal card, the Official mail postal card.

Only six Official mail postal cards are listed in the Scott catalog. These cards can only be used by representatives of authorized federal agencies. The example shown in Figure 3 is UZ6, a 20¢ Official mail postal card issued in 1995.

Finding properly used Official mail postal cards is another collecting challenge. While the values for mint examples of each of the five Official mail postal cards issued during the 1980s and 1990s do not exceed 60¢, copies that have seen appropriate postal use are valued at $30 to $35 each.

In 1994 the U.S. Postal Service began issuing picture postal cards in sets that correspond to similar commemorative postage stamp sets.

The first set consisted of 20 Legends of the West postal cards with 19¢ stamped values. The cards were sold only as a set for $7.95, or about 40¢ per card. The prices of the picture postal card sets have fluctuated over the years.

The Postal Service issued its 33¢ All Aboard! postage stamps Aug. 26 at the American Philatelic Society Stampshow 99 in Cleveland, Ohio.

At the same time, a set of 20 20¢ All Aboard! picture postal cards also were placed on sale.

As shown in the center of Figure 4, the back of each card shows an enlargement of the painting used to create the imprinted stamp, which appears on the front of the card (Figure 4 bottom).

At the top of Figure 4 is an image of the bound book of postal cards.

The 20 All Aboard! picture postal cards sell for $6.95, which figures out to a little less than 35¢ for each 20¢ postal card.

The All Aboard! picture postal card issue only offers five different designs in the book of 20, but some earlier picture postal card issues have included 15 or 20 different designs, such as the 1996 20¢ Summer Olympics issue (UX242-61) and the 1996 20¢ Endangered Species issue (UX264-78).

As a result, more than 370 different U.S. postal cards have been issued since the first appeared 126 years ago.

As with postage stamps, condition is always an important factor in the collecting of postal cards. The collector should take care to preserve each card in the best possible condition.

Corners and edges of postal cards are particularly susceptible to damage.

Postal cards can be stored in clear plastic sleeves, appropriately sized stock pages, cover albums or other safe products handled by stamp supply dealers and local stamp dealers.

Collectors should always save the intact postal card and not cut out the imprinted stamp to save on its own.

Imprinted stamps cut from postal cards are not listed in standard catalogs and have virtually no value among collectors.

Cutting the postal card damages an interesting piece of postal history, and information about how the card was used is lost in the process.

Postal cards are a rich source for topical collectors. Along with the prominent Historic Preservation series, standard U.S. postal cards have shown ships, athletes, horses, birds, flags and even stamp collectors (see the 14¢ Stamp Collecting postal card of 1986, UX110).

Postal cards make up an enjoyable part of the stamp hobby and are a significant element of U.S. postal history.