Postcards offer opportunities for stamp collectors

May 3, 2021, 4 AM
Figure 2. Both sides of a private mailing card produced under a United States law of 1898. The card was mailed from Otisville, N.Y., in August 1905. As the law required, the message is written on the picture side of the postcard. Click on image to enlarge

By Rick Miller

Postcard collecting seems to be increasing in popularity, and a growing number of stamp and postal history collectors are recognizing an affinity between the two hobbies. Evidence of this is the number of stamp shows and bourses that are combining their events with postcard shows and bourses.

To make sure that we are all singing off the same page of the hymnal, Meriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines a postcard as "A card on which a message may be written for mailing without an envelope and to which the sender must affix a stamp."

Note that a postcard is not a postal card, defined in the reference section of Linn'sweb site as, "A government-produced postcard bearing a stamp imprint in the upper-right corner representing prepayment of postage."

Postcard collectors are called deltiologists by those who prefer polysyllabic names, just as stamp collectors are called philatelists. In many instances, the difference between a postcard collector and a stamp collector is which side of the postcard the collector is most interested in.

For most postcard collectors, the picture side of the postcard is of the greatest interest. Some postcard collectors prefer postcards that have not passed through the mails.

Postcards generally do not become of interest to stamp and cover collectors until they have passed through the mail, at which point they become postal history. Because I am a stamp collector, all the postcards I show here are postally used.

Knowing the postal rules and regulations governing the mailing of postcards is crucial to understanding them as postal history.

I suspect that one of the attractions that postal history has for some collectors, whether they admit it or not, is that they get to read other people's mail. Aside from folded letters mailed without an envelope, a postal historian who collects covers may or may not get this benefit because over time most envelopes were separated from their letters.

With a postcard, the message is inseparable from the medium that carried it.

People occasionally used blank cardstock for sending messages through the mail in the mid-19th century. Such covers are called "mailed cards." The first preprinted postcards were evidently produced in the United States.

John P. Charlton of Philadelphia, Pa., copyrighted a pre-printed postcard in 1861, but he quickly passed the rights to the postcard to a business association, H.L. Lipman. Although the copyright dates from 1861, the earliest documented use of a Lipman postcard is postmarked Richmond, Ind., Oct. 25, 1870.

Under a U.S. postal law of 1861, the cards could be mailed up to 1,500 miles at the 1¢ rate.

Lipman postcards were mostly used commercially with preprinted advertising on the message side of the card. While a number of unused Lipman postcards survive, used examples are scarce. Most were probably consigned to the rubbish shortly after being received. The address side of a Lipman postcard is shown in Figure 1.

Meanwhile in Europe, the postal stationery postal card, a near relative of the postcard, was born in Austria in 1869. The idea for a government-issued, prepaid postal card dates to 1865 when German Heinrich von Stephan and Austrian Emmanuel Hermann each developed the idea independently.

In 1873, the U.S. Post Office Department got into the postal card business with strong ramifications for postcards. Effective May 1, 1873, postal cards issued by the USPOD were denominated 1¢, but privately printed cards required a 2¢ stamp for postage.

Privately printed cards could not bear the word "postcard," because it was considered to be too close to "postal card," which was reserved by law for postal stationery cards issued by the USPOD. Privately produced postcards had to be inscribed "souvenir card," "correspondence card" or "mail card" on the address side.

The Act of Congress of May 19, 1898, changed the required phraseology to "private mailing card" and the postage rate was reduced to 1¢. Deltiologists call 1898-1901 the "Private Mailing Card Period."

Nothing but the mailing address could be written on the address side of the card. Any message had to be written over or around the illustration or photograph on the other side of the card.

Although it was not mailed until 1905, after the law was amended to allow the use of the word "postcard," the postcard shown front and back in Figure 2 was produced under the law in effect from 1898, which is cited on the address side of the card.

The postcard, inscribed "Private Mailing Card," bears a 1¢ green Benjamin Franklin stamp and is postmarked in August 1905, Otisville, N.Y. As required by the law, the message is written on the picture side of the card, which shows the Mountain Spring Farm in Otisville.

The U.S. law changed again effective Dec. 24, 1901, when privately produced cards were allowed to bear the inscription "post card" or "postcard." Deltiologists call 1901-07 the "Post Card Period."

The front and back of such a postcard is shown in Figure 3. Inscribed "Post Card," it was mailed July 14, 1904, from St. Louis, Mo. The stamp side bears a "World Fair St. Louis" machine slogan cancel and a railway post office postmark.

The picture side shows the Palace of Art at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition. The message is crammed onto the picture side of the postcard, in accordance with the rules then current.

The "Private Mailing Card Period" and the "Post Card Period" are sometimes lumped together and called the "Undivided Back Period," with "back" meaning the address side. Postcards mailed during the undivided-back period that had writing on the address side of the postcard were assessed at the 2¢ letter rate, which meant postage due for the recipient if the sender didn't use 2¢ of postage. The United States changed the rule March 1, 1907, allowing divided-back (meaning divided address side) postcards, with space for the mailing address on the right and for the written message on the left.

Postcard collectors call 1907-15 the "Divided Back Period," although most postcards produced from 1907 to the present have divided backs.

From this date, postcards could be mailed in the United States at the 1¢ postcard rate with a message written on the same side of the card as the stamp and the address. Writing the message on the stamp-side of the postcard was certainly aesthetically more pleasing than writing it across or around the picture on the picture-side of the card.

The stamp-side of the postcard was divided into two parts or sometimes three parts, as is the postcard shown front and back in Figure 4. The top section of the back is inscribed "Post Card" and contains the space provided for the stamp. The postcard bears a 1¢ green George Washington stamp and is postmarked May 26, 1914, Waurika, Okla. The picture side of the card shows the Waurika cotton compress surrounded by bales of cotton.

The bottom-left section is inscribed, "This Space for Correspondence." The bottom-right section is inscribed, "This Space for Address Only."

Putting the message area on the address side also allowed postcard makers to expand the pictures on the picture side to fill that entire side.

This discussion of the philatelic aspects of postcard collecting will be continued in a future Refresher Course.