History of the Postcard & Its Genealogical Benefits

I don’t know about you, but I love vintage postcards. I enjoy the artwork and old photos, but postcards also have genealogical relevance.

First,did you know that there is technically a difference between postal cards and postcards? From the USPS website (Bold highlights are mine.):

Stamped cards, called postal cards prior to 1999, refer to mailing cards issued by the Postal Service with postage stamps imprinted on them.

Postcards refer to privately printed and sold cards that require a stamp for mailing. In popular usage, the terms postal card and postcard (also spelled post card) were often used interchangeably.

In the early years, postcards were also called correspondence cards, mail cards and souvenir cards.

Next, here is a short timeline of postcard history:

1840 – Theodore Hook first mailed a postcard, to himself!
1870 – Many countries allowed postcards to be mailed, but most were business advertising cards.
1870 – The first postcard with an image on one side was printed in France. No place for a stamp, though, so it might have been mailed in an envelope.
1871 – First souvenir card mailed in Vienna, Austria
1873 – U.S. postage was one cent for advertising postcards
1898 – U.S. created a new rate for postcards, cheaper than letter rate
1890-1916 – Peak usage of postcards
1907 – The last year the undivided back postcard was made.
1915-1930 – White border postcards came into vogue.
1930-1940s – Linen postcards were common.
1950s – Photochrome, or glossy, postcards became popular.

Social usage of postcards grew in popularity because people wanted to send a quick hello to friends and family without writing lengthy letters. With the advent of the telephone, interest in postcards began to decline.

Now, how can postcards be helpful to our genealogical research?

1. A postcard gives a glimpse into one day in the life of a person or family with a message to the recipient.

I have only a couple of family postcards, both written when I was around ten years old. One was mailed from Little Sebago Lake to my father and one was mailed to my Nana, both with short notes about swimming and having fun. I always ended with “See you soon” and lots of XOXOXOXO.

If your family has saved postcards received through the years, they are a treasure trove of family lore and handwriting of the person who sent it.

2. Vintage postcards provide a picture of past life in ancestral homes.

This is why I regularly troll EBay for vintage postcards. Photography had become so popular by the turn of the 20th century, that traveling photographers took pictures not only in studios, but also of streets, homes AND people who lived anywhere and everywhere, from large cities to tiny Meddybemps, Maine (Population – 154!).

I have dozens of postcards that are actual photographs, but my favorite all-time find is a summer camp on Meddybemps Lake of the Stuart place. The Stuarts are my ancestors!

Harry Stuart is the brother of my great grandmother Annie Maude (Stuart) Adams. The young lady standing in the doorway is Bertha (Stuart) Eldridge, who I actually knew.

This photo was taken about 1910. If I was unsure of the date, the divided back postcard, with a space for the message and a space for the address, tells me that it had to have been taken after 1907, when the undivided back postcard was no longer produced.

I’m not sure how a photographer happened to appear at Meddybemps Lake, but it was a popular local spot to spend nice summer days.

These old postcards also document buildings, parks, schools, and churches, which may not have survived time.

They also document structural changes to buildings.

The tall towers on St. Michael’s Church in Passaic were determined to be structurally unsound not many years after the church was completed in 1902.

They were modified and only two towers remain.

Another of my favorite postcards is of Cappy Coleman’s General Store. “Cappy” Coleman, was my great grandfather, Hartwell Thomas Coleman (1868-1938) of Calais, Maine.

After retiring from sea life as a master mariner tugboat captain, he opened a general store on River Road, just south of Calais. This postcard remained in the family and was likely an advertising card. The picture was probably taken in the late 1920s.

My mother said she and my aunt used to love to visit their grandfather at his store because he always had some candy waiting for them.

If you haven’t ever considered postcards as a genealogical resource, you need to change that thinking immediately. Many postcards are for sale at under $10, which is a bargain if you find a postcard that pertains to your family or places where they lived.

 

4 thoughts on “History of the Postcard & Its Genealogical Benefits”

  1. The stamp for the old French Postcards was affixed to the picture in the front of the card. They were not mailed in enveloppes as it was much too expensive. Check the site Delcampe Cartes Postales Anciennes for examples.

  2. Love this post! I have saved searches on eBay for postcards for specific places and for family names. Your wonderful timeline will give me a quick way to approximate the date.

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