I have been collecting postcards all my life as my father did before me. I now have many thousands of them, both vintage and modern.
Postcard collecting can be a fascinating hobby, as I have found out over the years. The earliest cards date from the mid-19th century and have a very well-documented history. But for any individual card, there can be some doubt about its exact age.
Clues and Considerations for the Postcard's Age
Many people prefer to collect unused postcards which have never been posted. As a result, you can't use the postmark as a guide in estimating the card's age. Even so, all collectors are curious to know how old their postcards are, because their age has some bearing on their value.
Even when there is a postmark, it may be blurred, or someone may have lost it in the depths of a drawer for years before sending it through the post. As a result, we have to find our clues from the card itself. The story for each country varies, so I will have to generalise to some extent.
All the images are scans of postcards in my own collection.
This is the oldest card in my possession. The address side gives the date the card was manufactured, September 1875, along with instructions that ONLY the address was to appear on this side of the card, with further instructions on how to write the address accurately.
The first postcards were not allowed to have any form of picture. The address was on one side, and a message could be written on the reverse. This card, old and battered though it is, is clearly dated 1877.
The message, translated from French, reads:
"Please be so kind as to send me your current prices for champagne: and to tell me if you have wines with the label champagne."
As an aside, this message never fails to bring a smile to my face. Clearly the fact that the label carried the word "champagne" was of great importance.
By this date, 1877, the USA was already allowing picture postcards, but Great Britain waited until 1894 before pictures were permissible.
The First Picture Postcards
These first picture postcards still had the address alone on one side. If you wanted to write a message, it had to be crammed in alongside the picture, around it and sometimes over it.
Very often, manufacturers of the cards allowed quite a lot of white space for this message because the back was given over entirely for the address. These were called "undivided back" postcards because there was no dividing line to the side of the address. No messages were allowed on this side!
Gradually, countries started to allow the message to be written on the same side as the address. The Royal Mail in Great Britain was the first to do this in 1902. As you can see from this scan, the instructions were not to write a message in this space (apart from a card being sent within the British Isles). Because some countries still insisted on the back for the address alone, space continued to be left for a message alongside the picture.
These early divided backs gave priority to the address so that the address took up two thirds of the space, with the message being confined to one third. The size allowed for the message grew larger over the years, and nowadays you often find the proportions reversed on some modern cards.
As time went on and more countries allowed both address and message to appear together on the same side of the card, it led to some interesting instructions appearing.
The USA allowed divided backs from 1 March 1907 and Japan from 28 March 1907, so this particular card's manufacture can be very neatly dated because it states "This space can now be used for communication to all countries except Japan and Spain". Other cards have restrictions for Japan, Greece and Turkey.
At first, manufacturers continued to leave space for a message with the picture, as in the card above, then later extended the image over the whole card.
The instructions for whether or not to include a message with the address were steadily replaced by details about the picture itself.
The divided back (or lack of it) is one of the most obvious dating methods for early vintage cards, but later on the style of the card becomes more important:
- the printing method and paper type
- whether or not the card has a white border
- deckle edged or not
Other Clues About the Age
- You can also look at the fashion styles worn by men and women and the cars on roads.
- Sometimes, cards were printed as souvenirs of special events (they still are, of course), so that's another way of dating the manufacture.
- Yet another way, for cards that have been through the mail, is the value of stamps used. If you have the postage rates, you can work out when it was mailed.
It is really quite a fascinating subject, when you get into it, as is all postal history. See more about all of these dating methods below.
Printing Method and Paper Type
In 1889, a publisher in Austria became the first to produce a coloured postcard. They used a method called chomolithography. This remained the main type of coloured postcard until the start of the 20th century.
By the 1920s, a new method of printing became more widely used. This involved printing on textured paper which gave the cards a texture like linen. Publishers developed the process so that the inks would dry more quickly.
These cards became very widespread during the 1930s and continued in production until the 1950s.
Although many postcards have white borders, even modern ones, people generally mean the cards published between 1915 and 1930 approximately.
The reason for the border in those years was because of the printing process. When the printing presses produced sheets of cards, the different colours would bleed, or leak, into each other along the edges. The border separated out the cards making.
There is a school of thought that the white borders were introduced to reduce the amount of ink needed, but this would be a minimal saving.
Deckled edges are an effect which was popular in the 1950s and '60s and sometimes beyond. The edges of the card are irregular and uneven to mimic hand made paper. Paper, even commercial, has uneven edges where the pulp meets the side of the mould, but it is usually removed.
It would be close to impossible for me to address the subject of changing fashion styles here. However, the Victoria and Albert Museum has some great illustrated pages covering the periods "History of Fashion 1840 - 1900" and "History of Fashion 1900 - 1970", splitting it up into decades.
Postal Rates for the USA, Great Britain and France
The following tables show the postage rates for postcards from the pre-1900s until approximately the mid-1900s. I will add other countries in time, but it isn't an easy task to find out. They are useful, however, because they do at least tell you when your postcard was posted (not, you'll note, when the card was purchased).
USA Postal Rates for Postcards: Pre-1917 to 1963
Using this chart can help estimate the age of a postcard sent in the USA. Of course, you need to bear in mind that someone can keep a card for years before sending it, but it is a help.
UK Postcard Rates: Pre-1900 to 1968
Up to 1900
Queen Victoria red
1900 - 1901
Queen Victoria green
1902 - 1910
Edward VII green
1910 - 1918
George V green
1919 - 1921
George V red
1921 - 1922
1 1/2 d
George V brown
1922 - 1936
George V red
1936 - 1940
George VI red
1940 - 1941
George VI orange
1950 - 1952
George VI brown
1957 - 1965
2 1/2 d
1965 - 1968
No further special postcard rate
Again, these rates of postage are only a guidance. If the card has been lying around waiting to be sent, it may be a lot older than the stamp would indicate.
In 1921–1922, when the rate was increased, there was such an uproar that it was reduced again. A similar protest recently has introduced a special postcard rate for overseas addresses when the letter rate rose considerably.
Postcard Postal Rates for France: 1878 to 1971
|Date||Max 5 words||More than 5 words||Notes|
Jan 1960 franc revalued
Other Methods of Fixing a Date
Some of these methods can be fairly exact; others are only an indication.
- models of cars, trams, trains, other transportation
- costume, probably particularly women's fashion since men's tend not to change so radically
- buildings which appear in some cards (ie recently built or have been demolished)
Vintage Postcards on eBay
There are always vintage postcards available on eBay at reasonable prices, though I have to say that there are fewer bargains than there used to be.
Do study the images, and read the description carefully, both for what is said and, more particularly, what is not said regarding condition. Watch out, too, for reproductions.
I hope that this has given you some guidance as far as what you should be looking for in order to decide on how old a postcard is. In summary, you should be looking at the following:
- format and layout of the card
- the features in the picture itself
- the postmark and postage stamp, if they are available
Do You Use Any Other Ways to Estimate the Age of Postcards?
SheilaMilne (author) from Kent, UK on September 12, 2013:
@KateFeredayEshete: Yes, sometimes people do mention current affairs and that's so very interesting. Unfortunately most seem to be very mundane. I even have one asking someone to ask the milkman to leave a bottle of milk. Which, now that I come to think of it, will be interesting to anyone who grew up after milk deliveries became a thing of the past.
Kate Fereday Eshete from United Kingdom on September 11, 2013:
Even if there's no date written and no postmark, what the postcard sender writes about could help to pinpoint the approximate date, if they mention a historical event. Thanks for a very interesting lens. I feel I've learnt a lot about vintage postcards and this will help me when I have any.
lesliesinclair on March 25, 2013:
Postcards are so evocative of nostalgia from childhood and postage in the pennies. Sure enjoyed learning about your means of dating these oldies.
nicks44 on July 24, 2012:
You are moving around a little piece of history whenever you touch any of these cards ... Just simply amazing!
KimGiancaterino on July 24, 2012:
I've purchased a few vintage postcards on eBay, and usually the seller states a date. My father has hundreds of postcards from all over the world, collected since he was a teenager. He's a Ham Radio operator and the custom was to send a postcard after communicating with another Ham. I should make sure they're all dated.
Angela F from Seattle, WA on July 23, 2012:
great info! You can also date postcards by whether they are white border, linen, chrome etc. or for real photo (rppc) by the info on the stamp box. Lucky you for having a pc from the 1870s! My earliest is 1902.
John Tannahill from Somewhere in England on July 19, 2012:
I've found a lot of old family photos were printed postcard style. If you can identify who the person is, then you can estimate the age.
AgingIntoDisabi on July 19, 2012:
Very interesting - I collect Victorian trade cards myself.
intermarks on July 19, 2012:
I never know about the history of the postcard. Very informative. Thanks!
sarasentor lm on July 18, 2012:
I love to read about history
WriterDave on July 18, 2012:
Awesome lens, very well written!
adragast24 on July 18, 2012:
Wonderful lens on an original topic. Purple star and lord well deserved.
Peggy Hazelwood from Desert Southwest, U.S.A. on July 18, 2012:
I love postcards. This is great information for collectors!
SteveKaye on July 18, 2012:
Fascinating info. I'll forward this to my wife who is writing a historical novel. She's gathering small facts like this. Congratulations on receiving the Lens of the Day. That's a great honor.
kimbesa from USA on July 18, 2012:
Sometimes by the landmarks...which buildings were shown in a city scape, for example. When were they build and when torn down. Congratulations on LOTD and an interesting lens! One day I may get back to my postcards. Started in tandem with genealogy, collecting places and time periods where the ancestors lived.
Paid-To-Rave on July 18, 2012:
Congratulations on Lens of the day, very nifty lens about postcards, plus great pictures of some old-school postcards.
Rose Jones on July 18, 2012:
I don't know of how to date postcards - but I am very impressed by what I see here. I also have written about postcards they are important to me too.