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How to Estimate the Age of a Postcard

Updated on January 10, 2017
SheilaMilne profile image

I have been collecting postcards all my life like my father before me. I now have many thousands of them, both vintage and modern.

Vintage Postcards Have a Long and Interesting History

French postcard dating from 1875
French postcard dating from 1875 | Source

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.

Postcard collecting can be a fascinating hobby as I have found out over the years. From the very early days of postcards in the mid-19th century, they have had a very well documented history, but there is always the doubt as to the exact age of any one card.

Many people collect unused and unposted cards, whether modern or vintage, so there is no postmark available to give a clue as to when the postcard may have been published. Nevertheless, everyone is curious to know how old their postcards are, in particular as far as vintage cards are concerned as it has some bearing on their value.

Even when there is a postmark, it can be blurred, or the card may have been lost in the depths of a drawer for years before it was used. As a result, we have to find our clues from the card itself.

The story for each country is slightly different so I will have to generalise to some extent. At a future date when I have more time I will expand and give more detail.

All the images are scans of postcards in my own collection.

The Message on My Oldest Postcard - Dated 1877

An undivided back postcard 1877
An undivided back postcard 1877 | Source

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.

Postcard dated 1904
Postcard dated 1904 | Source

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 allowed on this side!

An early divided back card approximately 1902
An early divided back card approximately 1902 | Source

Postcards With Divided Backs

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 and 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.

A Later Divided-Back Postcard

A later divided back postcard from 1907
A later divided back postcard from 1907 | Source

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, Turkey.

Later Progress

Early divided back card from Monaco
Early divided back card from Monaco | Source

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

You can also look at the fashion styles worn by men and women, the cars on roads. Sometimes cards were printed as souvenirs of special event, 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.

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 - from pre-1917 to 1963

Date
Rate
Notes
Pre-1917
2 cents
 
Nov 1917
3 cents
war years
July 1919
2 cents
 
July 1928
1 cent
 
July 1952
2 cents
 
Aug 1958
3 cents
 
Jan 1963
4 cents
 
USA Postal Rates 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 - from before 1900 to 1968

Date
Rate
Notes
Up to 1900
1/2 d
Queen Victoria red
1900 - 1901
1/2 d
Queen Victoria green
1902 - 1910
1/2 d
Edward VII green
1910 - 1918
1/2 d
George V green
1919 - 1921
1 d
George V red
1921 - 1922
1 1/2 d
George V brown
1922 - 1936
1 d
George V red
1936
1 d
Edward VIII
1936 - 1940
1 d
George VI red
1940 - 1941
2 d
George VI orange
1950 - 1952
2 d
George VI brown
1957 - 1965
2 1/2 d
Elizabeth II
1965 - 1968
3 d
Elizabeth II
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

Date
Max 5 words
More than 5 words
Notes
1878
0.15
 
as letters
1901
0.05
 
illustrated postcards
1920
0.10
0.20
 
1926
0.15
0.25
 
1932
0.20
 
 
1937
0.30
0.55
 
1939
0.40
0.80
 
1942
0.60
1.20
 
1945
1.50
2.50
 
1947
3.00
4.00
 
1947 (July)
3.00
5.00
 
1948
5.00
8.00
 
1949
8.00
12.00
 
1957
12.00
15.00
 
1960
0.15
0.20
Jan 1960 franc revalued
1964
0.20
0.25
 
1969
0.25
 
local
1969
0.30
 
all France
1971
0.50
 
letter rate
Postal rates for postcards in France 1878 - 1971

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.

In Conclusion

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 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?

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    • SheilaMilne profile image
      Author

      SheilaMilne 4 years ago from Kent, UK

      @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.

    • KateFeredayEshete profile image

      Kate Fereday Eshete 4 years ago from Ethiopia

      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.

    • Marja79 profile image

      Marja79 4 years ago

      Oh pretty postcards! I realized I have some really old ones as well. When I was a kid I remember that my grandma used to show me old postcards and when she died I got them all. I know those cards must be in the same boxes with pictures, I must find them! Great lens!

    • Elyn MacInnis profile image

      Elyn MacInnis 4 years ago from Shanghai, China

      Old post cards are so fun. I have lots of post cards from China, but I haven't sent them out - we just collected them. Thanks for all your information!

    • Gypzeerose profile image

      Rose Jones 4 years ago

      I think you pretty real have it covered. Thanks for this - wonderful. I love postcards.

    • Dusty2 LM profile image

      Dusty2 LM 4 years ago

      Another lens written with some very interesting information about vintage postcards. I couldn't believe the prices at a penny to send a postcard. However, I can remember times when sending a postcard cost three cents. If I remember correctly, I think I should have a couple of them I've kept. Thank You for sharing this lens as I enjoyed reading about the vintage postcards. Congratulations SheilaMilne for this lens receiving a Purple Star Award as this lens is well deserving of it. Have a Great Day! (^_-)

    • lesliesinclair profile image

      lesliesinclair 4 years ago

      Postcards are so evocative of nostalgia from childhood and postage in the pennies. Sure enjoyed learning about your means of dating these oldies.

    • norma-holt profile image

      norma-holt 4 years ago

      A new blessing on this lovely lens and may you have a wonderful, successful and happy 2013. Hugs

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      No...I think you've got it covered! Lovely lens - I love old postcards and wish I had kept the ones I used to have.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Nop, but I liked your lens.

    • Annbulance2000 profile image

      Annbulance2000 5 years ago

      I have quite a few postcards I am going to check them out for age. Interesting lense. Thanks for your blessing and squidlike.

    • profile image

      Hannah Writes 5 years ago

      My husband just uncovered a large envelope of postcards that belonged to my grandmother. This lens will help us date them!

    • norma-holt profile image

      norma-holt 5 years ago

      Interesting topic. Featured on Blessed by Skiesgreen 2012-2 and also on Squidoo LOTD Lenses-2. Congrats and hugs.

    • anne mohanraj profile image

      anne mohanraj 5 years ago

      Very interesting!

    • profile image

      TimuM 5 years ago

      Very informative posting. Thanks

    • profile image

      kayla_harris 5 years ago

      Very useful Lens about postcards! And the photos are very beautiful!

    • VeseliDan profile image

      VeseliDan 5 years ago

      These old postcards look really beautiful. I usually stamp my postcards and in that way they ate dated too. *blessed*

    • nicks44 profile image

      nicks44 5 years ago

      You are moving around a little piece of history whenever you touch any of these cards ... Just simply amazing!

    • pheonix76 profile image

      pheonix76 5 years ago from WNY

      Great lens. I think if it's a used postcard, one could possibly use the stamp to date it. Thanks for sharing!

    • KimGiancaterino profile image

      KimGiancaterino 5 years ago

      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.

    • profile image

      andrew69 5 years ago

      Lot of history here.. Great lens

    • SheGetsCreative profile image

      Angela F 5 years ago from Seattle, WA

      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.

    • SgtCecil profile image

      Cecil Kenmill 5 years ago from Osaka, Japan

      Great lens with amazing images. I collect postcards but it's nothing like this. Thanks for sharing!

    • SpenceG profile image

      SpenceG 5 years ago

      I have some old postcards, though not vintage. They're @15 years old from Japan when my friends took a trip and I couldn't go. Just one of those things I keep with me.

    • Virginia Allain profile image

      Virginia Allain 5 years ago from Central Florida

      I have some vintage valentine postcards. Love the old graphics and it is always special if they have a message and address with a cancellation date on them.

    • Celticep profile image

      Celticep 5 years ago

      Fascinating info, will check some of my old cards for these details now. Thanks.

    • profile image

      DebMartin 5 years ago

      I'm trying to learn more about old postcards as a have quite a few of them from the mid 1800's to the early 1900s. I'd like to sell them but don't yet know enough. Thanks for the help. d

    • Ashly Rain profile image

      Ashly Rain 5 years ago

      Nice LOTD. Keep up the good work.

    • Franksterk profile image

      Frankie Kangas 5 years ago from California

      Very nice lens. Congrats on getting LOTD award and for sharing how to date postcards. Bear hugs, Frankster

    • Trudidyer profile image

      Trudidyer 5 years ago

      I've got a draw full of old postcards my grandmother gave me. Always wondered how old they were. This will help out. Good lens.

      Regards

    • profile image

      mhiweb 5 years ago

      nice collection...Congrats on LENS OF THE DAY!

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      We used to get a lot but with the advent of the internet, we mainly just get emails with pictures on them now. Something else being lost with technology

    • tvyps profile image

      Teri Villars 5 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      I dated a postcard once. I had to break up with it because the postage went up. ha! Blessed.

    • MrInfopreneur profile image

      MrInfopreneur 5 years ago

      I know I have some old postcards somewhere. Have to dig them out.

      Thanks for the lens

    • Heidi Vincent profile image

      Heidi Vincent 5 years ago from GRENADA

      Congratulations on winning the Lens of The Day (LOTD)!

    • ElizabethSheppard profile image

      Elizabeth Sheppard 5 years ago from Bowling Green, Kentucky

      I love vintage postcards. They are so interesting! It was good to learn about dating them today too. Thanks for posting this information.

    • itLisa profile image

      itLisa 5 years ago

      It is incredible how there are so many things we don't know. And yet how many new things we find out about each day.

    • Sher Ritchie profile image

      Sher Ritchie 5 years ago

      Yes - first I look for any date written by the sender (of course). My next 'check' is the postmark. Sometimes the postmark is clear enough for the year to be readable. A real plus when you can read the day, time & place posted too! Also, the fine print on antique postcards is priceless - not only do you find manufacturers names, printing details and so forth, often there is a copyright date for the image on the front of the card! At the least, this gives you a year when this image was first sold as a postcard. Even though the card in question might be a few years younger than the copyright date, at least you now know "This card can't be any earlier than... (the copyright date)." A final clue is to look at the design of the card (and any typography on the back) - postcards tend to follow fashions fairly closely, so when the rest of society is going through (eg) the "Art Deco craze" so too are postcards. A postcard with that particular 'look' is most certainly no older than the 'craze' it mirrors.

      As you can probably guess, I LOVE antique postcards and I LOVE your lens. Congratulations on being LOTD!

    • profile image

      petekruze 5 years ago

      Cool lens. Some interesting ideas. Thank you

    • Faye Rutledge profile image

      Faye Rutledge 5 years ago from Concord VA

      Interesting lens. We have a lot of old postcards belonging to a grandmother. It's interesting to see how places have changed over the years. Congratulations on LotD!!

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Congrats on being the lens of the day!! That must be extremely exciting for you>

    • RawBill1 profile image

      Bill 5 years ago from Gold Coast, Australia

      Congrats on LOTD. I love history so it is always good to learn something new.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      What a wonderful history of postcards and your examples are so clear, interesting that the original postcards couldn't have pictures. Congratulations on LotD honors!

    • profile image

      eBid-Squid 5 years ago

      Fantastic

    • profile image

      pawpaw911 5 years ago

      Very interesting history on postcards. I have a few, but not enough to call it a collection. I found this information very useful.

    • Steve Dizmon profile image

      Steve Dizmon 5 years ago from Nashville, TN

      Thanks for the info. I have a number of Post Cards that have fallen to me over the years. Now I'll have to find them and inspect them in light of what I have learned on your Lens.

    • zigpop lm profile image

      zigpop lm 5 years ago

      Congratulations on LOD!

    • MizzMary profile image

      MizzMary 5 years ago

      I have never heard of collecting vintage postcards before, and I am glad to learn about it here. Thanks for sharing.

    • profile image

      zoogala 5 years ago

      Great lens

    • Deadicated LM profile image

      Deadicated LM 5 years ago

      Awesome lens on deltiology, I use to collect Ellen Clapsaddle Halloween postcards.

    • MargaritasWorld profile image

      Margarita Boettcher 5 years ago from Morrison, Colorado

      I love your collection. I love this kind of intimate history. Great method. Congrats on LOD.

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Fascinating subject. Congratulations on getting LoTD!

    • DrBillSmithWriter profile image

      William Leverne Smith 5 years ago from Hollister, MO

      Well deserved LOD. Thanks for sharing! ;-)

    • Cari Kay 11 profile image

      Kay 5 years ago

      I don't know about dating them but, wow, LOVE your postcards. That is awesome.

    • Deborah Swain profile image

      Deborah Swain 5 years ago from Rome, Italy

      wow! sheila - you made lens of the day! fantastic lens...from one deltiologist to another ;-)

    • profile image

      getmoreinfo 5 years ago

      This is really great and informative, I love vintage postcards. I have featured you on my Vintage Fashion Postcards Posters and Prints lens.

    • marlies vaz nunes profile image

      Marlies Vaz Nunes 5 years ago from Amsterdam, the Netherlands

      What a nice lens! Very interesting information, too. Congratulations on your LoTD!

    • Rosaquid profile image

      Rosaquid 5 years ago

      Interesting lens. Congratulations on LOTD!

    • profile image

      happynutritionist 5 years ago

      This is so helpful, I'll be adding this to Collecting Buying and Selling Vintage Letters and Postcards...congrats on the LOTD...a great resource *blessed*

    • profile image

      soaringsis 5 years ago

      Very interesting. Great lens. Congratulation on your LotD and purple star.

    • MoniqueDesigns profile image

      MoniqueDesigns 5 years ago

      Great lens, congrats on LOTD!

    • Keith J Winter profile image

      Keith Winter 5 years ago from Spain

      Really interesting lens. Congratulations on getting LOTD.

    • Linda Pogue profile image

      Linda Pogue 5 years ago from Missouri

      Very interesting. I have some post cards that were my grandmother's. They date from the late 1800's to about 1930. Interesing cards. Blessings!

    • WriterJanis2 profile image

      WriterJanis2 5 years ago

      You have a very interesting collection.

    • PocketfulofParis profile image

      PocketfulofParis 5 years ago

      Interesting! I collect letters from the world war 2 period

    • delia-delia profile image

      Delia 5 years ago

      Congratulations on LOTD! very informative lens...I like collecting postcards since childhood, but now stopped as I have too many...thanks for sharing!

      ~d-artist Squid Angel Blessing~

    • Dressage Husband profile image

      Stephen J Parkin 5 years ago from Pine Grove, Nova Scotia, Canada

      I would imagine the postmark would give the date of sending, not necessarily the date of production though?

    • profile image

      cmadden 5 years ago

      Interesting; it would seem that writing postcards is becoming something of a lost art. Old fashioned texting. ;->

    • Jogalog profile image

      Jogalog 5 years ago

      This is really interesting and something I'd never thought about before - I'd never realised that postcards started off without pictures on them either.

    • Canvas-Art-Shop profile image

      Canvas-Art-Shop 5 years ago

      That is really interesting, what a great lens and thanks for this and congratulation for lens of the day!

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Interesting! Great lens!

    • MJsConsignments profile image

      Michelle 5 years ago from Central Ohio, USA

      Great lens. I actually have two lenses that deal with specific types of postcards, RPPCs and Linens. Both of those give information about how to date those specific cards.

    • Zodiacimmortal profile image

      Kim 5 years ago from Yonkers, NY

      Cool lens, I'm sure i may have some in the box of the postcards my Grandmother collected. I've added this to my pen Pal introduction & Etiquette guide

    • profile image

      acregmed 5 years ago

      NIce lens!

    • goldenchildngo profile image

      goldenchildngo 5 years ago

      It's interesting because now and days people seem to stop sending letters and start sending e-mails, text, & phone calls. I collect stamps & every one is different from the next, just like every postcard. I squid liked your lens! :)

    • jlshernandez profile image

      jlshernandez 5 years ago

      Thanks for sharing such an interesting topic that I never even thought of.

    • FantasticVoyages profile image

      Fantastic Voyages 5 years ago from Texas

      Hmm. The title made me think this was a way to put a date on a postcard, and I thought "isn't that common sense?". Duh.

      Interesting article, and one I had never considered. Congrats on LotD!

    • GabStar profile image

      GabStar 5 years ago

      What an interesting topic!, thanks for sharing x

    • kitsiu lm profile image

      kitsiu lm 5 years ago

      The last I sent a postcard was 6 years back. Sweet memory. Great lens.

    • patinkc profile image

      patinkc 5 years ago from Midwest

      Congratulations!

    • profile image

      anonymous 5 years ago

      Thanks for the great lens! I didn't know about the evolution of postcard design before I read this!

    • profile image

      msseiboi 5 years ago

      Congrates

    • profile image

      gamercameo 5 years ago

      I like postcard that I can sent beautiful with hand writing.

    • MartieG profile image

      MartieG aka 'survivoryea' 5 years ago from Jersey Shore

      Very interesting - love looking at old postcards and the wonderful old pictures they provide! ~~~blessed~~~

    • favored profile image

      Fay Favored 5 years ago from USA

      It's neat that you have postcards that are dated back so far. Congrats for making LOTD and a purple star.

    • profile image

      JoshK47 5 years ago

      Very cool information - I can't say I have any of my own to add, though! Blessed by a SquidAngel, and congrats on LotD!

    • katiecolette profile image

      katiecolette 5 years ago

      I used to collect postcards when I was a kid. Great idea for a lens!

    • SusanDeppner profile image

      Susan Deppner 5 years ago from Arkansas USA

      I don't know of other ways to date postcards. Collecting postcards is a great hobby, one I've considered. Congratulations on your Lens of the Day!

    • CharlieBoy3 profile image

      CharlieBoy3 5 years ago

      Nicely written and fully explained nicely done. My father collects postcards along with his stamps and has for many years has a lot of the cards you have or very similar. But of course he has been collecting since the 40's so he;s had a bit of time to get a good sized collection.

    • profile image

      rivercityconcepts 5 years ago

      Methods of transportation such as cars, trucks, buses, planes and trains can also be used to help date old post cards if featured on them.

    • profile image

      GilliansCloud 5 years ago

      Huh, very interesting. Thank you for sharing. Didn't know this stuff. Take care. :)

    • profile image

      swathymenon 5 years ago

      thanks for sharing these valuable information..

    • writerkath profile image

      writerkath 5 years ago

      This was a really fun lens for me! John & I buy and sell a lot of vintage stuff, and post cards are one of my favorite things to browse through when I'm at an antique shop or yard sale.

      We had a card of one of the sister ships to the Titanic - the Olympic - and we KNEW was pre-sinking of the Titanic, because on the face of the card it mentioned both ships. After the sinking, all postcards of the sister ship did not mention Titanic. THAT was a good sale! :)

      Anyway, I really learned something here today - valuable info that I'll tuck into my back pocket and pull out next time I'm looking at cards! Oh... CONGRATULATIONS on your LOTD and Purple Star as well! :) Hugs, Kath

    • Close2Art LM profile image

      Close2Art LM 5 years ago

      I have always loved the nostaglia of old postcards, great lens, angel blessed

    • aka-rms profile image

      Robin S 5 years ago from USA

      Congratulations, this terrific lens was chosen as LotD today. You can read about it at SquidooHQ: http://hq.squidoo.com/lotd/how-to-date-a-postcard/

    • PaigSr profile image

      PaigSr 5 years ago from State of Confussion

      No I don't know how to date a postcard. But this might be an interesting way to ask the wife out on a date.

    • profile image

      burntchestnut 5 years ago

      I love finding old post cards with messages written on them - a little bit of history. I've also seen portraits printed as postcards.

    • thememorybooksh1 profile image

      thememorybooksh1 5 years ago

      actually i also don't have much knowledge about the history of postcards. thanks for the lens.

    • JohnTannahill profile image

      John Tannahill 5 years ago from Somewhere in England

      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 profile image

      AgingIntoDisabi 5 years ago

      Very interesting - I collect Victorian trade cards myself.