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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

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

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
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

Max 5 words
More than 5 words
as letters
illustrated postcards
1947 (July)
Jan 1960 franc revalued
all France
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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    • Gypzeerose profile image

      Rose Jones 5 years ago

      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.

    • Paid-To-Rave profile image

      Paid-To-Rave 5 years ago

      Congratulations on Lens of the day, very nifty lens about postcards, plus great pictures of some old-school postcards.

    • kimbesa2 profile image

      kimbesa 5 years ago from USA

      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.

    • profile image

      SteveKaye 5 years ago

      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.

    • Scarlettohairy profile image

      Peggy Hazelwood 5 years ago from Desert Southwest, U.S.A.

      I love postcards. This is great information for collectors!

    • adragast24 profile image

      adragast24 5 years ago

      Wonderful lens on an original topic. Purple star and lord well deserved.

    • WriterDave profile image

      WriterDave 5 years ago

      Awesome lens, very well written!

    • sarasentor lm profile image

      sarasentor lm 5 years ago

      I love to read about history

    • intermarks profile image

      intermarks 5 years ago

      I never know about the history of the postcard. Very informative. Thanks!

    • AgingIntoDisabi profile image

      AgingIntoDisabi 5 years ago

      Very interesting - I collect Victorian trade cards myself.

    • thememorybooksh1 profile image

      thememorybooksh1 5 years ago

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

    • 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.

    • 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.

    • 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:

    • Close2Art LM profile image

      Close2Art LM 5 years ago

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

    • 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

    • profile image

      swathymenon 5 years ago

      thanks for sharing these valuable information..

    • profile image

      GilliansCloud 5 years ago

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

    • 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.

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