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How to Estimate the Age of a Vintage Postcard

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.

French postcard dating from 1875.

French postcard dating from 1875.

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 message on my oldest postcard, which is an undivided back postcard from 1877.

The message on my oldest postcard, which is an undivided back postcard from 1877.

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!

Postcard dated 1904.

Postcard dated 1904.

An early divided back card, approximately 1902.

An early divided back card, approximately 1902.

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.

A later divided-back postcard from 1907.

A later divided-back postcard from 1907.

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.

Early divided-back card from Monaco.

Early divided-back card from Monaco.

Later Progress

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.

White Borders

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.

A deckle edge card postmarked 1963.

A deckle edge card postmarked 1963.

Deckle Edge

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.

Fashion

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

USA Postal Rates 1917 to 1963

DateRateNotes

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

 

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

DateRateNotes

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: 1878 to 1971

Postal rates for postcards in France 1878 - 1971

DateMax 5 wordsMore than 5 wordsNotes

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

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 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.

Marja79 on June 10, 2013:

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 from Shanghai, China on June 04, 2013:

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!

Rose Jones on June 03, 2013:

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

Dusty2 LM on April 14, 2013:

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 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.

norma-holt on December 31, 2012:

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

anonymous on September 11, 2012:

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.

anonymous on August 27, 2012:

Nop, but I liked your lens.

Annbulance2000 on August 25, 2012:

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

Hannah Writes on August 20, 2012:

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

norma-holt on August 15, 2012:

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

anne mohanraj on July 29, 2012:

Very interesting!

TimuM on July 28, 2012:

Very informative posting. Thanks

kayla_harris on July 25, 2012:

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

VeseliDan on July 25, 2012:

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

nicks44 on July 24, 2012:

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

pheonix76 from WNY on July 24, 2012:

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

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.

andrew69 on July 23, 2012:

Lot of history here.. Great lens

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.

Cecil Kenmill from Osaka, Japan on July 23, 2012:

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

SpenceG on July 23, 2012:

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 from Central Florida on July 22, 2012:

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 from North Wales, UK on July 22, 2012:

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

DebMartin on July 21, 2012:

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 on July 20, 2012:

Nice LOTD. Keep up the good work.

Frankie Kangas from California on July 20, 2012:

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

Trudi Buck on July 20, 2012:

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

mhiweb on July 20, 2012:

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

anonymous on July 20, 2012:

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

Teri Villars from Phoenix, Arizona on July 19, 2012:

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

MrInfopreneur on July 19, 2012:

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

Thanks for the lens

Heidi Vincent from GRENADA on July 19, 2012:

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

Elizabeth Sheppard from Bowling Green, Kentucky on July 19, 2012:

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

itLisa on July 19, 2012:

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 on July 19, 2012:

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!

petekruze on July 19, 2012:

Cool lens. Some interesting ideas. Thank you

Faye Rutledge from Concord VA on July 19, 2012:

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!!

anonymous on July 19, 2012:

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

Bill from Gold Coast, Australia on July 19, 2012:

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

anonymous on July 19, 2012:

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!

eBid-Squid on July 19, 2012:

Fantastic

pawpaw911 on July 19, 2012:

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 from Nashville, TN on July 19, 2012:

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 on July 19, 2012:

Congratulations on LOD!

MizzMary on July 19, 2012:

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

zoogala on July 19, 2012:

Great lens

Deadicated LM on July 19, 2012:

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

Margarita Boettcher from Morrison, Colorado on July 19, 2012:

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

anonymous on July 19, 2012:

Fascinating subject. Congratulations on getting LoTD!

William Leverne Smith from Hollister, MO on July 19, 2012:

Well deserved LOD. Thanks for sharing! ;-)

Kay on July 19, 2012:

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

Deborah Swain from Rome, Italy on July 19, 2012:

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

getmoreinfo on July 19, 2012:

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 from Amsterdam, the Netherlands on July 19, 2012:

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

Rosaquid on July 19, 2012:

Interesting lens. Congratulations on LOTD!

happynutritionist on July 19, 2012:

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*

soaringsis on July 19, 2012:

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

MoniqueDesigns on July 19, 2012:

Great lens, congrats on LOTD!

Keith Winter from Spain on July 19, 2012:

Really interesting lens. Congratulations on getting LOTD.

Linda Pogue from Missouri on July 19, 2012:

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 on July 19, 2012:

You have a very interesting collection.

PocketfulofParis on July 19, 2012:

Interesting! I collect letters from the world war 2 period

Delia on July 19, 2012:

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~

Stephen J Parkin from Pine Grove, Nova Scotia, Canada on July 19, 2012:

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

cmadden on July 19, 2012:

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

Jogalog on July 19, 2012:

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 on July 19, 2012:

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

anonymous on July 19, 2012:

Interesting! Great lens!

Michelle from Central Ohio, USA on July 19, 2012:

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.

Kim from Yonkers, NY on July 19, 2012:

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

acregmed on July 19, 2012:

NIce lens!

goldenchildngo on July 19, 2012:

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 on July 19, 2012:

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

Fantastic Voyages from Texas on July 19, 2012:

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 on July 19, 2012:

What an interesting topic!, thanks for sharing x

kitsiu lm on July 19, 2012:

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

patinkc from Midwest on July 19, 2012:

Congratulations!

anonymous on July 19, 2012:

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

msseiboi on July 19, 2012:

Congrates

gamercameo on July 19, 2012:

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

MartieG aka 'survivoryea' from Jersey Shore on July 19, 2012:

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

Fay Favored from USA on July 19, 2012:

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

JoshK47 on July 19, 2012:

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 on July 19, 2012:

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

Susan Deppner from Arkansas USA on July 19, 2012:

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 on July 19, 2012:

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.

rivercityconcepts on July 19, 2012:

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.

GilliansCloud on July 19, 2012:

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

swathymenon on July 19, 2012:

thanks for sharing these valuable information..

writerkath on July 19, 2012:

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 on July 19, 2012:

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

Robin S from USA on July 19, 2012:

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 from State of Confusion on July 19, 2012:

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.

burntchestnut on July 19, 2012:

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 on July 19, 2012:

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

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.