Changes in American Postcards

Unknown artist Main Street, Showing Confederate Monument, Lenoir, N. C., 1930s Postcard, Photomechanical reproduction; 3 1/2 x 5 1/2 in. (8.9 x 14 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Walker Evans Archive, 1994
Courtesy to Metropolitan Museum of Art. Unknown artist Main Street, Showing Confederate Monument, Lenoir, N. C., 1930s Postcard, Photomechanical reproduction; 3 1/2 x 5 1/2 in. (8.9 x 14 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Walker Evans Archive, 1994

Just after I posted the previous article about vintage postcards of Grand Army Plaza,  “Walker Evans and the Picture Postcard” exhibition at Met has gone into its second week. Thanks to Lon Black, with whom I talked in the Dumbo Flea Market yesterday, I learned the basic eras and milestones of American postcards.

Like collecting other things, postcard collecting needs not only passion but also knowledge. On one hand, the anonymity of the real photographer behind each design, or the absence of names of the women artists who hand-colored some postcards in an assembly line workshop, makes collecting less complicated since postcards collection are not centered around artists. On the other hand, there are postcards of almost every subject. Selecting a right perspective (subjects such as cities, parks or railroads, printing techniques  and material like B&W, hand-colored, linen, etc) thus is critical to form a well-curated collection without being lost in the abundant availability.

Postcards have been inexpensive from the very beginning and most of the vintage postcards are  affordable and their price ranges from equivalent to a McDonald meal to a fancy Italian Bistro dinner. But Lon said some early postcards (dated in 1870’s) can fetch thousands of dollars due to its scarcity.

Rosenheim, the curator at Met who organized the current exhibition “Walker Evans and the Picture Postcard“, said “Postcards are a democratic form. They are about everywhere in particular. And there was no nostalgia about them. They show the new banks, the new factory, the new school. They were a clear expressions of the present.”

If identification of the specific location in each postcard can be challenging, the identification of the era of each postcard is easier thanks to the dated events for format change or technology breakthroughs.

Here is a summary of milestones with respect to changes in American postcards based on the article “American in 3 by 5” by Thomas Hine in February issue of Magazine Antiques and the conservation with Lon Black yesterday.

Year Milestone Event Characteristics
1873 Pre-stamped postal cards First time postcards on US markets Plain, only address allowed in the front
1898 (May) Private Mailing Cards Private Mailing Card Act passed by Congress. Beginning of increased popularity Undivided Back, with title “Private Mailing Card” on each card
1901 (Dec) “Postcard” can be used by privately printed cards “Private Mailing Card” title began to disappear Writing was still only allowed on the front of picture side of the card
1907 Divided Back (The back of cards were used for both the address and for any message) Beginning of Golden Age of postcards The majority of the print was done in Germany for the best printed method
1908 June 30 677,777,798 postcards mailed in the fiscal year US Population was 88,700,000 Public addition of postcards of everything
1915 WW1 brought the supply of postcards from Germany to an end Quality dropped. Telephone began to replace postcards as a way of communication Some cards published in England or US

About Hui

Wang Hui lived from 1632 - 1717 and followed in the footprints of his great grandfathers, grandfather, father and uncles and learned painting at a very early age. He was later taught by two contemporary masters, Zhang Ke and Wang Shimin, who taught him to work in the tradition of copying famous Chinese paintings. This is most likely the reason why critics claim that his work is conservative and reflects the Yuan and Song traditions. One critic claimed that "his landscape paintings reflect his nostalgic attachment to classical Chinese aesthetics. Along with the other Wangs, Wang Hui helped to perpetuate the tradition of copying the ancient masters rather than creating original work.

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