Digest>Archives> Jan/Feb 2011

Collecting Nautical Antiques

Collecting Early Postcards

By Jim Claflin


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Postcard collecting has become a leading interest of lighthouse collectors in the last twenty years. Any vacationer who has succumbed to the lure of the postcard rack knows the thrill of finding a card or image that they have not seen before. For collectors this has become a most affordable way to enjoy the collecting hobby while not spending exorbitant amounts. Most good lithographed views can be had in “Very Good” or better condition for $4 to $8, allowing even the beginning collector to quickly build a fine assortment.

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Subjects collected are as varied as are the collectors who seek them out. General subjects such as lighthouse or Life-Saving Service, can be broken down further by state or area, and by age, and collectors even collect by postmark and date. Be sure to take a look at the messages and signature on cards that you find. Some cards can even be found from lighthouse keepers and their families describing their station, a recent storm encountered, or family event.

The picture postcard that we know today evolved from early pictorial cards of the 1780s. For our collecting purposes, the first cards that were allowed in circulation by the US Postal Service were 3” by 5” cards issued by the Post Office Department in 1873. These cards were engraved with a scrolled border and one-cent stamp. The address only was allowed on the stamp side, the message on the other. No variation was allowed, and privately printed cards were not acceptable. In time businesses began to print the backs of government postcards with advertisements but it was not until the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 that the first color privately printed pictorial postcard appeared on sale.

In 1898 Congress finally authorized the use of privately printed postcards known as “Private Mailing Cards.” Cards were noted as such on the address side, along with the message “This side for address only.” At this time we began to see a proliferation of card manufacturers producing wonderful color and b/w lithographed images and views. Usually the publisher left a small space for a one-line message on the face of the card as still only the address was permitted on the stamp side. From this time on collecting picture postcards became a raging hobby. In 1901 a new postal regulation began to require that the words “Post Card” appear at the top of the address side, to distinguish them from government issued cards which were designated “Postal Cards.”

All sorts of events began to be pictured and commemorated on cards, and Victorian vacationers soon were sending thousands of these new picture views home. By about 1907 the back of cards was now allowed to be divided with a vertical line, allowing a longer message to the left of the line, and the address to the right. Examination of your cards and the absence or presence of these features will help you to determine the date your card was manufactured.

Prior to 1916 cards generally did not have a border surrounding the image but by this time be begin to see many publishers using a plain white border surrounding the full color image.

With the improvements in photography, real photo postcards began to be used in the early 1900’s, some as early as 1916. These cards were produced by printing a photograph on special postcard paper which had the proper labeling printed on the back. This next image shows the back of a 1930s real photo postcard. Note the arrows and letters used in the stamp border. These designs differed by the paper manufacturer and date and can be used to date the view as well. Though many views of this type were produced professionally, the process lent itself to the average vacationer and we find that many of these early real photo views are one of a kind. Because of the relatively long exposure times and large format cameras used, we find that these views tend to be extremely detailed and clear. Wonderful photos of this type can be found showing keepers and their families, life-saving crews drilling and even rescue operations in progress. As expected, such early photo views tend to bring a premium on the market.

Linen based cards appeared in the 1930s and continued into the mid 1940s, when today’s “chrome” color photographic cards came into fancy. A guideline to determine a card’s age, though not exact, is shown below. Remember, too, that the postmark is an invaluable aid when present.

Postally Printed Cards –1873-

Private Mailing Cards – 1898-1901

Undivided Back –1901-1907

Divided Back –1907-1915

White Border –1916-1930

Linen era –1930-1945

Chrome –1945 to present

In future columns we will talk more about identifying and dating postcards, as well as sources for cards and current values.

Like our column? Have suggestions for future subjects?

Please send in your suggestions and questions, or a photograph of an object that you need help dating or identifying. We will include the answer to a selected inquiry as a regular feature each month in our column.

Jim Claflin is a recognized authority on antiques of the U.S. Lighthouse Service, Life-Saving Service, Revenue Cutter Service and early Coast Guard. In addition to authoring and publishing a number of books on the subject, Jim is the owner of Kenrick A Claflin & Son Nautical Antiques. In business since 1956, he has specialized in antiques of this type since the early 1990s. He may be contacted by writing to him at 1227 Pleasant Street, Worcester, MA 01602, or by calling 508-792-6627. You may also contact him by email: jclaflin@LighthouseAntiques.net or visit his web site at: www.LighthouseAntiques.net

This story appeared in the Jan/Feb 2011 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.

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