Picture postcards from the past are fun and valuable to collect. Here's what you need to know.
By Barbara J. Eash
If you want to see how your sister is doing, you might send her a quick text. A hundred years ago, though, you might have jotted a few words on a postcard and dropped it in the mail to her. From 1907 to 1925, America went wild for postcards; in 1908 alone, the U.S. Post Office reported delivering 678 million of them—at a time when the population numbered just 89 million!
Picture postcards today are primarily associated with travel, especially beautiful shots of tourist destinations. But at the height of the craze, cards were as likely to be illustrations as photos, and travel was just one popular theme. Others were holidays (like our Thanksgiving cards here), religious events, elections, even natural disasters. And some cards were simply sweet or silly.
True, the messages weren’t private—and postmasters undoubtedly read them! But at just a penny to buy and another to send, no one seemed to care much about the lack of privacy and writing space.
At those prices, the cards might have been tossed out once read. But instead, people treated them like little gifts, mounting them in albums alongside treasured family photos. They displayed them in special frames and even bought storage chests with pullout viewing drawers.
Collectors today continue to buy, swap and sell postcards, along with other ephemera like movie, sports and political memorabilia, magazines, sheet music, certificates and invitations. You can find vintage postcards, sold in protective, inexpensive, acid-free sleeves, online and at flea markets, estate sales and antique malls, where they’re often hidden away and packed in tightly, inventoried and filed by subject matter. Prices can range from $5 apiece for common cards in fair condition to $100 or more.
What to look for
- What makes a postcard valuable? First, check its category. Among the most valuable are rare Halloween cards and mint-condition Santa Claus cards.
- Next, look at its condition. The card should be free of creases, bends or splotches from fountain pens. Are the colors bright, and is the paper textured?
- Also look for an artist’s signature (sometimes well hidden). Publishers often sought out established artists of the day; three illustrators whose cards are popular today with collectors are Ellen H. Clapsaddle, Samuel L. Schmucker and H.B. Griggs.
- Look for embossing, glitter or other embellishment that might set it apart or somehow link it to postal history. Is it part of a numbered set?
- Read the message! Some collectors want only unused cards, but others will pay more for a card that had a personal message, particularly if it mentions a historic event.
Most text messages today get deleted without a second thought. But it’s fun to look back into history at those everyday moments captured in collectible vintage postcards.
A few quick tips from Barb
What’s in a name?
Deltiology, a word coined in 1945, is the study or collecting of postcards. In terms of world popularity, postcard collecting ranks right up there with collecting stamps and coins.
It can be hard to know how to get started; collectors may focus on one subject that coincides with another interest. One very popular start: collecting “town views,” postcards featuring modern and historical scenes from a specific town or region.
Share the love.
A vintage birthday postcard sent to an antiques-loving friend is sure to be kept and treasured. Use vintage postcards as both place cards and favors at a holiday dinner. Hand out old romantic cards to read aloud at a wedding shower; they make a great souvenir for the bride.
Barbara J. Eash, Country Woman Magazine’s antiques expert, is a certified personal property appraiser specializing in antiques and collectibles.
Photography by Country Woman.