For as long as the postal system has existed, people have been posting cards in the mail. The cards just weren’t labeled as postcards yet.
The first known “postcard” lookalike went through the mail in 1840, painted on the front and sent to English writer Theodore Hook with a penny black stamp. Rumors say he sent the card to himself as a taunt to postal workers, judging by the postal worker caricatures painted on the card.
Postcards officially happened in 1861 when H. L. Lipman bought the patent for commercially available cards. Said cards had a decorative border and not much else, allowing plenty of space for writing the address on the front and a full space on the other side for the note. Writing took priority over any pretty pictures.
A postcard with an undivided back.
The first postcard with a printed image came in 1870. Camp Conlie, a training camp for soldiers in the Franco-Prussian war, made a lithographed design with the inscription “War of 1870. Camp Conlie. Souvenir of the National Defence. Army of Brittany”. However, these cards may have been sent in envelopes, making them less postcard-like.
The Edwardians brought postcard fads to a whole new level. They used postcards (thus renamed from “private mailing cards”) for sending information on every little thing going on in their lives, not unlike today’s text messaging and social media. This was the age of postcards with undivided backs, when people could only write on the front of the card.
An Edwardian postcard.
During WWI postcards were popularly sent from soldiers. These “silks” were high quality cards and frequently passed from soldiers to family members as a way of greeting.
In the 1920s, dyes grew brighter and postcards became embossed to help with the new kind of ink. Humorous postcards also became very popular around this time.
Linen postcards entered the market from 1931 to 1959. Though not actually made out of linen, these cards had a linen-like texture to them. Many popular postcard companies made these at the time, like Curt Teich, E. C. Kropp, and more.
A typical British seaside postcard
In the 1950s, Donald McGill and other artists made numerous successful British seaside postcards, many of which made innuendos and double entendres. The British government became concerned about Britain’s morals and made the decision to prosecute Donald McGill for obscenity. Though his postcards weren’t the most risque at the time, he was more popular than other postcard artists, making him the messenger to other risque postcard artists.
The 1980s did see a resurgence of seaside postcards with much more risque images, this time without the restrictions of the 1950s to stop their publication. Less saucy postcards of the British seaside still continue in popularity today.
In later years, postcards have become a conglomeration of subjects, with no one subject or material being more popular than the other. But postcards still stand their ground as essential tourism items and ways to say hello to loved ones in print.