Marketed as a quick, cheap way to send notes, postcards have been around in the United States since the mid-19th Century. Postcards were first marketed as souvenirs at the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893. The cards gained in popularity, but were fairly limited as only the United States Post Office was permitted to print or sell the cards within the United States. In 1898, the laws changed, allowing private companies to publish and sell the cards and paving the way for the golden age of postcards.
Much like modern greeting cards, there were postcards for every purpose, occasion and sentiment. Not only were there the tourist postcards we’re familiar with, there were also cards for holidays, birthdays, advertisements, special occasions, propaganda, best wishes and the simple joy of mailing something pretty. The Chemung County Historical Society has over 3,000 tourist postcards of places in and around Chemung County and another 1,000 illustrated postcards.
Another popular type of card found in our collection is the so-called real photo postcards. These cards were exactly what they sounded like. Instead of getting your family photos printed on regular photograph paper, you could have the developer print them on a postcard and send them to your friends and relatives. We have about 100 or so of these with everything from vacation photos to family portraits on them.
The golden age of postcards came to an end during World War I. While there were some American postcard publishing companies, most were printed by European-based companies. In fact, most ‘American’ postcards, including the patriotic one shown above, were printed in Germany. The war brought production to a halt and made importing French or British cards nearly impossible as well. Postcards lingered on for tourism and the like, but themed, illustrated cards never regained their popularity. The golden age was done.