Archive for Sunday, November 21, 2010

Behind the Lens: Photo postcards from the turn of the century

This photograph postcard from the early 1900's was a new way of combining home photographs and short text for long distance correspondence at the turn of the last century.

This photograph postcard from the early 1900's was a new way of combining home photographs and short text for long distance correspondence at the turn of the last century.

November 21, 2010


Mary, an amateur photographer, Facebooks her friend Mrs. Mable Cranston of Langdon, Kan., with a note and an attached photograph of her son Myron. It’s a little unusual because the photo is in black-and-white, the text is handwritten and the message sent in March of 1914.

OK, so maybe they weren’t Facebook buddies, but for the time period this was pretty cool stuff. For the price of a 1-cent stamp and a special postcard, Mary had printed her son’s photo on one side, added a note on the other and put it in the post. It was a turn-of-the-century social media exchange with user-generated content.

In 1898 the postal service established a reduced postage rate for privately printed postcards. In 1902, the Eastman Kodak Co. produced a postcard-sized photographic paper on which images could be printed. These two events began a photograph postcard boom.

Several years ago I collected personalized picture postcards. I had two preferences. It had to be a fairly interesting and authentic photographic image, hopefully taken by an amateur. To determine a real photograph you need to look closely, possibly with a magnifying glass. What you want is a continuous tone image. If you see small dots, it’s a reproduction.

My second preference was that the text on the card should relate to the image or mention the subject of photography. Sometimes this was difficult to determine because of illegibility of the handwriting. Who said our grandparent’s could write well?

Nevertheless, some of these short texts provided confirmation that hobbyist photographer’s were enjoying a new means of communicating.

Mary writes about her son Myron’s photograph, “I do not take many ‘fixed up’ pictures but just take these as he plays. His face does not show very plain but you can see he has yellow hair that curls. Am going to cut it soon & have a real boy.”

One 1906 card shows a photo of an automobile abandoned by the side of the road with a wheel broken off a front axle. “Fiasco No. 4” is written next to image on the card’s front.

Lula writes to her sister about her growing interest in photography and refers to the portrait of a couple on the card. “Tell that fellow his camera is all right but he don’t do his work right. I am in the business. What do you think of my work?”

With a good ink-jet printer, photo postcards are still a fun hobby. Companies such as Olympus and Epson, to name a few, offer digital photo postcard paper ready to print on and mail.


wmathews 4 years, 10 months ago

Hey guys - Mike does one of these columns once a week or so. They have their own page if you'd like to see more:

Cait McKnelly 4 years, 10 months ago

Mr. Yoder, you might be interested in this postcard: (front) (back) It was sent from Ireland in 1920. I acquired it quite by accident. I was searching for a specific book of poetry printed in Ireland in 1918. I didn't think I had a chance of finding it in the US but by sheer luck, happenstance or fate I found a copy at an antique bookstore in Columbia MO. I purchased it sight unseen over the phone and the bookstore mailed it to me. When I took the book out of the mailer and opened it this postcard fell out of the book. Although this was a commercially manufactured postcard, the writer states that the castle and abbey ruins are near to where she lives. It's interesting to me that in modern day photos the Nenagh ruins have changed very little in 80 years. The names of the sender and addressee are the same as those on the flyleaf of the book. The women that sent the postcard had also gifted the book to the addressee. When I did some research on those names I discovered that both women had, themselves, been published poets and that interestingly, the sender of the book and postcard eventually came to the US and settled here.

Linda Hanney 4 years, 10 months ago

Great article. Some of my old family pictures are on post card format. It must have been very common.

I send post cards with pictures. Since my printer is not so good, I order an inexpensive 4 x 6 print over the internet and pick it up within an hour from Walgreens, etc and use a mounting glue to attach the note & address on the back. (You can write on the back of these types of pictures, but you have to be careful not to make indentions that show on the front of the picture.)

Commenting has been disabled for this item.