Small Business Guide for Direct Postcard Mailing

This is Part 1 of a three part guide to help small business understand the value and power of using postcards to market their business. We’ve divided it up into three parts in order to give you some interesting background information on the history postcards (that’s this part), then Part 2 which will cover some of the important reasons why you’d want to get into postcard marketing, and lastly Part 3 which will give you an overview of the ‘how-to’ of postcard marketing.

So….here we go!

Part 1. A Brief History of Postcards

First of all, let’s define what a post card is. A postcard, or post card, is a piece of paper, slightly thicker that regular writing paper, either rectangular or square in shape and intended for writing and mailing without an envelope. The study and collecting of postcards is termed deltiology.

Looking at the history of postcards, you’ll find that cards inscribed with messages have been sporadically created and posted by individuals almost since the creation of the first postal services.

As the postcard evolved, the earliest known picture postcard was a hand-painted design on a card and posted in London to the writer Theodore Hook in 1840. This early picture postcard bore a penny black stamp. It might have been meant as a joke because the picture on it just happened to be a caricature of workers in the post office.

Let’s fast forward to the US where up until 1861 there was legally no such thing as a postcard. People of that time didn’t have envelopes like we do today but rather the paper they wrote on itself became the envelope.

According to the early US postal regulations of the time, there was officially no such thing as a ‘postcard’ as we know it today. And anybody who created such a device and attempted to ‘post’ it would have a 50/50 chance at best of it being delivered.

Things took a change for the better on February 27, 1861 when the 36th US Congress passed “An Act establishing certain Post Routes.” Section 13 of that Act allowed the mailing of post cards. The section reads:

“And be it further enacted, That cards, blank or printed, blanks in packages weighing at least eight ounces, and seeds or cuttings, in packages not exceeding eight ounces in weight, shall also be deemed mailable matter, and charged with postage at the rate of one cent an ounce, or fraction of an ounce, to any place in the United States under fifteen hundred miles, and at the rate of two cents an ounce or fraction of an ounce, over fifteen hundred miles, to be prepaid by postage stamps.”

And that’s how postcards got started in America.

There were mixed feelings about this new form of correspondence. Many people questioned whether the government could make any money on them and didn’t think the contents could be kept private. However, with the Confederate attacked on April 12 of that year and the start of the American Civil War, the subject of postcards became a forgotten issue.

Historic Lipman’s Postal Card

The first commercially produced card was actually created in 1861 by John P. Charlton of Philadelphia, who patented and produced the first ‘postal card’. Later that year he sold the rights to H. L. Lipman, whose postcards, complete with a decorated border, were labeled “Lipman’s postal card.” These cards had no images.

1861 was an important year in the evolution of postcards because it opened up a whole new industry to private enterprise. The government up to that time the government officially had a monopoly on producing postcards.

Just 9 years later the copyright was transferred to H. L. Lipman of Philadelphia and the earliest postmark found on a “Lipman’s Postal Card” is from October 25, 1870.

At that time the United States government didn’t allow private companies to call their cards “postcards”. They had to be called “souvenir cards” and labeled “Private Mailing Cards”. This regulation was rescinded on December 24, 1901 and after that time it was OK for private companies to use the word “postcard”.

Early postcards were not allowed to have a divided back and correspondents could only write on the front of the postcard. This was known as the “undivided back” era of postcards. On March 1, 1907 the Post Office allowed private citizens to write on the address side of a postcard. It was on this date that postcards were allowed to have a “divided back”.

On these cards the back is divided into two sections, the left section being used for the message and the right for the address. With this type of card began the Golden Age of American postcards, which lasted until 1915, when World War I blocked the import of the fine German-printed cards which had the largest share of the market.

The “white border” era, named thus because they had ‘white borders’ to make printing easier, lasted from about 1916 to 1930. The “linen card” era lasted from about 1931 to the early 1950s, when cards were primarily printed on papers with a textured surface similar to linen cloth.

In America the final major change in postcard design came with the new postcard regulations of March 1, 1907, which allowed the back of postcards to be divided down the center. The right side of the back was now for the address and postage and the left side was for the personal message that used to be written on the front of the card.

Because this is essentially the same basic design that is still in use today for postcards, March 1, 1907 is considered the birthday of the modern postcard. However, printers wanting to save money continued using their old designs for a time. So it is common to see postcards that were made after 1907 that still have some white space on the front for writing or to see the undivided backs with a line simply drawn down the middle.

Needless to say, there’s a lot more information available about the history of postcards. It’s readily available on the internet on a variety of sites. But this concludes Part 1… A Brief History Of Postcards. Please follow on to Part 2, “Why Market With Postcards”.