Collecting Postcards

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By John Tissot

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PASSPORTS TO ADVENTURE: Postcards have the power to transport us to exotic locales and distant times.
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I’ve got a time machine that takes me across the seven seas and back to an earlier era. I can use it to see everything from animals to zeppelins. It lets me visit places as near as Akron or as far as Zanzibar.

It’s my postcard collection.

Consider one of my cards showing a camel market in Aden, Arabia. The message on it reads,
Have just passed the Island of Perim, 100 miles from Aden. Could read ‘Lloyd’s Signal Station’ quite plainly with my glass. Am posting my journal with this at Aden. Much cooler since leaving the Red Sea. Best love …
Dated Oct. 10, 1906, this card somehow always takes me to that year and place.

Today isn’t the turn of the 20th century, of course. Back then, postcards were the television of their day. Nearly every parlor had an album of them. Now, we don’t just have television, we have mobile telephones that can take snapshots, movies that take us into outer space and computers that present us with virtual worlds.

Yet there is a romance to postcards, the nostalgic pull of owning something from our past. In these old bits of cardboard you can find romance, humor and pathos.

Getting started

If you don’t already own some old postcards, then you can try to get started by visiting antique shops. Stamp shows are also a good place to find dealers.

Here are some facts about the cards’ history and value that any buyer should know.

  • The first postcards, printed in 1869 and called ‘postal cards,’ had no pictures at all. One side was clear for the message, the other side (the back) was for the address. Postcards with pictures came later and were called ‘picture post cards’ or ‘view cards.’
  • The backs of the first postal cards were undivided (and so are rarer than those with divided backs). When pictures were added, the back remained undivided, and was reserved for the address. Messages, if any, had to be written on the face of the card, over and around the pictures. Later, someone got the bright idea of dividing the back of the cards, half for the address and half for the message. With this in mind, a collector can get a rough idea of the age of a card simply by looking at its back.
  • If a card is canceled, a clear cancellation is rarer than an indistinct one.
  • Before 1920, a letter or card was stamped at the point of departure and the point of arrival. Between these two points, other hand stamps could be added. The more hand stamps a postcard has, the rarer it is.
  • If a card traveled by boat, or was canceled on a boat, it received a special stamp: PAQUETBOT. A card bearing this hand stamp is much rarer than cards without it.
  • If a card needed extra postage at its point of destination, it was hand stamped ‘postage due’ and should have received a postage due stamp paid by the person receiving the card. Cards with these stamps are also rare.
  • The condition of a card itself is a major factor of rarity. Many of these cards were issued more than a century ago. Those that have come through time and tribulation without wrinkles or wear and tear are rare.

Book ’em

Once you’ve got a collection started, pick up an album to house them; most stamp dealers also sell albums. You can write information about a postcard – such as why you chose the card, or where you were at the time – on a separate card and slip it into the sleeve opposite it or below it. This background information will make your collection even more fun to look through.

For example, I have a postcard from Shanghai, China, bearing the date ’18-9-1939.’ It was to go ‘via Siberia’ to Vienna, Austria. I wondered what the exact situation in China and Europe was at that time. A little investigation revealed that on this date, Japan had already occupied northern China, and Germany had occupied Poland. I typed this on a card and placed it in a sleeve opposite the postcard.

Probe an interest

A neighbor of mine, who is in her 50s, is starting a postcard collection focused on San Diego. She grew up there, and recently her grandson was born in the city. She says she’s doing it because she wants to have a record of her heritage for her grandson … but she admits she’s having fun looking for the cards, too.

Create a display

If you prefer not to tuck your postcards away in albums, you can create a handsome wall display by mounting them in groups on a single framed mounting board or several hung together.

Treat the postcards as you would precious photographs. Keep them in place by tucking their corners into the mounting board – use no glue. This way, you preserve the cards, including any postage and writing on the backs of them.

Published on Apr 1, 2008