It wasn’t too long after post cards became popular, around 1900, that municipalities realized that they were a cheap and effective way of advertising their city or their various attractions. Color cards were then generally printed in Europe, usually in Germany, and were exceptionally well done. Black and white cards were also popular, and cheaper.
When World War I began, the German connection was severed and domestic printing began in earnest. The output wasn’t ever as pretty as the German lithographic product, but these domestic firms, like Curt Teich in Chicago, Kropp in Milwaukee, and Asheville Post Card Company in Asheville NC, took and kept the business (note: this is not a firm timeline, check some of the many books on post card history for detailed dating).
I look for two types of cards: the so-called penny linens and real photos.
Penny linens are the cards printed in the late teens to late 40’s. These cards have a faux linen surface texture and, while in color, are not color photographs. When photographic, they are black and white photos that have been hand colored at the factory before printing. They generally have a white border around the photo on the front and a caption indicating the subject of the photo and may have a more detailed description on the back. The backs are divided for message and address. The cards used to sell to collectors for a penny or so… now expect to pay a couple of dollars for the more common cards.
Real photo cards were produced in a black and white photo process in which the photo is printed on the post card stock itself. Since this is a more time consuming process, real photo cards tend to be rare and more expensive than the penny linens. Expect to pay in the tens of dollars for better real photo cards. (Not all black and white cards are real photos, some early issues are just black and white printed cards. Post card reference books can guide you in determining these)
I collect penny linens and real photo cards of Kingsport TN, Johnson City TN, and Bristol TN/VA.
Cards were produced for Bristol and Johnson City from early in the 1900’s. Kingsport is a younger city and its cards don’t date back much before 1917 or so.
(Important note: As in real estate, the value of view cards depends upon location. Collectible Kingsport cards sell for $5 or so here in Kingsport, but I can buy the same card for a dollar or so in, say, Connecticut)
I find these cards fascinating because they can show views of this area that you just can’t see anywhere else. It’s a small view of a world long gone. And, with real photo cards, since they’re an actual photograph, you can use a loupe to see deep into the card for details that get lost in the printing process of the penny linens.
Cards with post marks (‘postally-used’ cards) will help you date the cards and the various series of cards you’ll encounter; although, unused cards tend to be more valuable. Keep note, also, of the numbers on the cards themselves… these numbers, issue numbers from the companies, will also help you date cards that may not have post marks, by comparing them to cards with post marks. Real photo cards can also be loosely dated by the coding on the back. ‘Barr’s Post Card News’ publishes a list of these codes every issue or so.
Where do you look for cards? First, realize that there are several avid collectors in your area who hoover up everything in sight and hold on for dear life. That’s why I began to check the various card publications and to query dealers in various regions that will send out approvals (that is, they will send you cards to look at and to purchase what you wish, returning the rest to the dealer). I expected most of these cards to be postally used, but, surprisingly, I found very many in excellent, unused condition. Second, haunt local shows. I happened to drift into a sports card show here recently, spied a post card dealer, and ended up with some very nice cards at quite reasonable prices. And, third, keep an eye on Barr’s and the monthly Post Card Collector. Each features dealers’ addresses and has post card auctions, which can yield valuable cards at reasonable prices.
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Bob Lawrence is the Director of Creative Services for WKPT-TV. You can e-mail him at: firstname.lastname@example.org