Have fun collecting vintage postcards and create an investment for yourself that you will enjoy looking at for years.
Deltiology is the official term for collecting (and studying) postcards. The third largest hobby after collecting stamps and money, collecting vintage postcards can be a very rewarding pastime that can be as broad or as narrow as you’d like, and can be undertaken absolutely anywhere in the world. Even Queen Victoria is thought to have had her own postcard collection, so it’s certainly a hobby that has both pedigree and time behind it.
If you’re keen to do something with the postcards you’ve got stashed at home or you’re wondering whether or not to indulge in buying them every time you’re traveling or sightseeing, perhaps deltiology will open up a new world of collecting for you.
A few things you might want to do to start collecting Vintage Postcards
Decide how you will approach collecting postcards. The breadth of postcards is so wide that it’s probably a good idea to develop your focus early on to avoid having box loads of unsorted postcards and not knowing what to do with them all. Postcards can be collected in many ways but some of the most common approaches are as follows:
- Postcards by a particular artist.
- Postcards from a particular location or country.
- Postcards dating from a particular time.
- Postcards with a particular theme such as a specific animal like a cat or wildlife, structures such as tall buildings or bridges, natural wonders such as waterfalls or canyons, household items such as teapots, artwork from museum collections, transport such as trains, trams or planes, beach scenes, Valentine’s Day, Christmas, Star Trek, etc. (the possibilities are endless).
- Postcards that are humorous, cheeky (risque) or have cartoons on them.
If you have a particular interest, consider collecting Vintage Postcards related to that interest. For example, if you love horses, then postcards of horses will always appeal to you. All sorts of interests like ballet, rugby, board games, aircraft spotting, museums, dinosaurs, weapons, food, alcohol, etc., are likely to be found on postcards in one way of another. This can add a very interesting dimension to postcard collecting that will bolster your love of your other interest in a unique way.
- Some people only collect vintage postcards when they travel. Given the great photos that professional photographers can take of a place you’re visiting, it can be a good way to ensure that you have at least one really good photo of the place you’ve visited! It’s also helpful to get postcards that depict different seasons or weather than what you’re experiencing on your visit.
Know the general postcard eras. While it’s incredibly hard to date many postcards because anyone can print them anywhere and that’s precisely how it’s always been, there are some factors that can help you determine the era of postcards:
- 1898-1919 is known as the “Golden Age of Postcards”, when picture postcards were most popular
- 1901-1906 – undivided backs on picture postcards
- 1907-1915 – divided backs on picture postcards (in the U.S.A.; most other countries had divided backs a few years earlier, e.g. Canada from 1903)
- 1915-1930 – white border postcards were common
- 1930-1950 – linen collectible postcards
- Post 1940 postcards were produced as modern chromes, namely color photographs instead of the photo-chromes generated from black and white photos in earlier postcards – early chromes date from the 1940s to the 1960s.
- Given that postcards are usually sent within a few years of production, the postmark can be an indicator. Then again, everyone has seen very dusty old postcards that haven’t sold for years in some stores, and there is nothing to stop anyone from posting a very old postcard 50 to 100 years later if they feel like it, so the postmark isn’t always a good indicator!
- If the postcard presents a city, street or other view that can be matched to photos of a certain time, that can help to date the postcard.
Learn the collector’s terminology and focus. Once you start getting quite serious about collecting postcards, you’ll learn that there are quite a few things to take into account when collecting them. As a beginner aiming to have fun with your hobby, simply be aware of these initially and over time, you may want to direct your attention more to the collectible indicators to ensure that you have a postcard collection of the highest quality should you wish to show it at a special event or sell it for good value. Things of importance when collecting any paper collectible such as postcards include condition, age, anything interesting about the postcard such as its age, the artist/photographer, the image, sometimes the printer, and the postcard’s rarity. Other things that might be notable include the author of the writing on it, the content of the writing, the address, the stamp/postmark, and any other elements such as the post office marking the postcard as “prohibited/censored” due to censorship or war, etc. Any one of these elements alone could cause a particular postcard to be very special and any of these elements could also form the basis of your collection. For example, you might want to collect postcards by famous people or by women from a certain era or that have never been posted and are in perfect condition. In terms of condition, postcards are rated as follows (the first three ratings being for serious vintage postcard collectors):
- Mint: This means that the vintage postcard appears as it would have fresh off the printing press. There cannot be any writing, postage marks, creases, bends, etc. on the postcard for it to be in mint condition. They should be stored in acid-free, archival covers and kept safe from being bent.
- Near mint: This is almost like mint except for a very minor flaw such as a little yellowing at the edge. There cannot be much of a flaw though or it starts to fall down the list. Again, this should be stored in acid-free, archival covers to protect it for the long term.
- Excellent: This is a vintage postcard that is in excellent condition, so no tears or wear. It can be postmarked or written on, provided the postcard itself is still in perfect shape. As above, keep this in acid-free, archival covers.
- Very good: This postcard is often mailed, postmarked and written upon but it has very few signs of wear and is definitely one to be proud of in a collection.
- Good: By this stage, the postcard has lived a little and shows signs of its journey. There may be bent corners, a fold, creases, faded colors, etc. This one is unlikely to be worth much unless it’s particularly unusual, rare or was written by something famous.
- Fair to poor: The rest of the postcards in their grimy, beaten up, bent, crushed, creased and other states. The reason you keep them? Mostly because they’re sentimental, because they complete a set, because you like them anyway, and so forth. Just don’t expect to make a fortune from them any day soon! Even so, a rare card or a card with great content can be worth a considerable amount even if damaged and in some cases certain forms of wear may even add to the aesthetic appeal of a card (the moral is go with what you like without worrying that it isn’t expensive).
Spend some time researching the values of vintage postcards. It’s a good use of time to browse through postcards for sale on auction sites such as eBay. Doing this will give you an idea of what’s available as well as giving you an idea of the prices the postcards are worth and what you can expect to pay for them. However, at this stage don’t get hung up on high values or you won’t develop your own style and taste. Instead, focus on buying what you like for now and developing your own theme. Once you feel more confident that this is the hobby of choice for you and that you want to spend more money on it, then you can get serious about spending more money on particular types of postcards. Until then, just enjoy the thrill of adding to your collection for very low prices!
Understand the difference between a “real photo” postcard and a regular postcard. Real photo postcards were popular in the Golden Age (less so later). They are usually black and white and look like photographs, because that’s what they are. Unlike the majority of early postcards, which were lithographed (sometimes called “lithos” for short), “real photo” cards were photographs developed directly onto special postcard backs. Lithographed cards, by contrast, were usually made from photographs but they were mechanically printed in printing presses. You can tell the difference by looking closely at the image: if it is a lithograph card the image will be composed of tiny dots (like a photograph in a newspaper) while the ink in a real photograph will be continuous. Real photo cards were usually produced in very small quantities, because they had to be developed in a darkroom, one by one. Often they were family photos or photos of local events produced by a local photographer for immediate sale. On average, a real photo postcard will sell for more than a lithographed postcard — typically 5 to 10 times more. So, when you see one box of views of your town selling for $1-$5 and another box selling for $10-$50, chances are that the reason for the difference is that the first box contains lithographs and the second contains real photos.
Find postcards. The places for finding postcards are many and varied but the sources will be determined by how you have narrowed down your collection criteria. For example, if you’re not fussed about the age, quality or provenance of the postcard, you’ll find postcards literally everywhere you go from newspaper stands on the street to your grandma’s attic. It gets more complicated the more you narrow down your interests and the more you seek older, vintage postcards but there are still many avenues for finding them even then. In particular, the places you’re likely to find postcards include:
- Stores that sell magazines, newspapers, stationery, candies, etc. will often carry modern, current postcards. These will usually be souvenir postcards aimed at tourists but you never know what you mind find, so be sure to look wherever you are.
- Check out truck stops, gas stations, department stores, souvenir stores, motel lobbies, anywhere that is heavily visited by tourists. Any place associated with tourists, travelers, traveling etc. will probably have current, modern postcards.
- Many museums, art galleries, zoos, national parks, theme parks, science centers, aquariums, space observatories, and other display, learning and entertainment areas often carry modern, current postcards.
- Look online for a very wide variety of postcards both new and old to vintage. Auction sites, vintage sites and postcard seller sites will provide you with a wide array of choices.
- Visit a postcard trade show. Here you’ll find nothing but postcards!
- Visit vintage stores, flea markets, garage and yard sales, secondhand bookstores and other similar stores for older postcards. Auction houses may also sell postcards, and if you’re after someone’s existing collection, an auction house or an art or vintage collectibles auction are good places to start.
- Ask family members for old, unwanted postcards and go through boxes of stored papers in the attic to see if anyone has stored any over the years that have been sent to them or that they’ve collected on trips away.
- Ask anyone you know who travels or is going on vacation to send you home at least one postcard. This can be a lovely way to treasure their words as well as the postcard.
- For a beginner collector, bulk lot purchases of postcards can be a lot of fun. You never know what you might get in such a mix but it’ll be fun rummaging through it and it might spark more creative ideas for how to put together your postcard collection.
Know what to check for when buying postcards. It’s easier to check the condition of a postcard in a store than online and yet it’s likely that many of your cards will be internet purchases. In this case, be sure to seek as thorough a photo as possible of the card’s condition before buying. If you can’t see all of the condition or the description is very poor, either don’t purchase it or only purchase it if it’s exceptionally cheap. Some of the things to be aware of when purchasing cards include:
- Cleanliness of the card: This is not about whether or not it has been written on. It’s about the splotches, marks, grime and grease that builds up on old paper items over time. Look for postcards that are clean and free of age or grime marks where possible. It won’t always be possible but it’s worth aiming high where you can.
- Edges: Try to find postcards that have even and unbent edges and haven’t been torn or dog eared.
- Content: It’s always preferable if you can actually read what has been written on the postcard if it has writing. That makes it a lot more enjoyable and gives a sense of history behind the postcard.
- Markings: Mostly this is about the postmark. The more legible, the better and if it has a date and location that can be read, a lot can be learned about the postcard.
- Avoid: Things to avoid include moldy postcards (they will never become un-moldy), really badly battered about unless there is a sentimental or content reason for getting the postcard, foxing (spots and age marks) and grease marks (these detract from the overall look), stains such as blood, grime or water, too many folds or creases, tears, etc. If it looks tattered, the only reason to get it is because it’s rare, what is written on it is worth keeping or you’ve fallen in love with it (but not if it’s moldy).
Display and store the postcards. The manner in which you keep the postcards is important for safeguarding their quality over the coming years. For the really old and the valuable postcards, store in archival, acid-free covers available from hobby stores, stamp and postcard retailers and online. These will keep dust, grime and stains off the postcards and the paper will be safe from acidity. Keep the cards stored flat and in a place where they cannot be crushed, bent or warped. Ensure that the environment is dry and cool and not humid and that there is no possibility of insect damage. If you have children (and/or pets), store the postcards out of reach, at least until the children are old enough to know how to handle them properly. Most of all, try to find a way that makes it easy to see and enjoy your postcard collection as often as you like. Some ideas include:
- Scrapbooks are ideal for creating themed collections and can be the perfect vehicle for protecting, displaying and explaining your postcard collection. Indeed, people have kept postcards in albums since Victorian times, so this will be carrying on a fine old tradition.
- Another great way to keep a record of your postcard collection is to take digital images and post them into an online collection for all to see. It will help you to keep track of the postcards and many other people can enjoy your collection too!
Keep learning more about collecting vintage postcards. This article has been intended to aid the beginning hobbyist or sentimental collector to get started on honing choices, organizing the collection and learning the basics. More in-depth knowledge should be pursued through talking to other collectors and reading widely in the field of deltiology and about collecting in general.
Vintage postcards tips
- Consider choosing postcards that depict how your local area, city or town has changed over the past 100 years or so. These postcards can be both nostalgic and historically informative. They also make great conversation pieces to pull out when you’re hosting a dinner party; people love seeing how their own area has changed over time.
- There are many local postcard clubs. Consider joining one. Because postcard collectors tend to be collecting different types of cards, postcard collecting is a particularly friendly and non-competitive hobby. Once other collectors know your interests, they’ll be on the lookout for cards for you.
- Many people have postcards stashed somewhere; have a good look through your things when getting started!
- Literally billions of postcards were produced and mailed during the Golden Age, including millions of distinct types. Because of this, even an experienced postcard dealer will not always recognize the value of certain cards. If you know an area well (whether a geographical area or a topic represented on postcards), you will often be able to find cards that are undervalued. This distinguishes postcard collecting from other forms of collecting — e.g. stamps or sports cards — in which virtually all existing examples are known, catalogued and priced.
- If you are interested in receiving postcards through the mail (one way to begin your collection), try postcrossing.com. Starting an account is a free and you can send and receive postcards from around the world.
- Long sets that show an entire scene as it unfolds, such as a street theme, a circus or a carnival can be worth a lot of money in good condition.
- Popular postcard artists include Beaulieu, F Earle Christie, D McGill and Lucy Atwell. The names will vary depending on which culture you’re deriving the postcards from and which era you’re focusing on but it never hurts to start with artists or photographers that grab your interest most.
- Santa Claus and Halloween are popular holiday card collectibles. Due to the high numbers of other holiday cards though, few of the holiday themes are very valuable. Still, they make for great sentimental keeping.
Sources and Citations