You might have noticed that the postcards we’re familiar with today (picture on one side, and space for the address, postage and a message on the back) are very different from the first postcard issued in 1869 by the Austrian Post.
The Correspondenz-Karte, as it was initially called, was just a brown rectangle of paper with space for the address and postage on one side, and a short message on the back. Despite the decorative border, they weren’t meant to be fun or especially pretty. Instead, their purpose was much more practical, enabling short messages to be sent cheaply through the post, a departure from letters and their formal etiquette. Their look was as concise as the messages they carried.
So, when did these lackluster pieces of cardboard begin to be adorned with images and acquired the modern format of our beloved postcards?
Well, that’s a longer story… but in a way, an almost inevitable development. From ancient papyrus to Gutenberg’s bible, decorations have been sneaked onto the pages of written materials ever since humans began to record history on paper. In the 17th and 18th centuries, printing developments brought images to the masses: commercial invoices would sometimes showcase a little miniature of a storefront, and often people carried illustrated calling cards with them. Also common were letter sets featuring elaborate illustrations both on the writing paper and on the envelopes. In 1840, the same year that the Penny Black was issued, Royal Mail launched its own decorated prepaid letter sheets.
Thus, even though the original postcards did not feature illustrations, there were plenty of other items with images on them, and so, bit by bit, they were introduced on postcards as well.
At first, images appeared on the corners of the message side of the postcard, as small vignettes often with advertisement to a hotel or restaurant. Slowly though, other images made their way onto the postcard format and by the 1880s, postcards with the Gruss Aus (greetings from) salute and a few illustrations of a town were a popular holiday souvenir in German-speaking countries.
And then, as photography and printing techniques evolved further still, photos started covering more and more space in postcards, with just a small area left for messages. Finally, in 1906, at the Sixth Postal Union Congress in Rome, the UPU declared that postcards with a divided back could be sent internationally. With no need to write the message on the front any longer, pictures were free to take over the whole space on one side of the postcard.
And this is how the modern format of the picture postcards we know and love today came to be! 😊 If you’re curious to learn more, check out the History page we’ve put together for the 150th anniversary of postcards, and stay tuned for more interesting tidbits of postal history here on the blog.
PS – Our friends at papersisters made a neat postcard to celebrate the 150th anniversary of postcards, and generously sent us a bunch to give away! So if you’d like a postcard with a greeting from the Postcrossing’s headquarters, here’s your chance: leave a comment below and let us know one cool postal fact about your country. We’ll pick 15 random commenters by this time next week to be the recipients of one of these postcards. Good luck!