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The History of Postcards

The Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum Library boasts more than 10,000 postcards in its “hidden” collection. Arranged by subject in card file drawers, they range in date from the turn of the century to the 1990’s. In our last post, the architecture of New York and Los Angeles was featured. In this third post, the Libraries will feature the history of postcards.



Texas Flood

Sending postcards did not appear out of thin air.  A number of innovations in the postal system in the preceding quarter of a century helped create this new postal age. One such innovation was the introduction of uniform penny postage in Great Britain in 1840 that made mail delivery easy and affordable. Previously, prices for shipping letters was based on the distance the mailman had to travel. Fees were not collected up-front from the sender, but instead a surprised recipient would find a mailman on his or her doorstep, demanding payment. Post offices had been hemorrhaging money through this system, for recipients would often refuse their mail and the postman would be sent away unpaid. In 1837 Rowland Hill proposed that letters be charged by weight, not distance, and the fee be collected in advance from the sender. This new procedure transformed the postal system.

Austria was the first country to publish the postcard, but not the first to conceive of it.  A few years earlier, German postal official Dr. Heinrich von Stephan submitted a proposal for such an object, which was fiercely debated and not executed in North Germany until July 1870, a year after Austria introduced the card to their country. Within two years, the postcard had quickly spread across Europe. The United States did not introduce officially issued postcards until 1873, two years after Canada and three years after most European countries, but unlike these countries, stamped cards had been allowed in American mail since 1861. In 1875, delegates of 22 countries met in Switzerland as the General Postal Union and established a standard postage rate and government issued card to be exchanged between countries in the union; four years later they renamed themselves the Universal Postal Union.

Printing technology quickly advanced in nineteenth century Germany and Parisian publishers experimented with special edition postcard sets by the most eminent artists of the time. In Great Britain, artistic innovations in postcard design were slowed by the British postal authorities’ ban on larger-dimensioned cards, whose measurements were standard in most European countries in the Universal Postal Union.

Postcards were a way to send friends and family a snapshot of one’s
travels and surroundings, even photographs of one’s home. A sizable
portion of the Cooper-Hewitt Library's collection depicts scenes from British and French
colonies, including scenes from Morocco, Egypt, and India. Women in
many of these cards cover their faces with a burqa or veil. These
cards may be valuable for researchers interested in the iconography of
indigenous people in colonies, particularly the circulation of this
imagery in the Occident.

The collection also contains many peculiar and exotic scenes or events, including natural disasters. A series of photographic cards trace the aftermath of the 1908 Dallas flood; men in bowler hats sail past flooded electrical poles and submerged taverns in make-shift rowboats; men in suits sit atop floating train cars, waiting for help.

Stay tuned for more postcard fun…—Sara O'Keeffe


  1. Ann Murphy

    I would like to know if someone could help me with a date/location of a post card I have from the ealy 1900’s

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