Vintage postcards: The “supreme expression of art” (Louis Daguerre)

These postcards fell out of a book when I was unpacking some boxes of glassware.

They looked really valuable. I mean, how many photographic postcards of World War I could there be?

Turns out, a lot of them.

Postcards have always been collectible, since they were first produced in the late 1800s. Since most people didn’t have cameras, postcards were the only way to capture the images of the places they visited. Postcard collecting lasted all the way up to World War II, and slightly beyond.
Children’s postcards were extremely popular in the early 1900s, when they were sold in sets of six cards. Parents, grandparents – anyone who travelled, sent them to the kids to show where they were, and what they saw along the way. The children often placed them in albums, helping them to survive to this day.

The eras of postcard styles.
Postcards can be dated by their style. I’ve listed the basic characteristics here, but this website gives you much more information:

Pioneer Era (1873 – 1898): The first privately printed souvenir postcards.
Private Mailing Card Era (1898 – 1901): The back of the card was for the address only, messages had to be written on the front.
Undivided Back Era (1901 – 1907): “Post Card” begins to appear on the back, which was still for the address only. Most picture postcards have a white space at the bottom or to the side of the picture where the name of the sender and a short messages could be written.
Divided Back Era (1907 – 1914): Postcards with a divided back, allowing for writing on the address side.
White Border Era (1915 – 1930): A white border was left around the picture during the printing process to save on ink costs, and the cards were often of poorer quality than earlier cards.
Linen Era (1930 – 1944): If you look closely at these cards, you can see a weave texture in the paper. Some were printed with a white border and other were printed “full bleed.”
Photochrome Era (1945 – Present): Photochromes are reproduced through a printing process, while real photo postcards were actual photographs printed on special postcard sized photographic paper.
Postcards come in all styles and topics.

Postcard of Cape May, NJ. Photo courtesy of Treehouse Antiques, Cape May.

Postcard of Cape May, NJ. Photo courtesy of Treehouse Antiques, Cape May.

You can find illustrated postcards depicting true love. Photographs of famous (and not-so-famous) cities around the world. Postcards of animals, flowers, hotels and resorts – even animals! And some postcards have been signed by the artist, making them just a tad more valuable.

So how much are they worth?
As a rule, just a few dollars each — that’s what makes them so much fun to hunt for and collect. The value of a particular card depends on several factors:
Size: Standard sizes are worth more than the larger “continental” size.
Signed: Cards signed by certain artists command higher prices.
Cancelled postage: Some cancellations make a card worth more.
And, of course, quality matters as with any other collectible. The closer to mint condition, the higher the value.

Where can you find vintage postcards?
Naturally, they’re available online. If you’re just starting a collection, buying online could be the best way to go. The sellers often provide far more information than you’d get elsewhere — enabling you learn as you go.

You can also find them at flea markets, antique shops and shows and specialty events (e.g. military expos, auto shows, etc.). Since they’re usually piled into boxes, you need to know what you’re doing before you pay good money for them.

Vintage postcards are a great way to memorialize the people, places and things we considered important. And they’re a wonderful category to collect, as well!

Enjoy the hunt!

About sarathurston

I'm a marketing communications writer who also loves antiques and collectibles. You can find my shop on Etsy at
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