Monday, April 30, 2012

Postcards From the Attic

QUESTION: My grandfather collected postcards for years. Now I have his collection. While it’s great to look at, I have no idea of where to start finding out about the hundreds of cards he collected. Can you please help me?

ANSWER: To begin, deltiology—postcard collecting—is one of the fastest growing hobbies in the world. Most people collect postcards for four reasons: (1) Nostagia. Many older collectors seek out pictures of “the good ole days” or "the way it used to be.” Younger ones seek out the places or characters from their childhood. (2) Cost. Many items have soared in price, but postcards can still be obtained for from 10-cents to $10 each. (3) Investment. Postcards that sold for 10 cents less than 10 years ago now bring $1 to $5 and more. (4) Art and printing. The art on a postcard often determined the printing process and vice versa, from the lithochromes of the 1890's to the photochromes (photo cards) of today.

There are still many millions of postcards packed away in attics. Many, neatly tucked away in albums for the last 90-100 years, are in pristine condition. When postcards sold for 1 cent to 10 cents each, not very many people thought it worthwhile to search a dusty attic for them. Today, that’s all changed.

You’ll find postcards for sale at garage sales, flea markets, antique shops, and stamp shows. The most popular ones are the “hometown views.” Many show main streets with gas lights, trolleys, horse-drawn vehicles, store signs, sidewalk sales, bustles, hoopskirts, knickers, hightop shoes, and Model-T Fords. Those who collect for nostalgic reasons love these.

Then there are those from family vacations and foreign tours. Those who travel frequently often bring back views of the places they’ve been on postcards to put into albums either in place of their own photographs or in addition to them. They could pick up free cards from motels, hotels, resorts, and restaurants and, of course, purchase many scenic view cards of popular vacation spots. In fact, the act of sending picture postcards to the folks back home began as an American pastime.

And you shouldn’t ignore the greeting postcards, sent by Victorians in the latter part of the 19th century to express holiday and birthday greetings.

Postcard collecting was a huge craze in the early 20th century, with peak years running from about 1907 to 1913. People used these cards to keep in touch with friends and family, much as people use Facebook today. Couples courted using postcards and strangers met other strangers in foreign countries. By the end of the peak period in 1913, people had sent over 968,000,000 postcards. If even a fraction of all those cards have made it into the hands of dealers, the supply would be overwhelming. In fact, because so many have come into the market, the price for most postcards remains relatively reasonable.

Most collectors seem to collected cards for their pictorial value and not as much for their condition. During the peak years, many seemed willing to pay a few cents for old cards, focusing on topics like bridges and courthouses which are of little interest today. And with over 120 different topics to choose from, it’s no wonder that the hobby has grown so much.

Many collectors refused to consider any card made after 1920. They especially liked photographic postcards for their historical significance. Mid-20th-century roadside and local views have now increased in popularity and price. And it’s become difficult to find city views from the 1940s and 1950s.

Dating used postcards is simple—just check the postmark on back. However, it can be harder to figure the date of unused ones. Early cards from before 1900 to 1918 have good detail and no border.

Those with a white border date from 1919 to 1932. Most of the cards were view cards which were often pale with low contrast. Paper stock at the time had a coated surface, resulting in a dull, flat  appearance. 

Linen texture-cards dominated the market from 1933 until the early 1950's. The majority of view cards from this era are boring and unattractive, especially those featuring scenery because the linen texture actually took away from the picture. Real photos of tourist areas were also fairly common. Photographic cards from this time are generally glossier and more contrasty than earlier ones and have titles in white letters close to the bottom of the picture.

As with postage stamps, the condition of a postcard falls into one of six categories—mint, near mint, excellent, very good, good, and fair. Cards in the last condition aren’t considered collectible unless they’re very rare.

To find out more about your cards and to maintain and grow your collection, you might want to join one of over 70 postcard clubs in the U.S. Most of these clubs issue bulletins that have valuable postcard information, stories, and pictures. Even if a club isn’t close enough to make it convenient for you to attend meetings, it’s worth joining, if only for the bulletins and membership rosters, so that you can begin trading with other members.

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