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Collection Detroit Publishing Company

Development of the Modern Postcard

By the late 1890s, the Detroit Publishing Company had accumulated a substantial stock of negatives and prints which were turned into a variety of products that competed with woodcuts and engravings for a share of the market. Contemporary advertisements were used by merchants to hawk lantern slides, calendars, prints, and family portraits suitable for framing and hanging in a parlor - new products to appeal to the consumer in an newly-industrialized America. The Detroit Publishing Company, understandably seeking to expand into new markets, offered domestic tourist views of hotels and resorts, studies of the American landscapes and frontiers (Niagara, Yellowstone, Grand Canyon), and Indians (to exhibit the "noble savage" and "vanishing race").

Between 1870 and 1898 (considered to be the "Pioneer" period of postcards) privately printed cards began appearing in Europe and the US, evolving from pictorial envelopes, advertizing, and exposition cards. The first American "postcards" were souvenir mailing cards sold at Chicago Columbian Exposition in 1893. No writing was permitted on the backs of these cards and they did not achieve widespread popularity.

The picture postcard lent itself naturally to use by publishing companies to display these scenes, often serving as personal mementoes of encounters with the grand American scenery. Over time, it also served as a photo itinerary - a souvenir directed to friends or family - as evidenced by the "Greetings from..." caption on many postcard pictures. However, privately produced postcards were not widely used since they had several drawbacks: they offered no privacy, writing was forbidden on the back (address) side (explaining why older postcards often have messages written on the face of the card), and they were subject to the 2-cent first-class letter rate, while postage for US Government postal cards was 1 cent.

Congress passed an act on May 19, 1898, which allowed private printers to publish and sell cards to be posted at the 1-cent rate and stipulated the rules for printing postcards, including the wording to be used on the back of the cards.

This act was recommended by then Postmaster-General William Wilson as a means to reduce the expense of printing and storing government-issue cards and to increase the volume of mail at a lower postage rate. Wilson observed the success of the postcard in other countries and cited specific statistical data to support his recommendation:

Post-Office Department,
Office of the Postmaster- General,
Washington, D. C., January 14, 1896.

Sir: I have the honor to inclose [the] bill submitted to me by yourself a few days ago authorizing the use of private postal cards in the mails, and to say that I approve this bill, with the limitations contained in it.

On page 32 of my annual report for the year 1895 I called attention to the great success of the experiment in Great Britain and Ireland of the use of private postal cards, and suggested their adoption in this country as possibly meeting a public need and as releiving the Department itself of some of the expense of printing, storing, and handling of the present official cards. In the last report of the postmaster-general of Great Britain and Ireland it is stated that seven months after the adoption of the private post card the number mailed increased from 248,000,000 to 312,750,000, being an increase of 26 per cent.

These cards should be issued under regulations prescribed by this Department, and should be of the same size and weight as the card issued by the Government, to facilitate their handling and transmission in the mails.

I have the honor to be, very respectfully,
Wm. L. Wilson, Postmaster-General.

Hon. E. F. Loud,
Chairman Committee on the Post-Office and Post-Roads, House of Representatives, City.

House of Representatives Report No. 296 (excerpt)
55th Congress, 2nd Session
January 29, 1898

It is possible that Congress was also pressured to pass this law by publishers, who were disadvantaged by the monopoly held by the Government Post Office on 1-cent postal cards. This is supported by the fact that the Detroit Publishing Company released is first series of private mailing cards on July 1, 1898, the day the new law went into effect. Subsequent amendments to this law were made and by 1907, postcards featured divided backs, allowing for both an address and a written message.