A little history

In the beginning, there were no postcards. Only letters.

Then, at the 1865 Austro-German Postal Conference in Karlsruhe, Germany, Dr. Heinrich von Stephen put forward the idea of an open post sheet made of stiff paper or thin card, which could be used as a cheap form of written communication. Dr von Stephen’s idea was not adopted.

However, Dr. Emmanual Hermann of Vienna, a professor of economics, revived the idea of producing printed postcards in January 1869 and, on 1 October that year, the Austrian Post Office issued the world’s first postcard. As originally planned, the first cards were official – issued by the Post Office. Dr George C. Williamson of Guildford wrote in 1924 of the postcard’s first popular reception when issued to German troops in the Franco-German War of 1870. 

The special rate for inland postcards introduced on 1st October 1870 should not be confused with printed paper rate, which was cheaper. Some postcards are marked Drucksache or Imprime to obtain the reduced rate. If more than five words of greeting or message were written on the card, it incurred the letter rate and was charged the extra to be collected as a due. The postcard was a great popular success and about 2¼ million were sold in the first three months.

Other postal authorities in Europe followed the Austro-German example. On 26 May 1870, the British Postmaster-General recommended the production of Correspondence Cards and, on 1 October 1870, the first official postcards in Britain were issued by the Post Office. The card Bavaria brought out to celebrate the Nuremberg Exhibition of 1882 was the first illustrated official card.

The first such postcards in France appeared on 15 January 1873 under the law of 20 December 1872. This followed successful airlifting by balloon of cards by way of evasion of the 1870 siege of Paris during the Franco-German War. The cards Léon Besnardeau sold to troops during that war are often hailed as the first picture postcards.

MR. HOZIER (Lanarkshire, S.) I beg to ask the Postmaster General whether, as there seems to be a misunderstanding on the subject, he will definitely state whether ordinary correspondence cards with a halfpenny stamp affixed can be used instead of official postcards?

MR. RAIKES My answer to the question of the hon. Member must be in the negative. No cards but postcards can bear communications of the nature of a letter without becoming liable to letter postage.

Hansard Tuesday 29 July 1890 Volume 347 Column 1169

You enter the railway station, and everybody on the platform has a pencil in one hand and a postcard in the other. In the train it is the same thing. Your fellow travellers never speak. They have little piles of picture postcards on the seat beside them, and they write monotonously.

George R Sims (1847 to 1922) writing in The Picture Postcard Magazine in September 1905 about a trip to Germany quoted by Richard Carline in Pictures in the Post The Story of the Picture Postcard (Gordon Fraser 1959) at page 40.

The early British postcards were printed by De La Rue and incorporated a printed stamp. The officially-produced post card carried a pre-paid stamp to the value of ½d, a new postal rate for open correspondence. The postal rate for letters in a sealed envelope remained at one penny. At half the standard postal rate, the post card was immediately popular and 675,000 were sold on the first day of issue. 76 million passed through British post offices in the first year.

The earliest UK cards were very small, at most 4¾ by 3½ inches. This was called the court size. “POST CARD THE ADDRESS ONLY TO BE WRITTEN ON THIS SIDE” appears on the reverse side without a picture. Written messages were restricted to the front side, with the entire back dedicated to the address. This undivided back is what gives this postcard era its name.

A copyright on a private postal card was issued to John P Charlton of Phildephia as early as 1861 before being transferred to his fellow townsman H L Lipman. His plain cards, decorated with a slight border pattern and labelled “Lipman’s postal card, patent applied for”, were on sale until the US government cards replaced them in 1873.

In his Report for the year to 30 June 1884, the US Postmaster-General recorded that 362,876,750 postal cards had been issued with a value of $3,629,640. In his estimates for the year ending June 1886, the Third Assistant Postmaster-General (who had responsibility for such matters) sought a budget of $239,000 for the manufacture of 439,080,867, anticipating increases of ten percent a year. By this time, the Post Office had a Postal-Card Agency and budgeted $7,300 to pay the agent and his assistants to distribute cards.

Pictorial cards came in across Europe, though the history is clouded by definitions since advertising material predated pictures as such. This card of Potsdam was postally used in June 1889. In 1893 Charles W Goldsmith seized the opportunity to produce a novelty set of official postcards, of the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago showing the pavilions and other interesting sections of the exhibition in colour. These were the first commercially produced pictorial postcards to be printed as a souvenir in the United States, and they proved to be a sensational hit. George Stewart (qv) of Edinburgh published the first pictorial cards in Britain in 1894.

Guiness World Records say: The oldest picture postcard in the world is a postcard sent by Theodore Hook Esq. from Fulham, London, UK to himself in 1840. The illustration shows a coloured caricature of Post Office scribes seated around an enormous inkwell. The postcard may also be the most expensive, selling in March 2002 for £31,750 to collector Eugene Gomberg, of Riga, Latvia, in a telephone bid at the London Stamp Exchange auction. It is the only postcard to have a Penny Black stamp. Before this postcard was discovered it was thought that postcards originated in Austria, Germany or the USA in the 1860s.

This card was posted on 12 May 1889 to Vacoas in Mauritius where it passed though the post ofice on 2 June. Marked via Marseille, it passed through the foreign desk in Paris on 14 May.

Culturally, the postcard owes its pictorial history to the history of popular prints widely sold for many years in many countries. In this context one should not lose sight of chapbooks, a type of printed street literature popular from early modern Europe. Chapbooks covered a range of subjects from fairy tales and ghost stories to news of politics, crime or disaster, the latter at least taken over to some extent by postcards. Chapbooks were often illustrated with crude woodcuts, which sometimes bore no relation to the text (much like today’s stock photos), and were often read aloud to an audience. When illustrations were included in chapbooks, they were considered popular prints. Clearly, however, the element of mass communication was the key novelty of the postcard

Sources: The Origins of the Official Post Card; Pictures in the Post The Story of the Picture Postcard Richard Carline (Gordon Fraser 1959); history of Postcards Composite Colour

Quite often in the Directory, I refer to the divided-back era. The following chronology charts the change to allow a message to share the address side in the manner that still exist today. Between 1902 and 1907 various countries permitted divided backs. The words in quotations are taken from actual cards.

Divided Back Chronology


The standard size of postal cards was established as 3½” by 5½” other than UK which retained the court size 3½” by 4¾” until 1899.


UK permitted private cards; George Stewart (qv) in Edinburgh published the UK’s first pictorial cards.


US Congress passed the Private Mailing Card Act, allowing private publishers and printers to produce postcards.


Postcards were a worldwide phenomenon. Switzerland led the way with 22 million annually in circulation – the highest proportion per person. Next were Belgium (12 million), the Netherlands (12 million), Germany (88 million), Austria-Hungary (31 million), Italy (27 million), UK (14 million), Turkey (2 million), Spain 4 million and finally France, which only had 0.2 cards per the head which was, nevertheless, 8 million a year.

More information on Spain: Colección de fotografía antigua


In 1899 UK Post Office Regulations appear to have changed so as to allow divided backs. However, this seems only to have been recognised from January 1902. Other countries followed suit and in 1907 the Universal Postal Union allowed divided backs in all member countries. The “divided back” card, with space for a message on the address side, came into use with Frederick Hartmann (qv) leading the charge. The back is divided into two sections, the left section being used for the message and the right for the address.

  • January: UK

“Write here for Inland Postage only”



Anthony Byatt (Picture Postcards and their Publishers 1978 Golden Age Postcard Books pages 20 & 21) casts doubt on when in fact publishers actually first issued such cards. Divided-back cards postally used in 1902 are certainly a rarity; the 2023 edition of the Picture Postcard Annual records the earliest posting of one on 26 August (a J Welch (qv) card)


  • December 1: France, Algeria, Tunisia

“This space may be used for communication in the British Isles or to France at Postcard rate.”

“A utiliser seulement dans le service interieur. (France, Algerie, Tunisie.)”


“For Inland Postage, U.S. France, Switzerland, Great Britain, Italy this space may be used for communication.”

“Utiliser seulement dans le service interieur et en France et Italie” (Swiss card postally used in 1906)

This Card: Nunraw is an estate in East Lothian, Scotland. The current baronial mansion at Nunraw was built in 1860 in a castellated deep red sandstone. In the early 1880s the house was bought by Walter Wingate-Grey who was born in 1856 and spent most of his life there. He installed much oak panelling, and also made the painted room into a chapel. Wingate Gray married his first wife in 1888 and became a much respected member of the East Lothian society. He was a loyal Free Church member, and no doubt partly the reason why the Free Church congregation was just able to sustain a minister. He repaired the old weavers’ building on his land just below the Papana Bridge and handed it over as a Sunday School room. He and his daughter taught the children there over many years. This card would have been published about 1903 and sent to her on a trip to Canada. After the death of his first wife in a riding accident Wingate-Grey married again in 1926. A nephew of his second wife recalled visiting his aunt as a small boy in the 1920s. He remembered having to dress for dinner in his kilt and black jacket, and then being sent off to bed with a guttering candle up the dark stairs and corridors, lined with suits of armour and Crusaders’ weapons. There was a nine-hole golf course around the house. On Sundays they all went to church in the chauffeur-driven Landaulette with monograms on the doors, but the Laird’s pew was in the United Free Church. When he died in 1931 Wingate-Grey was buried in Nunraw’s small private cemetery on the left, part way up the hill by the main entrance where he had raised a memorial to his first wife.



“This space may be used for Commonwealth* and New Zealand Correspondence only.”

* Commonwealth of Australia (Constitution of Australia 9 July 1900).

  • Hungary
  • Germany
  • Norway: March
  • Sweden: 1 April. 43 million postcards were sent in Sweden in 1903-04.
  • Denmark: 1 June

“THIS SPACE MAY BE USED FOR CORRESPONDANCE IN Britain, The Colonies and British Possessions: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Egypt, France, Germany, Holland, Hungary, Italy, Luxemburg, Mexico, Norway, Portugal, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland & Tunis”

1905 card published by William Ritchie & Son


“This half for correspondence inland and to the chief Foreign Countries except Greece, Japan, Servia, Turkey”

“This space may now be used for Communication to all countries except United States, Spain and Japan”

“This space may be used for communication in N.Z. or the British Empire.”


“This half for correspondence Inland and to the chief Foreign Countries except Japan”

“This space may be used for Correspondence after March 1, 1907.”

Ebay seller spinach-eater has identified the following US postcard eras:

  • Government Postal Card
  • Pioneer (1893-1898)
  • Private Mailing Card (typically 1898-1901)
  • Undivided Back (1901-1907)
  • Divided Back (1907-1915)
  • White Border (1915-1930)
  • Linen (1930-1945)
  • Chrome (1939-Present day)

During the undivided-back era M Rieder of Los Angeles created a space to the left of the address with the wording:

“In space below may be written sender’s name and address (No other writing)”

while Paul C. Koeber Co of New York went one further:

“In space below may be written sender’s name and address (No other writing and communications after March 1st, 1907.)

This card: The number on this card may have historical significance; In March 1885, Métis and Native grievances led to insurrection in Northwest Canada led by Louis Riel. In the 15 years following the creation of Manitoba, most of the Métis people moved into the Northwest, settling in present-day Saskatchewan. Ottawa had denied the mainly French-speaking Métis land tenure and political rights, while the Cree and Assiniboine peoples suffered as a result of unfulfilled treaty obligations. Under the leadership of Louis Riel, who in 1884 returned from exile in the United States, the Métis and some of their Native allies took up arms. Ottawa responded by rushing 8000 regular and militia troops – mainly by rail. After several inconclusive engagements, this force defeated Riel at Batoche on the South Saskatchewan River in May 1885. Over 100 people died during the crisis. Riel was hanged for treason, an act which severely damaged linguistic relations in Canada. Riel’s execution, following a trial of questionable validity, remains highly controversial to this day.

Source: Canadian War Museum

Hervé Gournay offers the following classifications in France:

  • Les pionnières : avant 1903
  • L’âge d’or : 1903/1914
  • Les cartes semi-modernes : 1914/1975
  • Les cartes modernes et contemporaines : à partir de 1975

Source: Hertfordshire Post Card History;