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Plain postcards were used by government postal agencies in the mid-1800s. Called "postals," these postcards had the postage from each country already applied. John P. Charlton of Philadelphia invented the private postcard in 1861. The patent for this postcard was later transferred to H.L. Lipman. These postcards were used in the United States until 1873, when government postcards appeared. In other countries, picture postcards began appearing about 1869.

While private postcards produced in other countries can be much older, privately manufactured postcards were not allowed in the United States until May 19, 1898. After this date, a much larger variety of postcards appeared on the market. Writing was not allowed on the address side of postcards, so the person sending the card had to write messages across the picture on the front.

Photo postcards were first published around 1900. Writing was still required to be across the front of the card, but starting with England in 1902, countries gradually allowed postcards to have a divided back. This design put the address on one side and space for a message on the other. The United States began to allow the divided back in 1907, and after this date, postcards became enormously popular. Today, collecting vintage postcards is one of the most popular collecting hobbies in America, preceded only by the collecting of stamps and coins.

Quick Facts

  • A survey of the world's best selling art postcards listed the postcard of Claude Monet's "Bridge over a Pond of Water Lilies" from 1899 as the world's best selling art postcard
  • The hobby of postcard collecting is called "deltiology." Professor Randall Rhoades of Ashland, Ohio coined this term in 1945
  • Swiss businessman Adolf Feller acquired the world's largest collection of vintage postcards from the late 1890s until his death in 1931. The collection is now held by Swiss university ETH Zurich and includes more than 54,000 examples

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