This research project is based on a selection of early twentieth-century postcards showing various sites located in Burlington, Vermont. The source of these postcards is the University of Vermont Library Special Collections.
These students were: Barbara Bosworth, Courtney Doyle, Samantha Ford, Jessica Goerold, Daniel Leckie, Kate Lepore, Suzanne Mantegna, and Elissa Portman. Prof. Thomas Visser, director of the University of Vermont Historic Preservation Program, was the course instructor, author of this page, and editor of this website. The assistance provided by the librarians at the UVM Library Special Collections is gratefully acknowledged.
At the start of this project, each student selected a geographical area of the city of Burlington, Vermont and searched through the UVM library's extensive collection for early 20th-century picture postcards that showed sites in the area. Each student then selected about a dozen postcards for research that were published between around 1900 and 1922, based on the type of cards, postmark dates, and other evidence.
Here is a short summary of the history of the types of postcards from this period.
The earliest type included in this project is the private mailing card. Since the 1870s, treaty agreements allowed postal cards to be sent internationally. In the United States such government-issued postal cards could be sent for a penny, but private postal cards could only then be sent at the same postage rates as letters. An 1898 act of the U.S. Congress allowed private mailing cards to be sent for a reduced postage rate of one cent, but only with an address written on one side along with the printed words: “Private Mailing Card. Authorized by act of Congress May 19, 1898.” (See below.) The other side of the private mailing card was typically printed with an image and a space for a personal message.(1)
In 1901, the U. S. Post Office issued Order No. 1447 that reduced the required printed wording to just "post card" above the address.(2) Messages were still not allowed on the side with the address however, so picture postcards continued to be produced with small blank areas for personal notes next to the images. An example of a colored post card of this type copyrighted in 1902 is below at the left. Another example from this period printed as a black-and-white halftone that was mailed in 1907 is below at the right.
A third type of postcard, introduced in the late 1890s, is known as a real photo postcard (RPPC). Rather than being lithographed, these have highly detailed photographic images that were exposed directly onto photo-sensitive gelatin-print postcard stock. By 1903, the Eastman Kodak Company of Rochester, New York, offered a moderately-priced, folding box camera that used postcard-sized negatives which could be easily contact-printed on photo-sensitive, gelatin-print postcard stock. Kodak even offered a processing and printing service for real photo postcards between 1906 and 1909.(3) An example of a real photo postcard postmarked in 1908 is shown below.
The most popular type of gelatin-print real photo postcard stock from the early twentieth century America bears the AZO trade name. AZO RPPC stock produced between 1904 and 1918 can be identified the four up-pointing triangles at corners of the "place stamp here" rectangle on the backs. AZO RPPC stock from other periods have other symbols, such as squares or diamonds.(4) An example of a divided-back AZO real photo postcard manufactured between 1904 and 1918 is shown below.
Already in full swing elsewhere in the world, the postcard craze swept across America during the first decade of the twentieth century. But postcards were not only being used for routine correspondence, they also were being collected as souvenirs and offered as gifts. In September 1907, the Burlington Free Press reported a Vermont woman was "remembered by her relatives with a souvenir postcard shower receiving over 100 cards on her 78th birthday." Another Vermonter received over 140 cards on his 82nd birthday in 1909.(5)
Although some picture postcards were printed in the United States, many of the best-selling cards from this period were printed in Germany or elsewhere in continental Europe, where advanced color lithography techniques developed for reproducing fine art prints allowed high quality colorized images to be printed completely to the edges of the cards. The example below from 1906 was printed in Germany and published by the Metropolitan News Company.
Several years after some other countries authorized divided back postcards, which allowed both addresses and messages to be written on the backs and with full images on the front, their use in the United States was granted in 1907.(6) The example below is a divided-back postcard inscribed in 1908 that was printed in Germany and published by the Hugh C. Leighton Company of Portland, Maine.
As the original black-and-photographs were colored later by printers, errors in colorization are common. Here, for example, are two versions of postcards made from the same original black-and-white negative that were colorized differently.
At the urging of American printers, the U.S. Congress imposed a steep tariff on the importation of printed postcards in 1909. In anticipation of supply restrictions, vendors and wholesalers placed large orders with foreign suppliers, which soon resulted in a glut of postcards and falling prices. During the First World War between 1914 and 1918, the importation of postcards from Germany and Austria came to a virtual halt.(7)
As the supply of imported postcards eventually dwindled, American printers tried to serve the domestic market, but with less sophisticated methods of printing color-tinted photographs, the quality of these cards rarely matched that of the imports. During the 1910s, American printers launched a new style of postcards with white borders. Although the size of the image was reduced, the white perimeter made it easier to trim the postcards to the proper size with less waste, even if printing plates were slightly misaligned. These white border postcards dominated the American market into the 1930s. The example below was postmarked June 28, 1915. Note the slight vertical misalignment of the red ink layer at the top of the left chimney.
As the twentieth century progressed, Americans' reliance on postcards for informal communication gradually faded, especially as the number of telephones increased dramatically.(8)
As many of early twentieth-century postcards were produced from photographs of local scenes, these images have left us a rich legacy that documented the character of places in remarkable detail during this period. Indeed, for anyone interested in researching the history of a community, landmark, or special place a century or so ago, historic postcard collections may provide one of the best sources of pictorial evidence.
1. "Private Mailing Cards 1898-1901," A not so Concise History
of the Evolution of Postcards in the United States, Metropolitan Postcard Club of New York City, accessed at www.metropostcard.com/card06privatemailing.html
2. Arnold R. Pilling, "Dating Early Photographs by Card Mounts and Other External Evidence: Tentative Suggestions," Image, Journal of Photography and Motion Pictures of the International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House, vol. 17, no. 1,March 1974, 14; accessed at image.eastmanhouse.org/files/GEH_1974_17_01.pdf
3. "Real Photo Postcards 1899-1930's," A not so Concise History
of the Evolution of Postcards in the United States, Metropolitan Postcard Club of New York City, accessed at www.metropostcard.com/card07realphoto.html
4. "A Guide to Real Photo Postcards," A not so Concise History
of the Evolution of Postcards in the United States, Metropolitan Postcard Club of New York City, accessed at www.metropostcard.com/guiderealphoto.html
5. Burlington Weekly Free Press, Burlington, Vt., September 26, 1907, 3; Burlington Weekly Free Press, Burlington, Vt., July 1, 1909, 4; accessed at chroniclingamerica.loc.gov.
6. "Chronology of the Picture Postcard," Smithsonian Institution, accessed at siarchives.si.edu/history/exhibits/postcard/chronology.htm
7. "Decline of the Golden Age 1907-1913," A not so Concise History of the Evolution of Postcards in the United States, Metropolitan Postcard Club of New York City, accessed at www.metropostcard.com/history1907-1913.html
8. Census of Electrical Industries: 1917 Telephones (Washington: US Gov't Printing Office, 1920), 16; accessed at books.google.com.