Calling all Deltiologists

Harlow’s Wooden Man postcard, printed 1908-09. (Courtesy photo)

Deltiology is the official term for collecting (and studying) postcards. Deltion is a Greek word for a small writing tablet while -logy, adapted from the Ancient Greek ending -logia, is used as a suffix in the English language to indicate the study of a certain subject. Considered to be the third largest hobby after collecting stamps and money, postcard collecting is a low-key, inexpensive pastime that ultimately doesn’t take up a lot of space to display.

By definition, a postcard is a piece of thick paper or thin cardboard, typically rectangular, intended for writing and mailing without an envelope. The United States Postal Service defines a postcard as: rectangular, at least 3.5 inches high by 5 inches long and .007 inch thick and no more than 4.25 inches high by 6 inches long and .016 inch thick.

Some collectors, particularly stamp collectors, distinguish between postcards (which require a postage stamp) and postal cards (which have the postage pre-printed on them). While a postcard is usually printed and sold by a private company, individual or organization, a postal card is issued by the relevant postal authority.

Postcards slowly evolved along with the development of the postal service. The first recognizable attempt was in 1777 when a French engraver, Demaison, published a sheet of cards with greetings on them. The cards were meant to be cut apart and mailed, but people were reportedly so wary of servants reading their messages that the idea was not well received.

In 1865, the Prussian Heinrich von Stephan suggested the introduction of a rigid card with pre-printed postage which could be written on and mailed without the need for an envelope. The goal was to simplify the etiquette of the letter format, but also to reduce the work, paper and costs involved in the sending of a short message. Again, the idea was not well received: the German post office feared the complexity and cost of implementing the scheme, with each state issuing their own stamps.

It was the Austrian government that issued the first postal card in October 1869. Four years later, in May 1873 the United States Post Office Department issued America’s first postal card. The government issued cards cost one-cent to mail, while private postcards required a two-cent postage. Writings were not permitted by law on the address side of any postcard, so many early postcards have messages written across their fronts (the picture side of the postcard).

Postcards continued developing over the years. In the early years, cards were mainly used to mail commercial ads and information. In the 1880s, many postcards were printed with small sketches or designs (called vignettes) on the message side, initially just in black, but increasingly also in color.

Privately printed souvenir cards became very popular as a result of the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, after postcards featuring buildings were distributed at the fair. In May 1898 postage for privately printed postcards was set at the same one-cent rate as the USPOD penny postal cards.

An article in The Standard (a British newspaper) from August 21, 1899, read: “The illustrated postcard craze, like the influenza, has spread to these islands from the Continent, where it has been raging with considerable severity.” It was cheap and convenient to send them, and with multiple daily pickups and deliveries (up to 12 times per day in large cities!), postcards were effectively the text messages of their time.

In December 1901, privately printed cards were allowed to use the words “Post Card” on the undivided back. Then postcards with a divided back were finally permitted in March 1907. This allowed an image on one side, with the back divided between the writing and the address.

This period is known as the Golden Age of postcards. Demand for postcards increased, government restrictions on production loosened, and technological advances (in photography, printing, and mass production) made the boom possible. At a time when the U.S. population was less than 89 million people over 677 million postcards were mailed in the country during the fiscal year ending June 30, 1908.

During World War I, most postcards were printed with a white border to reduce the image size and save on ink costs. Following the war, changing technology enabled publishers to print cards on textured linen paper. They were cheaper to produce and allowed the use of bright dyes, proving extremely popular with roadside establishments seeking cheap advertising.

In late 2020, a collection of 18 colorized postcards of Marquette were donated to the Marquette Regional History Center. Several of the images were familiar but the story was new. The donor’s grandfather, William Ironside Sr., worked for the Detroit Publishing Company. He walked and hitchhiked around the country with a glass plate camera, coming to Marquette at least once.

These images are from 1902-1918. When William got married in 1912, he set down roots and became an engraver for the company until it went out of business in 1924. These postcards were collected by his daughter Vera, who is thought to be one of the few people who collected a complete set of the Detroit Publishing Co.’s postcards.

The Detroit Publishing Company got its start in 1895 using the Swiss photochrome process. With this propriety process, they were able to mass produce images in color, becoming one of the world’s major publishers of photographic images. The Library of Congress holds over 25,000 glass plate negatives from the company, including 50+ images of Marquette.

The Marquette Regional History Center is hosting a Postcard Show from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, May 4. This is a chance for deltiologists to display their collections and for the public to enjoy the keenness of antique postcard enthusiasts. Exhibitors, please register your (free) table at the museum by April 26. $5 suggested donation for those attending the show.


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