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Hanna Soltys, Reference Librarian, Prints & Photographs Division
Created: April 2019
Last Updated: April 2019
From travel mementos and wartime correspondence to artistic expression and collectors' albums, postcards have served a multitude of purposes for over a century. The Library's holdings of postcards can be found throughout various collections, eras, and divisions. This guide discusses those specifically within the Prints & Photographs Division and highlights some of the larger collections available. The Prints & Photographs Division's postcard holdings are very strong between the end of the 19th century through the mid-1930s. Postcards include those produced around the world and often can enrich research about a location, event, or building. Convenient for quick correspondence, postcards also functioned as greeting cards, portraits, art reproductions, jokes, and visual souvenirs. Depending on the collection, postcards may be arranged in photographic and non-photographic series, feature handwritten messages or notes, and include stamps.
Between 1870 and 1898 (considered to be the "Pioneer" period of postcards) privately printed cards began appearing in Europe and the U.S., evolving from pictorial envelopes, advertising, and exposition cards. The first American "postcards" were souvenir mailing cards sold at the Chicago Columbian Exposition in 1893. No writing was permitted on the backs of these cards and they did not achieve widespread popularity.
The U.S. 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. Subsequent amendments to this law were made and by 1907, postcards featured divided backs, allowing for both an address and a written message.