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By Colin Harding on

How to spot a postcard (1900–1950s)

In the final post in our series showing you how to dating your old family photographs using physical clues, Colin Harding offers some tips on how to identify postcards.

This is the final instalment in my series showing you how to date your old family photographs using physical clues to determine which photographic technique was most likely used.

Cotton workers, Lowe's Mill, New Mills, Derbyshire, 1912, unknown photographer, The Royal Photographic Society Collection © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA
Cotton workers, Lowe’s Mill, New Mills, Derbyshire, 1912, unknown photographer © The Royal Photographic Society Collection

Traversing the first 100 years of commercial photography, we’ve looked at daguerreotypes, collodion positives (aka ambrotypes), ferrotypes (aka tintypes), cartes de visite and cabinet cards, and now we turn to postcards—the most popular format for commercial photographers from 1900 to the 1950s.


About postcards

Although picture postcards first appeared in the 1890s, it wasn’t until very early in the 20th century that the format was used for commercial portraiture.

But not all postcards were taken by professionals. Amateur photographers could buy sensitised cards on which to print their own postcards, and in 1903, Kodak introduced a popular folding camera designed to take postcard-sized prints.

No. 3A Folding Pocket Kodak camera, 1908, Eastman Kodak Company © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA
No. 3A Folding Pocket Kodak camera, 1908, Eastman Kodak Company © Science Museum Group collection

Use these clues to identify a postcard

Size
A standard size of 5.5 x 3.5 inches was established in 1899. However, this wasn’t mandatory and there are variations.

Postmark
Postcards that have been posted may have a legible postmark. However, this date may not be the same as the date the photograph was taken.

Reverse
After 1902, postcard backs were divided by a line down the middle – one side for the address and the other for the message.

Woman wearing a kimono, c. 1912, unknown photographer © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA
Woman wearing a kimono, c. 1912, unknown photographer © Science Museum Group collection
Man fishing, c. 1912, unknown photographer © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA
Man fishing, c. 1912, unknown photographer © Science Museum Group collection
Charabanc, c. 1912, unknown photographer © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA
Charabanc, c. 1912, unknown photographer © Science Museum Group collection
German soldiers, c. 1914, unknown photographer © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA
German soldiers, c. 1914, unknown photographer © Science Museum Group collection
Bride, c. 1913, unknown photographer © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA
Bride, c. 1913, unknown photographer © Science Museum Group collection
Lucton School 1st XI, c. 1910, unknown photographer © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA
Lucton School 1st XI, c. 1910, unknown photographer © Science Museum Group collection
Two women sitting on a doorstep, c. 1912, unknown photographer © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA
Two women sitting on a doorstep, c. 1912, unknown photographer © Science Museum Group collection
Church parade, c. 1914, unknown photographer © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA
Church parade, c. 1914, unknown photographer © Science Museum Group collection
Crowded ship, 1924, unknown photographer © National Media Museum, Bradford / SSPL. Creative Commons BY-NC-SA
Crowded ship, 1924, unknown photographer © Science Museum Group collection

So that wraps up the series. If you’re interested in finding out more about 19th century studio photographers and their work, the following reading list may be useful.


Victorian portraits: selected reading

  • Briggs, Asa and Archie Miles, A Victorian Portrait: Victorian Life and Values As Seen Through the Work of Studio Photographers (Harpercollins, 1989)
  • Hannavy, John, Case Histories: The Packaging and Presentation of the Photographic Portrait in Victorian Britain 1840–1875 (Antique Collectors’ Club Ltd, 2005)
  • Henisch, Heinz K., The Photographic Experience 1839–1914: Images and Attitudes (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1994)
  • Heyett, Elizabeth, The Glass-House Years: Victorian Portrait Photography 1839–1870 (Montclair and London: Allanheld and Schram/George Piror, 1979)
  • Hillier, Bevis, Victorian Studio Photographs: From the Collections of Studio Bassano and Elliott and Fry, London (David R Godine, 1976)
  • Lansdell, Avril, Fashion à la Carte 1860-1900 (London: Shire Publications, 1985)
  • Linkman, Audrey, The Victorians: Photographic Portraits (London and New York: Tauris Parke, 1993)
  • Matthews, O., Album of Carte-de-Visite and Cabinet Photographs, 1854–1914 (London: Reedminster, 1974)
  • McCauley, Elizabeth Anne, A. A. E. Disderi and the Carte de Visite Portrait Photograph (New Haven: Yale, 1985)
  • McCauley, Elizabeth Anne, Industrial Madness: Commercial Photography in Paris 1848–1871 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994)
  • Pols, Robert, Family Photographs 1860–1945 (PRO Publications, 2002)
  • Tagg, John, Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories (London: Macmillan, 1988)
  • Wichard, Richard, Victorian Cartes de Visite (Shire Publications Ltd, 1999)

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