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How to tell the Age of a Postcard – Beginner’s Guide

How to Tell the Age of a Postcard

Charts – Timelines – Infographics – Finding the age of a Postcard can be an Exciting Logical Process of Investigation and Following Clues.  Kind of becoming a Sherlock Holmes of Postcards.  My goal is to present it in a Simple easy to understand and Visualize it as much as possible.


By careful Studying of a postcard, you can  follow many details to help determine its age

  • Postcards Image

  • Postcards Usage

  • Postcards Printing

  • Postcards Materials

  • Postcards Format


How to Tell the Age of a Vintage Postcard Visualization
How to Tell the Age of a Vintage Postcard Visualization

Major Eras

Postcard Era Visualization
Postcard Era Visualization

Base Line

1)  Most Postcards when they are made picture their own Time Period

The Majority of Postcards capture events and places in their own time frame.  Pictures of Current events, current monuments, Bridges, Buildings state Governments and current transportation.  Some times in reproductions or Postcards of Portraits represent an earlier time,  but those are in the minority.  Today you can visit New York City and the Souvineer shops all carry current postcards that might be popular.  Since World Travel has become so much easier so is the amount and selection of postcards and world locations.  Today in 12 hours you can fly halfway around the world and buy the current highlights of your destination on postcards and then mail back Home.  Many times making many layovers at different locations.  Todays Postcards are also of such good quality, even if you were taking your own pictures, they probably would not turn out as nice.

2)  Most postcards that have been mailed are mailed close to the time they were made or printed.

When a person buys postcards it might be for collecting trips of vacations or scenic spots, but if they take the time to mail it they are using it similar to a letter.  When they are mailed you can feel pretty sure they are of the same time.  As you are collecting you will see many that have not been posted, but the ones that have usually the image, the Stamp, the postmark are all in a similar time frame.

3)  Most stamps are used close to the time they were produced also.  Postage rates change so most stamps are used close to when purchased

When we have postcards that are mailed – they are usually mailed immediately – rarely are they saved and mailed later because of the constantly increasing Postage rates – Cost of stamps.  If not that is happening you will see several stamps that are on one card, which is another Clue.  Make sure you total the postage when you are searching.  Postage may have gone up

  • Study the Picture

    • What style of clothes are the people in the images wearing

If you look closely, sometimes you may need to use a magnifying glass to pick out details.  but you can check the styles of clothing that the subjects are wearing.  You can see this dramatically usually in images of Bathing suits.  Also, wedding attire changes through time.  Uniforms also change during different war times.  Hats are also factors in spotting a time frame.  Children’s attire also changes through time.

    • How Old is the style of transportation, Wagons, Trains, Automobiles, Planes

If You Look Closely in the Image I put in a Postcard.  You can see that it is a time of Automobiles and you can see the models being shown.  Many times you will find pictures of wagons, carriages, Early electric Cars, Steam and Coal Trains.  Early planes from the Kitty Hawk on – all give you hints to help logically narrow down the time frame.

    • Check for Signs in the Background.  Looking for Street Signs, Gas station signs, Stores and Business, Signs,   Background Scenes are also important

    • I had one vacation spot I had a Postcard of, and a Lady bought it,  she related this story to me.  Her Boyfriend was in a Nursing Home, not doing well in his health.  She spotted the Postcard we had and it happened to be to a vacation Spot that she and her boyfriend had gone to in Years Past and they had wonderful Memories.  With his health deteriorating, she wanted to bring a smile to his face.  You just never know the good you might to do by helping people remember fond times.

    • Check models of appliances and interior decorations

Watch out for decorations, electrical appliances, electrical lighting, Gaslighting.  Types of Staircases, Styles of furniture that is showing.  That is very Visible in Many hotels and restaurant Postcards.  White Castles, Ice Cream shops, Eary Drug Stores many times had Fountains.  Giving Clues to the age of the scene portrayed.

    • Are the businesses and buildings still standing – you can find the date of their demise, what is there now?

    • Old Amusement Parks used to be very popular, large wooden skating Rinks, Dance Halls many times were great public attractions.  Most gone now, but some cities and towns ran dedicated Railway Passenger Cars to carry the crowds that would come on the weekends.

Today it is easier to do searches on existing Buildings.  You can do google maps and type in the addresses.  If it is gone, that seems to help increase the value.  you can also then check the History of whatever structure is replacing it.  You can check whether a natural disaster, possibly a flood, or an earthquake, maybe a Volcano or storm took it down.  All these details can help reveal the origin of the Postcard for you.

    • Have the buildings been renovated, upgraded, expanded?

We have Spotted Hotels, casinos, restaurants, and Government Buildings that have been renovated.  Expanded.  In cases like those there, many times is more info for you to be able to collect in tracking down the history of your postcard.  We have found Newspaper articles, magazine articles about popular local sites.

    • Are events pictured related to big events or moments in history, Civil War, WWI, WWII, First Flight, many firsts are recorded in time on Postcards.  First Moon Landing, First Airflight, Political Events, we had the first baby gorilla born in Columbus Zoo, here in Columbus, when I was little.  Found a postcard of that baby Gorilla.

Usually, a big Topic of Postcards is large events.  they can be City events, yearly fairs, and Parades, it can be bicentennial, 50,75,100 year anniversaries.  All are Very Popular topics for postcards to m=be made for.  Always the Wars produce many Postcards and it seems to produce many Collectors also.

    • Count stars in Flags, electric appliances, gas lights

A Flag is not necessarily just a flag.  Stars kept being added as the United States would add more states to the Union.  Each state have their own Flags, Military all have their own Flags.  boy Scouts and Girlscouts all have Flags that can provide clues,

  • Study the Usage

    • What is the Postmark Date

If The Postcard has been posted.  Then it would have Been stamped by that States, or Countries Postal System.  Military cards sent from Abroad during times of peace and times of war are also stamped for processing.  A postmark indicates the location and date the Postal Service accepted custody of a mailpiece, and it cancels affixed postage.  Today Machines are scanning and Marking the postal stamp.  It can be done by three methods

You can also check when the Stamp was Issued to get a fairly close date range.   We have included a chart below.   Postal Rates usually increase so you can glance at them to see the date range in which they were mailed.

Also Just examing it closer.  You need to add total postage to check the Mail Rates at any given year.  For Example, if Postcard the postcard you are researching has a Two Cent Stamp, and Also a 1 cent stamp beside it.  You would be researching what time frame did it get at that cost 3 cents to send.

      • Is there a clue to the date in the message

Many times if you read the message closely it will give you clues to the date, by mentioning dates or events that they are writing Home about

Postcard Postage Rate History

If there is an indication of the amount of postage required in the stamp box on the back of the postcard, this chart of postcard postage rates may be helpful in determining the age of your card

Vintage Postcard Postal Rates Visualization
Vintage Postcard Postal Rates Visualization
  • Study the format

    • Does it have Private Mailing Card on it 1898 – 1902

The Government gave printers permission to print and sell  Postcards in 1898 – They were called Private Mailing cards – They had those word printed on them – they were also called PMC’s, this was about a span of 4 years

    • Does it have an undivided back (earlier than 1907)

These Postcards Had the back completely open no dividing marks.  They could have a 1 cent, 2 cent, or 4 cent stamps on the back

How to tell the Age of a Postcard - Beginner's Guide 1

    • If the picture does not fill the whole space (earlier than 1907.

During this time period, the images were centered with the kind of a fade-out around all the edges.  They had good colors and well made.  The majority of these postcards were printed in Europe.  America was a land of Immigrants and you will find some of these postcards in their native tongues.  French and German are common.  Thes cards are close to 200 years old so care needs to be taken in handling them

How to tell the Age of a Postcard - Beginner's Guide 2

    • If the card is 3 1/2 x 5 1/2  Between 1902 – 1970

    • Old and Larger than 3 1/2 x 5 1/2 – might be before 1898

    • If Card is Old and slightly smaller  than 3 1/2 x 5 1/2  it may be from 1898 – 1902

    • If the size of the Card is is American or Continental  4 x 6 – It is probably no earlier than 1960

    • If Picture is printed on the backside – it is probably pre 1898

Vintage Postcard Size Timeline Visualization
Vintage Postcard Size Timeline Visualization


  • Study the Printing Process

    • If the Card is Shiny and a product of a printing process, small dots of magenta, yellow, cyan, and black is probably later than 1939

    • If the card has a linen surface – textured coarse – it is probably from the period of 1930 – 1960

    • If the card has a flat textured  surface – and is printed with low contrast inks – it is probably from the period of  pre-dates 1930

    • If the card is printed by High-Quality chromolithography with 6 more inks it probably pre-dates 1917

Printing Postcard Processes

  • 1725 – Stereotyping – Scotland

  • 1800 – Iron Printing Press – English – First Printing Press Made entirely out of Iron

  • 1819 – Rotary Printing Press – Napier

  • 1829 Embossed Printing – Braille

  • 1841 – Type Composing

  • 1844 – Electrotyping

  • 1846 – Cylinder Press – 8,000 sheets per hour

  • 1863 – Rotary Web Feed

  • 1865 – Double-sided Printer

  • 1886 – Linotype

  • 1830 – Paper from wood pulp begins mass production

  • 1890 – Mimeograph

  • 1892 – 4 color rotary press

  • 1907 – Commercial AScreen Printing

  • 1938 –  Xerox

  • 1947 – Phototypesetter

  • 1955 – First xerox Printer

  • 1962 – Brother

  • 1968 – Epson

  • 1969 – Xerox Laser


  • Study the Printed Detail

  • Is there a copyright date

  • Does the card have a printers stock number

  • Does Card contain date or event in title or description

  • Does the address side have words forbidding writing a message, it was not allowed prior to 1907

  • Does the card say Made in Germany or Made in Austria – Most Postcards pre WWI were printed in Europe

  • Does the Publishers Address contain a zip code – two-digit zip codes Magan May 1st, 1943 – 5 digit zip codes began July 1963

  • Is Publishers phone number listed – with area code – that began on Nov 10th, 1951

  • What time period is the typeface associated with

  • What time period is the design associated with


Postcard History Timeline

  • 1775 – Benjamin Franklin Appointed First Postmaster General by Continental Congress

  • 1847 – US Postage Stamps First Issued

  • 1855 – Pre Payment of Postage Required

  • 1860 – Pony Express Began

  • 1863 – Free City delivery Began

  • 1873 – First Postcards Issued

  • 1874 – General Postal Union Established

  • 1893 – First Commemorative stamps issued

  • 1896 – Rural Free Delivery Began

  • 1913 Parcel Post Began

  • 1918 – Scheduled Animal Service Began

  • 1950 – Residential Deliveries Reduced to one Day

  • 1957 – Citizen Stamps Advisory Committee Established

  • 1963 – Zip Codes Institute

  • 1970 – Express Mail Started

  • 1971  – United States Postal Services Began Operations

  • 1971 – Furst Union Labor Agreement negotiated

  • 1974 – Self Adhesive Staps Tested

  • 1983 – Zip plus 4 codes began

  • 1992 – Self Adhesive Stamps adopted across the United States

  • 1993 – National Postal Museum Opened

  • 1994 – Postal Service Launches their First Website

  • 2007 – Forever Stamp Issued

Photo Postcards RPPC

Photography Postcard Timeline Visualization
Photography Postcard Timeline Visualization


More Photography Detailed Timeline

  • 1839 – First Camera -the Giroux Daguerreotype

  • 1840 – Widespread use of Camera in the US and Europe

  • 1840 – First Paper Negative Invented by William Talbot

  • 1849 – Twins Lens Camera

  • 1849 – First Pictures of Egypt initiating Travel Photography

  • 1851 – Glass Plate negatives

  • 1856 – Photojournalism – Crimean War

  • 1861 – Photographing of Civil War

  • 1870 – Congress sends photographers to capture the American Landscape

  • 1880 – major improvements to glass plate negative process

  • 1880 – Gelatin Silver Prints

  • 1888 – Kodak Box camera

  • 1900 Kodak sells Brownie Camera Cost $1

  • 1920 – carbo prints

  • 1935 – Kodachrome film

  • 1940 – Color Chromogenic Prints

  • 1947 – Polaroid Instant Print

  • 1960 – Polaroid Camera very Popular

  • 1978 – Konica introduces the first “point-and-shoot”  camera

  • 1984 – first digital electronic still camera

  • 1990 – First Digital Camera’s for Sale

  • 1994 – First Camera Digital that will connect to PC


Ebay’s Selection of Vintage Postcards – 658,792

We Used a lot of References for our Research

  • Wiki

  • USPS

  • JL Mashburn

  • Diane Allmen

  • Smithsonian

  • Chicago Postcard

  • Our Postcard Collection