Postcards once excited the imaginations of millions of people in the early 20th century and started a new media revolution. At the height of the craze, an estimated one billion postcards were produced each year in North America alone. Approximately ten percent of those cards were real-photo postcards. Unlike the mass-produced lithograph card, the real-photo postcard was a silver-gelatin photograph made as a one-off or in small batches.
Real photo postcard of Calgary Auto Livery Chauffeurs. Glenbow Library and Archives, UCalgary: PA-3689-182.
Real photo postcard of a truck hauling oil to Calgary. Glenbow Library and Archives, UCalgary: PA-3689-1.
History of the format
Postcards were the emails and iPhones of 1909. Increased postal service allowed people to send a written (text) message along with a photo (image) they had made themselves on a photo postcard. The international trend was at its strongest from about 1905 to 1930, but postcards remained in high use until the 1950s. Although it may seem outdated now, the postcard collecting craze was the result of an era undergoing more disruptive social and technological changes than we are experiencing today.
The 3A Kodak Folding Pocket Camera allowed the use of rolled sheet film and made the production of your own photo postcards relatively easy while postcard collecting was a worldwide craze. Dave Brown photo.
In 1903, the Kodak company released the 3A camera, which allowed people to create their own photo postcards. In conjunction with the 3A developing kit, people could make photo postcards at home with relative ease. Many of these early postcard prints were made in the trendy sepia-tone, a process that leaves the image a warm brown colour rather than the stark black and white look that silver-gelation prints are known for. Cyanotype postcards were also popular with the layperson photographer, prized for their rich blue colour and simple processing technique.
How the format was used
New camera and printing technology and relatively cheap equipment allowed entrepreneur photographers to be a part of the postcard explosion. Many of them travelled with carnivals to sell portrait cards or toured their regions to produce view cards to sell in their hometowns. Early postcard cameras used glass plate negatives; however, the introduction of nitrate film reels made the technology much more portable.
There are two basic types of photo postcard: The view card showed scenes of places including local scenes, main streets, buildings, features, etc. The topical card captured events or subjects like a flood or fire, weddings, parades, outings and portraits.