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Wednesday, December 16, 2020

Vintage Christmas Postcards

I mentioned in the comments last week that I collect vintage postcards. That must sound like such an obscure thing to collect. For me, it makes perfect sense. I'm attracted to paper ephemera, especially vintage items. One of my daughters' and my favorite activities when on day excursions or longer is to cull through the inventory of secondhand/vintage shops. A vintage postcard, priced at 50 cents to $1 each, is an inexpensive souvenir to bring home. The images are charming and I find myself fascinated in reading the messages on the back sides.

Piecing together a superficial idea of the sender and recipient

Often times, these artifacts are no more than a simple "wishing you well" or "happy holidays". On rare occasion, though, I can glean enough information from the writer to then do some sleuthing about the recipient. By combining the address label, postmark, and some of the text on one card, I was able to uncover when the recipient lived and where they were born. I was also able to look up the address on a real estate site and see a photo of the house where this individual resided and when it was built (1908). BTW, the card is postmarked 1913, making it 107 years old! If this appears to be terribly invasive of another's privacy, consider that this postcard and a batch of other correspondences were sold or donated to a third party, with the complete knowledge that someone would read the contents. To me, this is no more invasive than reading excerpts from antique diaries.  

One of the surprising details of these postcards is that many writers used pencil instead of ink. In our ball-point world, we don't often think to use a pencil after our school years are over. However, pencils might have been more user-friendly than pens 100 years ago. No bottles of ink or blotting paper needed. In addition, fountain pen ink can smudge if the paper gets wet, and a postcard's text could be exposed to the elements when in transit by post. Studying vintage postcards opened a whole new line of study for me. 

A bit of postcard history

In the early part of the 20th century, postcards were the inexpensive method of communication with distant family and friends. In 1898, the cost to mail a postcard in the US was 1 cent, whereas mailing a letter cost 2 cents for every ounce. During the war years, from Nov. 1917 through June 1919, postal costs increased to 2 cents/postcard and 3 cents/ounce for letters. For the most part, in the history of US postal rates since then, (there was a glitch from 1925 to 1928 where postcards were charged as much as a 1-ounce letter), it's been cheaper to send a postcard than to mail a letter.

Compared to making a phone call, sending a postcard was even more of a bargain. Long distance phone calling was not as accessible for the average American until November of 1951, when the first direct-dialed long distance call was placed. Prior to direct-dialing, phone calls had to be routed through an operator. Even with the added convenience of direct-dialing, long distance phone calls were an extravagance for many. In the 1950s, a 3-minute long distance call placed during daytime hours cost $3.70. (However, there were discounts for Sunday and evening calls.) During this same period, a postcard cost 2 cents. 

In addition to the cost advantage, postcards were often favored over phone calls because they left the recipient with something to hold onto after the correspondence was complete -- a memento to treasure. While you and I are accustomed to photo images on the postcards that we send and receive, vintage postcards were embellished with beautiful artwork and were often printed with seasonal and holiday greetings. This made them an ideal way to send a Christmas or Easter message to a distant friend or family member with minimal cost. 

Of course, the drawbacks to such an inexpensive form of long distance communication included a lack of privacy and space limitation. Often times, as much information as would fit was shared on the backside of the card, with tiny writing neatly scrawled across the card's back. Sometimes, the card would be the sender's only opportunity within a several-month gap of time to mention important details of life back at home. This last bit makes collecting postcards something that appeals to those fascinated by cultural history.

Here's the full text from the Christmas postcard at the top of this page.

postmark: Dec 17, 1913 Sidney Ind

"Sidney, Ind. Dec 16, '13

Dear Eva and Will, We wish you the Happiest Christmas you have ever had. I thought I had told you Lela was married. She has been married three months to a Mr. Mc Near. They live in Liberty Mills. He is a blacksmith and carpenter. Her address is Mrs. Ben Mc Near, Liberty Mills. Write her a card, we miss her oh so much. Aunt Manda"

Charming, yes?

Besides all of this nerdy stuff, my vintage holiday postcards double as decor pieces.


  1. Nerdy stuff?! I love it too!

    Nerds unite!


    1. I'm so glad to find someone else who loves this kind of stuff, Shelby!
      I hope you enjoy the rest of your day!

  2. And the geeks shall inherit the earth ...

    This combines art and history which I think are two things you love, Lili. I think it's fascinating. BTW, I'm not sure earlier phone calls were very private. We had a party line when I was little and my mom told us to be aware that what we said might fall on ears that it wasn't intended for.

    1. Oh, that's interesting about your experience with party lines, Kris. I can only guess that you took those words from your mom seriously.

      Have a wonderful rest of your afternoon and evening, Kris!

  3. While I don't collect postcards, I find them very interesting. I have an aunt that has quite an extensive collection and my sister has several. They have many from around the area where our families have lived. It's always interesting to see what "familiar" things looked like 100 years ago. I also love it when I can get a glimpse of how someone lived whether or not I knew them.

    When my mother was in the nursing home, I took old postcards (more like 50 years old instead of 100 years old) with pictures of things around West Virginia. I would pass them around and the residents would talk about when they may have visited the place or things they knew about it. It was an activity that we all enjoyed.

    1. Hi Live and Learn,
      What a wonderful activity to provide for the residents at your mom's nursing home. That was probably very much enjoyed. You're so thoughtful!

      Enjoy your evening, Live and Learn!

  4. I had inherited a few hundred of these from my grandfather, who was born around 1907. They were so beautiful and the artwork was so intricate and detailed compared to today's postcards. He lived in New York and the some of the cards were addressed to "Master" Henry Gross with only a street name but no number- must have been a small town!

    1. Wow, Trina! What a treasure trove that your grandfather left to you.
      I have found the same thing with addresses from the early part of the 20th c. Often times, only the name, town, and state are given in the address field. That just seems so odd to me. But life was very different, then, wasn't it?

      Have a great day, Trina!

  5. My parents immigrated from the Netherlands in the 1950s so their communication was with a special airmail paper that was just a tad thicker than tissue paper and foldable tabs on the ends to self-fold the letter. Mom squeezed into ever spare part of that paper notes from home. Small cursive and right to the edges at the fold. I also remember that evenings and weekends were cheaper for phone calls but that was only used in an emergency. Party lines were the norm but mom never listened to someone else's call. I think our ring was two rings. Dad owned his own business and he had a business desk phone. After the party lines were over, whenever he needed something from mom, he would call home and ring twice and then hang up and that was her clue that dad needed her to call back. Why? So that the call home was never on the work's phone bill! I'm sure they paid for every call back then and had no package deals. The people at home always knew to never answer the call on the first or second ring because it could be dad.

    Funny, I have never seen a post card at a thrift store.


    1. Hi Alice,
      I remember using airmail paper! The writing paper served as the envelope once folded up. I can imagine that your mother made very good use of every inch of space on those mailers.

      We have a couple of thrift/secondhand stores in our area that have special sections for more valuable or vintage items. They occasionally get some paper ephemera in those cases. But where I've found these postcards has been in secondhand and vintage shops in more touristy destinations than my immediate area.

      Wishing you a wonderful evening, Alice!


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