Sending, receiving and collecting postcards was a worldwide mania that began in the 1890s and continued until public tastes changed around 1914. The early 20th century was the “Golden Age.” The superstars among publishers, firms like Tuck, Finkenrath and International Art, had one thing in common; their cards were manufactured in Germany, the world’s print shop at that time. This doesn’t mean that enterprising American printers weren’t trying to capture the market. Two particularly prolific U.S. companies were Edw. H. Mitchell and the Detroit Publishing Co., both specializing in views.
Improbable as it seems, postcards that sold for as little as a penny were big business, but American printers were hard-pressed to compete with the Germans. The answer was a protective tariff. The Payne-Aldrich Act was enacted 1909, leveling the playing field by charging customs on imported postcards (based on weight, not the count).
The door was open for Americans to expand into the lucrative postcard market. Domestic firms could now aspire to dominate the market. Unfortunately it didn’t work out quite that way. No bill gets through the U.S. Congress overnight, and wholesalers had plenty of time to stockpile German-made cards. In fact, they bought up so many that they became a glut on the market.
In 1912, the retail giant, Woolworth, became a serious player. They started selling postcards for ten cents a dozen in their hundreds of stores. Profits shrunk, and so did demand.
Postcards didn’t fade away overnight, but the craze for them dropped significantly as public tastes changed. Victorian and Art Nouveau slowly gave way to the crisper, livelier style now called Art Deco, and postcard buying dwindled.
Beginning in 1912, the public was introduced to an alternative to postcard greetings when the first folded cards with mailing envelopes came onto the market. Even though they sold for the princely sum of five cents each, they caught on with people who wanted something special in greetings. And face it, if friends sent a Christmas card discreetly mailed in an envelope, wouldn’t it be a bit old-fashioned to return a postcard?
In spite of adverse conditions, some American printers still made a go of postcards. These latter-day U.S. publishers deserve more attention from collectors, particularly at a time when nothing in retail stores seems to have been made in this country.
Who were they? George C. Whitney of Worcester, Mass. is the best known. His company made valentines in the 19th century and postcard greetings in the 20th. The firm was liquidated in 1942, but not before making a great many cards, many picturing children. They have a distinctive logo with the company name, making them easy to identify.
A.M. Davis of Boston began making postcards in 1908, at first using his own art and verses. His greetings were printed on heavy stock and sometimes had a distinctive border around the edges. He was one of the early makers of greetings with envelopes, which made his business successful when other printers were going bankrupt.
The Gibson Art Co. was prolific into the 1920s and published Rose O’Neill’s and Bernhardt Wall’s charming art. P.F. Volland & Co. of Chicago, best known as the publisher of Raggedy Ann books, also issued a long series of unique and highly desirable cards. The Fairman Co. of Cincinnati published greetings and comics that featured the art of Dulk, Farini and Kemble. Gartner & Bender of Chicago had some winners with Kewpie types (unsigned) and kids like those of Charles Twelvetrees.
This is by no means a complete list. Some American publishers made a brief appearance then disappeared. Others, like Whitney, persevered to leave behind an impressive number of collectible cards.
Wish yourself a happy Thanksgiving by adding some American-made greetings to your collection. They’re just as much fun as the imports of the Golden Age.
E-mail Barbara Andrews at RockAndrews@gmail.com