Postcard Album Update: Real photos make fun postcards

What does a photographer do when times are tough and competition is stiff? Those who survive use their imaginations and offer a little something extra. This is certainly what professionals did during the postcard craze of the early 1900s.

The beginning of the 20th century was an exciting time for photography. In 1884 George Eastman developed a method of developing dry gel on paper, replacing the need for bulky photographic plates.

In 1901 the Kodak Brownie camera was marketed to the public, ushering in a whole new era in photography. A year later the Eastman Kodak Company started marketing photographic paper formatted as postcards.

The real photo postcard was born.

Once the world of photography was open to anyone who could afford a modest investment in a Brownie, professionals had to offer more than an ordinary snapshot or portrait. The imaginative result was a combination of art and photography on the easy-to-mail, now highly collectible postcard.

One gimmick was to offer a fanciful setting. The most popular was a moon with stars or clouds in the background. The client would sit on the moon, possibly made of wood since people actually seem to be supported on these uncomfortable perches. Who wouldn’t want to send friends a postcard of the first man or woman on the moon? One “moon” card in my collection even shows two women with boxes of Jell-O, utilizing a clever idea as advertising.

A favorite device was to provide a painted or wooden figure with a hole for a real person’s head. (I recently saw the same setup outdoors at a zoo.) Some early ones were painted on canvas with a place for the subject to stick his or her head. Others were more elaborate wooden figures based on the same idea. Fairs, expositions, and amusement parks often promoted the sale of souvenir photographic postcards using “stick-your-head-here” props, a practice that hasn’t entirely died out.

A person didn’t have to go to a studio or an amusement area to get a photo postcard that was a little out of the ordinary. Both professional and homemade photos could be developed with fancy borders or added artwork, making them a little more special. Artists drew flowers, leaves and natural features like trees and landscapes to provide eye-catching borders. The photographs were usually shown as an oval or a circle, although more fanciful shapes were used too.

Even ordinary stare-at-the-camera photos are fun to collect when the card is decorated in imaginative ways.

If the postcard was never mailed—and many weren’t—the trade name is an aide to dating. Kodak’s first advised stock paper had Velox printed in the stamp area. Azo was added in 1904. The Cyko marking belonged to the Ansco Company in the same era.

“Prairie Fires and Paper Moons” by Hal Morgan and Andreas Brown (1981) has a discussion of the dating and making of real photo postcards in addition to many rare images. Serious collectors will want to find this benchmark book. It pretty much started the modern craze for old photo cards.

Barbara Andrews has authored several popular novels and is a long-time, avid postcard collector and columnist.