Almost from the moment postcards were introduced as a quick and cheap way to send a note, they were identified as a quick and cheap way to advertise. Two years after the first mass-produced picture postal card was developed in Austro-Hungary by 1870, the first commercial advertisement was sent as a postcard in England.
The U.S. government was slower to embrace the concept of the postal card, but finally did in 1872. That was the year the U.S. Postal Service issued “pioneer” cards, which had a blank space on the front of the card for the sender's message (the other side was strictly for the address). The first advertising picture postcard in the U.S. was a pioneer card commemorating the World Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, and the government issued several other advertising cards in the following five years. It wasn’t until 1898 that commercial enterprises were allowed to print their own postcards, and in 1907 divided-back cards created space for a message on the card's reverse.
In turn-of-the-century America, communication was limited—no one had televisions, radios, or the Internet. Even newspapers were few and far between. Postcards could be mailed for a penny each, so businesses and politicians used the medium as a means to get their messages out, creating the first junk mail. Since most of these cards were seen as worthless solicitations and thrown into the trash—just as junk mail now goes directly to the recycling bin—advertising postcards are therefore more valuable today than postcards such as birthday cards or world’s fair souvenirs, which were saved and treasured by recipients.
Exposition cards in particular, starting with that 1893 World Columbian Exposition, are incredibly common now. Most are view cards portraying the fairgrounds or individual attractions of the world’s fair, which were events held in major cities around the globe to encourage cross-cultural travel, trade, and understanding. In times of economic depression and war, they offered an escape into a fantasy world.
While the official 1893 cards are still quite available, “pre-official” postcards, issued before the World Columbian Exposition, are rare. These look just like the official exposition souvenir cards, but they lack the gold seal and printed signatures of the fair’s president and secretary.
Some exposition cards are coveted by collectors, such as the 1904 St. Louis Exposition cards issued by Inside Inn, which employed the “Hold to Light” gimmick, which used paper layering to change the appearance of the card when held in front of a light. These cards are rare because they were only given to guests of the inn.
The 1900 Paris Exposition inspired many postcards, but the most valuable were issued by a conglomeration of the 10 top French doll-making companies called Societe Francaise de Fabrication de Bebes et Jouets. On the cards, Jumeau baby dolls are dressed to the nines, taking part in typical fair activities like riding ostriches or elephants. These cards are coveted by postcard and doll-collectors alike, as they mark the end of the Jumeau era; and the card showing the dolls playing marbles is most rare...
Cards were produced for the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco years before the fair was even a sure thing. In 1910, during “California Post Card Week,” citizens sent seven million cards to Washington reading, "Get your congressman to Vote for the Panama Pacific International Exposition at the Exposition City, San Francisco 1915. California Guarantees an Exposition that will be a credit to the Nation." These cards feature a girl, a mine, and a bear.
More than 24 publishers produced postcards for the 1915 Pan-Pacific Exposition, even though Cardinell Vincent was the official card vendor of the fair. Some of the most desirable were issued by the Denmark Building featuring lovely gold-inked lithography in Art Nouveau style.
Commercial advertisers often offered postcards as premiums, and created collectible series that told a story as incentives to purchase products. For example, Bull Durham tobacco company of Durham, N.C., produced a 33-postcard set called Bull Durham’s Trip Around the World, each featuring a scene from a specific locale—often depicting a caricature of a local like a Sandwich Islander or Scotsman.
Some of these cards showed boats (England) or cars (France) or animals (Australia); and two nearly identical cards of the iconic bull mascot in snow represented the North Pole and the South Pole. The last, No. 33, portrayed the company headquarters. To get a complete set, you had to keep purchasing 5-cent bags of the tobacco, which contained one card a piece.
Byrrh, the makers of a popular tonic water containing the bitter quinine, recruited top poster and postcard artists of the era to produce a 113-postcard set. Only A. La Petit created two designs for this series. Each of these cards features Byrrh tonic water and text asserting its health benefits. But other than that, the artist was free to create an image in his or her unique style. Some have bold colors and well-defined lines, while others are more muted.
The most collected of these, is the Art Nouveau style postcard designed by Raphael Kirchner. It features a beautiful woman in front of a clever wallpaper pattern made up of the Byrhh name spelled forward and in reverse. On the Leon Selves card, a cop pursues a thief in a checkered suit because he swiped a precious bottle of Byrrh. On E. Croize’s card, a mother calmly holds a stemmed glass of Byrrh in one hand, while the crying baby in her other arm grabs at her exposed breast.
It’s unclear when Cracker Jacks, the beloved confection of peanuts, popcorn, and molasses, started coming with prizes in the box. But the snack was first sold in a moisture-proof wax paper box starting in 1899. Some of the earliest prizes were postcards, a 16-card set featuring the Cracker Jack Bears and copyrighted by B.E. Moreland in 1907.
The obvious way to collect all of these cards in the 1900s was to purchase Cracker Jack boxes, but you could also get a complete set by mailing in 10 side panels from the boxes or sending 10 cents and one box side panels. The most collectible of these are No. 10 (the Bears with a Halloween jack o’ lantern) and No. 12 (the Bears playing baseball). East Coasters favor No. 4 (the Bears on the Statue of Liberty).
Some of the most famous advertising icons of the era are the Campbell’s Kid, created by Grace Gebbie Drayton (also known as Grace Gebbie Wiedeseim), who worked for Campbell’s Soup Company for 20 years, starting in 1904. These round-faced big-eyed kids were based on self-portraits Drayton began drawing as a child.
Drayton was one of the most successful illustrators of the period, aside from the Campbell’s advertisements and postcards, she also made non-commercial greeting postcards like Valentine and Halloween cards, illustrated children’s books, and created the Dolly Dingle paper dolls.
Another iconic image from the postcard era was the Cola-Coca Girl, based on a painting by Hamilton King, who also painted covers for Theatre Magazine and Ziegfeld Follies sheet music. In 1909, Coca-Cola Company copyrighted the painting, which uses very little color except for the red flower, highlighted by the red logo and the red border. These postcards were published by Wolf and Co. of Philadelphia.
King designed other postcards portraying a full-figured woman in elaborate Edwardian dress, and these can be purchased at a fraction of the price of Coca-Cola Girl cards. The only other official Coke postcard from the time shows a woman in a car and is titled Motor Girl, even though it’s most often called Duster Girl.
DuPont hunting-themed postcards advertising its gun powder are particularly hot collectibles. The most sought-after series features 13 championship dogs, which were the National Field Trial winners between 1896 and 1910 painted by Edmond H. Osthaus. Each card included the message “Shoot DuPont Powders,” and the set was copyrighted in 1916. The company’s Wild Game series—with creatures like the blue wing teal, gray squirrel, jack snipe, and woodcock—is much easier to find, but collectors still want it.
The comic postcard illustrations created by illustrator William Wallace Denslow (a.k.a. Hippocampus Dan) for Teddy Bear Bread, are particularly hard to come by. The cards were collected by consumers who bought the bread, made by New England Bakery of Rhode Island, and then returned to the store in exchange for a teddy-bear stick pin. Thus, most of these cards were destroyed.
Comic-strip artist George McManus not only drew comics for the Hearst newspaper “North American,” he also created a set of advertising postcards for the paper, employing characters from his popular strip, “Bringing Up Father.” The lazy rags-to-riches husband Jiggs is eagerly waiting for the “North American” in each card. The envelope the six-card set came in said, “Don’t Throw Away a Laugh, It’s Bad Luck.”
Cartoonist Richard Felton Outcault, like McManus, got shuffled around in the competition between Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. He’s most famous for creating a character dubbed “The Yellow Kid” by Hearst in his “Hogan’s Alley” strip that debuted in 1895, and this character gave birth to the name “yellow journalism.”
Outcault also created the charming rascal known as Buster Brown, based on his own little boy, and his dog, Tige, in 1902. Buster Brown became the icon of Outcault’s advertising company, which licensed his character to various companies, like Buster Brown shoes. For example, Buster is seen in a six-card series issued for Bloomingdales, with saucy messages like, "When Buster Brown met Daisy Lee / 'Twas where we sell 'ze lingerie' / A place where dainty bargains are / At Bloomingdales, take any car."
For frog collectors, the rare 1905 postcard set created by Frog in the Throat Lozenge is a treat. These oversized cards were often trimmed to a standard size by postcard collectors of the early 1900s so that they would fit into albums. Each of these cards depicts an elegant lady, blond or brunet, in the foreground, a frog in the background, and a script message like, “A Social Success,” “Pleasure to Take,” or “Fore Everybody” (paired with a golfing theme).
Other collectible advertising cards include Kewpie-creator Rose O’Neill’s plug for Victory Ice-Cream Cones, Louis Wain’s postcards promoting his annual books of cat illustrations, Clarence Lawson Wood’s popular monkeys shilling products, and Alphonse Mucha postcards adapted to promote high-end fashion clients like French department store Belle Jardiniere.
Many advertising postcard premiums were calendars, encouraging consumers to collect all 12. In 1909, Bessie Pease Gutmann, known for her lush illustrations of children, produced a calendar set for Brown and Bigelow Co., which came with a hole at the top of each card. Another calendar advertising set that is particularly rare features Outcault’s Yellow Kid pitching Schierbaum’s Hardware in Wentzville, Missouri.