Artist-signed postcards, which are reproductions of original works of art, are the most collectible postcards in the field. Most of the time, artist-signed postcards were not actually autographed by the artist. However, the painting or drawing was signed with the maker’s full name, initials, or monogram, and then that signature was often reproduced when the postcard was published.
The most collectible time period for these cards is 1898 to 1918, when no one had telephones, TV, radios, or computers. Postcards were a cheap and easy way to communicate. Many of the artworks on these postcards were created specifically to be photographed, printed, and mailed. Others were adapted from comic strips, magazine illustrations, children’s books, posters, and advertising characters. A few were actually works of high art that hung in museums like the Louvre.
Sometimes the artist’s signature was partially or fully cropped out of the postcard. If the painter considered himself or herself a very serious artist rather than a commercial one, but took a postcard job to pay the bills, that artist was more likely to leave the work unsigned. Unsigned postcards can be collectible, too, particularly if the artist had a very distinctive style.
Interestingly, illustration was considered an acceptable occupation for women, at a time when women weren’t seen as fit for many jobs. Rose O’Neill, creator of the Kewpie, had the foresight to copyright her images, and managed to accumulate a fortune in her lifetime. Other women, like Ellen Clapsaddle, Grace Gebbie Drayton, and Frances Brundage were quite successful drawing cute chubby-cheeked children for postcards, magazines, children’s books, advertisements, and paper dolls.
One of the most prolific postcard artists of the turn of the century, Ellen H. Clapsaddle made thousands of postcards and even wrote the verse on many of them. Collectors covet her postcards featuring children, but also her cards also depict animals, simple landscapes, Christmas scenery, and sample-type cards. She did cards for holidays, too, including Halloween, Thanksgiving, Valentine’s Day, Fourth of July, St. Patrick’s Day, and Easter.
Born in New York state, Clapsaddle started out painting china and home decor pieces like boudoir screens. Her early postcards were published by Raphael Tuck and Sons in London and International Art Publishing Company of New York City. Inspired by her success, Clapsaddle put her life savings into launching her own subsidiary of Inter-Art named Wolf Publishing Company in 1917.
Unfortunately, World War I, which had started in 1914, had made high-quality paper and printing inks prohibitively expensive. After the war, the postcards fell out of favor, thanks, in part, to the widespread use of telephones. Wolf Publishing went out business in 1931...
Frances Brundage made drawings and paintings for books by Louisa May Alcott and William Shakespeare, and she also illustrated her own children’s books, such as her “Baby Book.” Her earliest postcards were published by Raphael Tuck and Sons, starting in 1900. These postcards, usually featuring children with disproportionately large heads, were printed before postcards got a divided back in 1907 and are highly sought by collectors.
Brundage quit working for Tuck in 1910, and took her illustrations to the Samuel Gabriel Company of New York. She altered her style for the new publisher, abandoning her strange, big-headed Victorian girls in favor of more naturalistic children, running, playing, and horsing around. These Gabriel postcards are much easier to find now. Brundage signed her works with either her full name or a monogram.
Grace Gebbie Drayton-Wiederseim based her famous Campbell’s Kids advertising characters on the big-eyed round-faced self-portraits she did when she was a little girl. Starting in 1904, she drew all kinds of advertisements for the well-loved soup company for 20 years.
But she also produced book and magazine illustrations, as well as Dolly Dingle paper dolls and holiday cards, using the same style of adorable children. During her first marriage (1900-1911), she signed her cards G.G. Wiederseim, and those were published by Campbell Art Co., Reinthal & Newman, A.M. Davis, Alfred Schweiser, and Tuck between 1907 and 1911.
Drayton quickly remarried in 1911, and her cards published only by Reinthal & Newman between 1911 and 1916 were signed G.G. Drayton. These later cards are rarer, and thus, more prized by collectors. One of her Drayton-signed sets capitalizes on a popular postcard-series theme, “The Stages of a Woman’s Life.” Apparently, a woman’s whole life revolved around meeting the right man (the first stage) and having his baby (the final stage). In Drayton’s set, her lovers look like innocent doe-eyed children, even as they take grown-up steps together.
Rose O’Neill started out selling illustrations to magazines like “Truth,” “Collier’s,” “Harper’s Monthly,” and “Bazaar.” In 1896, she wed Gray Latham, and worked for “Puck,” where she produced 700-plus drawings signed “O’Neill Latham.” Toward the end of their five-year marriage, though, her signature dropped the Latham in favor of “O’Neill” with a lazy L.
After the end of her six-year second marriage, to “Puck’s” literary editor, she went back to her family home in Bonniebrook, Missouri, where she came up with her potbellied cherub-like creatures called Kewpies. The Kewpies first appeared in “Ladies Home Journal” in 1909.
The Kewpie characters in those first stories were made into a set of five now-rare postcards published by Edward Gross Company. The big-eyed and nearly naked babies were done in flesh tones, and flat-printed on green-gray backgrounds with an off-white border. A sixth card, the Kewpie Gardener, was added to the set after it was introduced in a 1910 story.
O’Neill also made postcards for Gibson Art Co., but her “Klever Kards” for Campbell Art are much more collectible. Tuck published the black pre-Kewpie babies she did for “Puck” magazine as postcards, and these are particularly hard to find.
Other postcard artists known for their darling toddlers include Mabel Lucie Attwell, Kathe Kruse, Jessie Willcox Smith, Bessie Pease Gutmann, Katharine Gassaway, Jason Frexias, Charles R. Twelvetrees, Bernhardt Wall, Elisabeth Bem, Magnus Greiner, Ida Waugh, Rie Cramer, and H.B. Griggs.
What could be as cute to late Victorians as those fat-fingered babies? Why, animals in human clothes, of course! English artist William Henry Ellam put all sorts of animals, like giraffes, frogs, and elephants in human situations, like his silly series for Tuck showing animal couples having “Breakfast in Bed” and his Tuck novelty puzzle series.
Arthur Thiele has a particular gift for anthropomorphism, giving his cats, dogs, and even pigs human-like personalities as he depicted them going to church, misbehaving in school, knitting, playing musical instruments, and skipping rope. Most of his cards were published by Theo Stroefer of Nuremberg (TSN) and signed “Arth. Thiele.”
Thiele’s earlier work usually feature one animal on a simple background, while his later images are much more busy and crowded, with multiple critters crammed into one card, which are printed on a coarser paper stock with a lower-quality image. Thiele’s cat cards are probably his most appealing, particularly TSN series 1424, where kittens with outsized heads cheerfully get up to mischief.
English artist Louis Wain exclusively—and some might say obsessively—illustrated cats in people's clothes, behaving as young adults. He created such cats for books and magazines, pottery, newspaper comic-strips, and of course, postcards. He designed more than 600 postcards for more than 80 publishers, including Collins, Davidson, Davis, Durron, Alpha, and Valentine between 1890 and 1914.
It’s possible that Wain had schizophrenia. His early work is more neutral, a combination of natural cat faces and realistic human clothing and poses that reflected late Victorian society. However, in his later works, his cats look more sinister and crazed.
Some of his most collected cards include his cats dressed as Santa Claus, as Charlie Chaplin, and the postcards advertising his annual books of illustrations. Another highly desirable set produced under the Tuck Oilette trademark is a postcard paper doll series, featuring cats as fairy tale characters, including Robin Hood, Cinderella, and Little Red Riding Hood. Another artist, Maurice Boulanger, illustrated cats in hats with triangular eyes for Tuck.
British illustrator, Lawson Wood, made monkeys the cute creature du jour, starting with his covers for “Colliers” featuring a lovable family of simians wherein the children are always making trouble for Gran’pop. His postcards were produced for decades, by the likes of D. Allen, Brown and Bigelow, Carlton, Davidson, E.J. Hey, J. Henderson, S. Hildesheimer, International Arts, Salmon Brothers, A. Stiebel, Tuck, and Valentine.
In the late 1800s, “Life” and “Harper’s” illustrator Charles Dana Gibson helped establish a new ideal of womanly beauty through his Gibson Girls, long-necked women dressed in frilly gowns, with ample bust lines exaggerated by S-curve corsets and heads piled high with elegant curls. Postcards of his work were printed by Detroit Publishing Company and James Henderson.
Naturally, beautiful, stylish women of means were a popular subject for Golden Era postcard artists, and some of the most desirable of these were illustrated by European artist Raphael Kirchner. As he moved from Vienna to Paris and eventually ended up in New York City, Kirchner made a name for himself painting portraits and drawing book illustrations of high-society ladies.
His sensual, provocative women, now acknowledged as the precursor to the pin-up, had an aura of opium-laced mysticism, as if you could smell the lingering perfume and cigarettes. Kirchner designed more than 1,000 postcards, and some, like his Geisha series, were printed in numbers as large as 40,000. Yet, his cards are coveted by American collectors, as they are not easily found in the U.S.
Kirchner’s first card was printed in 1898, and his early work can be identified by the Art Nouveau stylings, the chromolithographic printing, and undivided backs. Postcards from his middle period always have the image title printed in French on the back. His newest cards have the publisher’s name, usually Alpha or Bruton Galleries, on the front.
Tuck, TSN, M.M. Wien, Brother Kohn, and Philipp & Kramer all published Kirchner postcards. While his women are sought-after, his Santa Claus postcard and die-cut Hold to Light cards are the most collectible.
Alphonse Mucha is probably best known for his rich Art Nouveau prints and posters, particularly his long-running theater posters for actress Sarah Bernhardt. But his French printer Champenois was smart, and adapted most of Mucha’s work to postcards, starting 1898, using chromolithography on high-quality paper. One of the most popular series, adopted from the covers of “Mois Artistique et Litteraire,” represented the 12 months of the year, each featuring a beautiful woman surrounded by lush, seasonal vegetation and a circle of gold ink.
In fact, a Mucha-signed postcard advertising Waverley Cycles, based on a poster, set the record for the most expensive postcard sold at auction when it went for $13,500. Only a handful of these postcards are believed to exist. His only image created specifically for a postcard is called “A Peasant Woman,” and it belongs to a set of 100 of the top poster artists at the time, called “Collection des Cent.” Toward the end of his career, while he worked on the historical fresco “Slav Epic,” his postcards became much more patriotic and event-oriented.
French artist Louis Icart, who often went by his initials, L.I., pronounced “Helli,” started out his career in postcards hand-tinting the work of other artists for a company that produced mildly erotic postcards. Soon, he was producing hundreds of postcards of elegant women, all signed “Helli.” While he only signed eight postcards “Louis Icart,” these are easier to find but also tend to go for a higher price. Seven of these are in a slightly risqué series titled “L’Eternal Femin Sanquines,” published by Marque of Paris.
Italian-born American artist Philip Boileau self-published his first lush illustration of a lovely lady, “Peggy,” which lead to poorly printed postcards for National Art Company in 1904. Soon he was doing covers for magazines like “The Sunday Magazine,” “Saturday Evening Post,” “Pictorial Review,” “The Delineator,” “Collier’s,” and “Ladies Home Journal.”
Reinthal & Newman issued postcards based on the “Saturday Evening Post” covers in paper and matte stock. Today the matte postcards, dubbed “the watercolor series,” are more scarce. Even rarer Boileau postcards were printed by Osborne Calendar Company, Tuck, and Taylor & Platt.
American artist Earl Christy made a name for himself capturing the essence of “All-American” beauty, starting with his College Girl series, published by the U.S.S. Postcard Co. in 1905. He showed girls who played musical instruments, sports like golf and tennis, and who went to football games in new-fangled cars. His playing-card-like College Queens and Kings set published by Tuck is particularly popular.
In comparison, Harrison Fisher’s illustrations are more sentimental and romantic. Fisher’s 1900 images of the American Girl were tremendously influential, and when Gibson retired in 1905, Fisher’s women stepped into the Gibson Girl void. One of Fisher’s most popular sets was, “The Stages of a Woman’s Life,” which is similar to the set done by Drayton, except depicted with grown adults. This series, published by Reinthal & Newman, tells the story from a couple meeting to their first child (“Their New Love”). Such a set was often framed and placed in an Edwardian parlour or bedroom.
Fisher also designed what’s been called the best-selling postcard of all time, a picture of a well-heeled couple locked in a passionate embrace, called “The Kiss,” and published by Reinthal & Newman. Fisher’s other main company was Detroit Publishing Company, so his work for European firms advertising the novels he illustrated are harder to find.
Samuel L. Schumucker, who used the monogram “SLS,” was also known for his beautiful women, which he depicted in fantasy scenes for now-rare postcards published by Detroit. He’s mostly known for his lovely holiday cards he designed for John Winsch, so his rare sets for Tuck are particularly collectible.
Other collectible artists who portrayed young, gorgeous, and well-dressed women on postcards include Hamilton King (creator of the Coca-Cola Girl), Leon Bakst, Arpad Basch, Umberto Brunelleschi, Sophia Chiostri, John Cecil Clay, Tito Corbella, Marcello Dudovich, Clare Victor Dwiggins (Dwig), Melania “Mela” Koehler, Lucien Achille Mauzan, Xavier Sager, and Walter Wellman.
While women, children, and animals were the favorite illustrations of the Golden Era, some sought-after collectors did other designs. Catherine Klein’s alphabet series, with letters made out of flowers and greenery, is highly collectible, and U-V-W-X-Y-Z are most scarce, as are cards by A.R. Quinton, who made a name for himself with his detailed painted English views and landscapes.
By far the finest postcards of the era were produced by the Wiener Werkstätte, the Vienna collective of Art & Crafts and Art Nouveau artisans who also made stunning hand-crafted furniture, jewelry, and other decorative objects. Many of the artists, like Koehler, who identified with the Art Nouveau and Vienna Secessionist movements, used postcards to get their artwork into the public consciousness.
The first Wiener Werkstätte postcards were designed by Emil Hoppe, an apprentice to workshop founder Josef Hoffmann, for the Austro-Hungarian emperor’s jubilee. More than 1,000 postcards were produced by 48 of the Wiener Werkstätte graphic artists in a wide range of styles: Geometric (Hoppe and Kalhammer), expressionist (Kokoschka, Shiele, Jung, and Kalvach), and fantasy (Diveky, Wimmer, Lendecke, and Likarz). They also came in a wide variety of sizes and shapes, rejecting the standard postcard proportions.
In this way, postcards brought fine art to the everyday middle-class Victorian. Postcard companies like Stengel of Dresden and Sbjorb of Florence also produced high-quality reproductions of the priceless works hanging in European museums.