The “golden age” of postcards (about 1898 to 1918) corresponded with great leaps in transportation technology. Prior to that, in the 18th and early 19th centuries, U.S. mail was delivered via horses and stagecoaches. Then, steamships and railroads led to even faster delivery times, and by the end of the 19th century, postcards really took off, thanks to standardized postage rates and free rural mail delivery.
In Europe and the United States, 19th-century inventors were tinkering with steam-powered, electric, and gasoline-fueled horseless carriages, which led to the introduction of mass-produced automobiles, like Ford’s Model T, which hit the market in 1907. Other tinkerers were even more ambitious, like the Wright Brothers and Count Zeppelin, who wanted to share the sky with the birds. Thus, the first dirigibles and airplanes took flight around the turn of the century.
While we might take it for granted that we can zip down the highway in our cars or hop on a plane and fly across the country in a matter of hours, in the early 20th century, these advances were profound technological marvels. And so, cars, and especially airplanes, were popular subjects for postcards.
Publisher Raphael Tuck and Sons, of England, produced several aviation series of its trademark “Oilettes,” or postcards reproducing original oil paintings. These paintings documented the Wright Brothers Biplane, the Zeppelin, the Spherical Balloon, the Bleriot Monoplane, and M. de Lesseps’ Channel Flight.
As lovely as these sets are, collectors are drawn to real-photo postcards showing the actual aircrafts from the earliest days of aviation. In the early 19th century, there were only 30 licensed pilots in the United States, so such photographs are rare.
Even more rare are postcards from newspaper contests that capitalized on the way air flight had captured the public’s imagination. Pilots who made successful flights from one city to another would be offered as much as $10,000. Postcards were also produced to commemorate events such as the 1911 Chicago International Aviation Meet in Grant Park, where Lincoln Beachy set the world altitude record of 11,642 feet.
In the 1920s, the United States Postal Service contracted out its air mail routes to 12 carriers, including companies that evolved into Pan Am, Delta, American, United, Trans World Airlines, and Northwest. It wasn't until 1925 that small numbers of passengers were allowed to fly the friendly skies...
Of course, as they grew—particularly after the Boeing 247 and Douglas DC-3 were introduced in the 1930s—the airlines themselves issued official cards featuring various airplanes or touting different routes. Cards from once glamorous and now-defunct airlines like TWA and Pan Am are of particular interest to collectors.
The least valuable aviation postcards are those made by museums, as they were published in great numbers and are rather common now.