When Postcards Were the Social Network

November 20th, 2008

In this interview, Ann Waidelich discusses postcard collecting and the many varieties of collectible postcards on the market. Ann is a volunteer with the Wisconsin Historical Society, whose microsite, Tall Tale Postcards, is a member of our Hall of Fame.

I worked for 35 years as a reference librarian with the Madison Public Library and I just got interested in Madison’s history through my reference work. My husband and I collect antiques of various sorts, and as we would go to antique stores or antique shows in malls, I began looking through boxes of old postcards. I just started buying Madison postcards to learn about Madison history.

I’m not a Madison native. I didn’t move to Madison until 1964, but I say I’ve adopted Madison as my hometown. A lot of collectors collect postcards of their hometown, and I have a very large collection of Madison postcards.

The postcard heyday was in the early 1900s, certainly before the days of television and even before magazines had a lot of pictures in them. People would send postcards to one another and collect them and put them into albums to use as picture books. They were a remembrance of people and places. People have been collecting postcards since they were first published, but I didn’t start collecting them until about 20 years ago.

It’s getting harder and harder to find postcards for my Madison collection, because I already have so many. Madison postcards would have been sent from Madison to somewhere else, so I have to get them from somewhere else. Now with people selling all kinds of things on eBay, it’s easier to find memorabilia from your hometown.

I also collect what I call Madisoniana, things that say Madison, Wisconsin on them, mostly store advertising. Madison things are more likely to be in Madison, because they were given away as store premiums when people shopped in the local stores.

Collectors Weekly: What did people use postcards for in the 1900s?

Waidelich: Postcards were often used to send just little brief text messages like, “I’m coming on the train at 5:30. Please come and meet me,” because the mail service was so frequent. They often had two mail deliveries a day to your house, and trains went everywhere several times a day, so you could send a postcard to the next town in the morning and tell people you were coming by train the next day in the afternoon. It was a way to get short, quick messages to people. They were also used in travel – “I’m visiting here and liking it very much,” or “we went fishing yesterday.”

People bought postcards from novelty stores, 5 and 10-cent stores, drugstores. Gift shops would have postcard racks, just like you see them today, although you don’t see them as much. Postcards were so popular in the 1910s and ’20s that sometimes there would actually be postcard stores.

Postcards covered all kinds of subjects, but there were two big categories: One would be the view postcards, which are street scenes or buildings or geographical places, and then the other is art postcards. Many famous artists created pictures of women for postcard companies in a category called “pretty ladies.”

There were certainly holiday postcards – every single holiday you can think of from New Year’s Day through Christmas Day, Easter and 4th of July, St. Patrick’s Day and Memorial Day. There was a huge category of postcards during both the First World War and the Second World War; all kinds of war-related scenes and uniforms and real photographs of dead bodies and just the whole gamut of war, even humorous war postcards.

Collectors Weekly: How did companies determine what images to put on the cards?

Waidelich: They did anything that came to mind. If it sold, they made more, and if it didn’t sell, they didn’t make any more, either of that particular image or that particular category. Lots of movie stars and studios had postcards made. In Europe, royalty is a big category. We have presidents, so there are all kinds of presidential postcards.

Another category is disasters. People would send postcards with photographs of train wrecks or floods or huge snowstorms.

Collectors Weekly: Do collectors typically specialize in a certain category?

Waidelich: Yes. I collect Madison. I collect courthouses and libraries and jails. I collect Native American and buffalo. Then I wanted to collect something pretty, so I chose poinsettias, the flower.

People collect flowers on postcards; people collect cats on postcards; people collect Dalmatian dogs on postcards. It’s usually some adjunct to other things they’re interested in, like their hometown or they raised Dalmatian dogs or they worked at a library or they liked to ride on trains. Whatever you are, whatever you like, there’s a postcard. It’s a huge body of work.

I think people come to postcards after the fact. Often what happens is they’re cleaning out their grandmother’s house after she dies, and they come across this box of postcards that she was saving, because people sent her postcards back when she was a little girl in the 1920s. And, oh, my goodness, look, I had no idea. Then they either get interested in collecting more postcards or they think, how am I going to get rid of these? Maybe they go on the Internet and discover that there are postcard collectors out there, or maybe they go to an antique dealer and say, “Do you know somebody who will buy these postcards from me? I don’t want them.” That’s how they get into circulation.

Collectors Weekly: Were all postcards made of paper?

Waidelich: There are what we would call novelty postcards made out of wood, aluminum, copper, and then there are things attached to postcards. For example, at the Great Salt Lake in Utah, sometimes they would attach a little bag of salt to the postcard, or you can have googly eyes attached to a postcard and if you shake it, the little eyes move.

There are see-through postcards – we call them hold-to-lights – two pieces of paper with a little tissue paper in between, and if you hold the postcard up to a light, it’ll look like the windows in the building are lighting up. Some are made out of cork, particularly from Spain where cork trees are grown.

Linen is another category of postcards. Those are more from the ’30s and ’40s. The paper that they are printed on has fibers in it to make it look like linen fabric and they are printed with very bright colors. Then there are fold-out postcards. They were very popular in the ’50s. There’s a whole long strip of postcards that come attached to one another and fold up.

Then there are what we call real photographic postcards, which are literally photographs printed with the back like a postcard so they can be sent through the mail. Those are usually more expensive than just paper-printed postcards.

Silk is another fabric that can be wrapped around a piece of paper or piece of cardboard. Often they are embroidered or a picture is printed on the fabric. Those kinds of postcards would have been sent in a little glassine envelopes, a little see-through paper envelope, and then they’d be put into a regular envelope for mailing.

Collectors Weekly: Who made these postcards?

Waidelich: Some manufacturers were regional and some were national. The Detroit Publishing Co. is a big name. There are lots of books published about postcards, and many of them are what we call checklists. For example, for people who want to collect all the postcards the Detroit Publishing Co. ever produced, collectors have put together a list.

“Postcards were so popular in the 1910s and ’20s, there were even postcard stores.”

Another company is Curt-Teich. They were in Chicago and there is a museum of all of their archives, the Curt-Teich Postcard Archives, at the Lake County Museum in Wauconda, Illinois. A lot of people writing books used postcards from the Curt-Teich collection as illustrations.

Postcards were manufactured everywhere. All kinds of companies and photographers all over the country were taking photographs of places for companies or publishing themselves as individual photographers. You can certainly collect postcards from every country in the world. It was an international phenomenon.

Collectors Weekly: Did some artists specifically focus on postcards?

Waidelich: No, most postcard artists also painted pictures. Harrison Fisher, Ellen Clapsaddle, and Francis Brundage are some big artists. These postcards were printed in color. They would do a painting, and then it would be reduced in size. They are very, very beautiful.

Collectors Weekly: Are there a lot of postcard collecting clubs?

Waidelich: A fair number. The major cities have them. I would also say any of your major clubs, like the Kewpie Doll Collectors Club, would not only collect Kewpie dolls, but they’d also collect postcards with Kewpie dolls on them.

One good way to find postcard dealers is on eBay. Two others are Barr’s Post Card News and Antique Trader.

What we’re finding here in Madison with our postcard club is that everyone is so busy that we don’t have a very large turnout. We maybe have about 10 or 12 regular people that come, although we know of as many as 50 or more people that collect, and when we have our postcard show here in Madison, we get 200 to 250 people coming from all around southern Wisconsin. There are big shows in Minneapolis, Chicago and Milwaukee, and we’re a little show compared to them.

Collectors Weekly: Are there any really rare postcards you particularly look for?

Waidelich: Sometimes these real photographic postcards are rare, because they are often one of a kind and they are generally more expensive. Many of the artist-signed postcards are also fairly expensive. They can run from $50 to $100 apiece. They are not literally signed by the artist, but the artist’s name is very often printed on the postcard. Postcards from Mucha, a European Art Nouveau artist, are very expensive.

Halloween postcards are very expensive in terms of holidays. I think they are fairly scarce. Halloween collectibles in general are expensive, more so than a lot of other holiday memorabilia.

Christmas is certainly very popular, and if the postcard shows the Santa Claus figure dressed in a color besides red, it is expensive. There are purple Santas and green Santas and many other colors. Those hold-to-lights that I mentioned are expensive, too. They were fairly rare at the time and they’re fragile, so they don’t last as long.

As a collector, you have to decide what you’re willing to spend and what categories you can afford to collect. With my Madison cards, I have so many that now if I find one, it’s going to be pretty rare and probably pretty expensive.

Collectors Weekly: Have you noticed any major trends in collecting postcards since you’ve started?

Waidelich: Not particularly. Linen postcards are becoming more collectible. They used to be thought of as cheap and ugly and not very interesting, but now people are beginning to appreciate them. People are starting to collect the more modern postcards, too – what we call chromes. It’s a newer form of printing… they have a shiny, color photography look.

By modern, I’m thinking 1950 to date. We’re beginning to realize that 1950 was pretty long ago and things aren’t the same as they were then. I collect modern postcards. I’m always looking at the postcard racks here in Madison, because if I don’t buy them today, they’re going to be gone and they’re going to cost me three times as much in 20 years. If you buy things today at today’s prices, they should be cheaper than what they’ll be 10 years from now as “antiques.”

(All images in this article courtesy The Wisconsin Historical Society’s Tall Tale Postcards and the contributions from collectors to the USGenWeb Penny Postcard Archives.)

20 comments so far

  1. joe wooldridge Says:

    I have recently acquired over 100 postcards, of which I have no idea the value? One in particular is aluminum w/a cat inside a window and the script “I can’t come out tonight” on it, but there is no date and it’s marked from the Owens Bros.-Hillson Co.-any idea on this one’s value? There are also several holiday pcards-Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter. Many of them are raised, bright colors, places-dating from 1904-1930.

  2. Brenda Boutin Says:


    We bought an 1840s farmhouse and have found over 500 vintage postcards. A large amount of Fred Harvey, But many other beautiful and in very good condition. We would like to sell them as we are not collectors and do not want them lost to time and wear.

    How is the best way to find a reputable dealer?

  3. Dave Agresti Says:

    Over the past 8 years I’ve gathered images of communities in Central & Upstate New York, 35 of NY’s 62 counties. Many of them are postcards found on the Internet, my collection and contributions from folks, as well as local historical societies’.

    Postcards represent probably 75% of the 57,000+ images. As many postcard views are vintage 1900’s to 1920’s, it is my attempt to show what life was like 100 years ago in this region of New York State. Cities, towns, villages and hamlets makeup communities in many New England states, and I’ve located over 1600 of them so far. Small Town America now has its place along side Major Metropolis in this historical look at what will be placed on the Internet for the next generation to hopefully add on its views.

    If anyone has Central & Upstate NY postcards and would like to contribute to this collection, please contact me at profpuzzle@msn.com and let’s chat.

    Dave Agresti

  4. BonnieSheley Says:

    I have a picture album that I bought about 6 years ago and they are from Madison Conn They date back to 1903-1911 I also have 18 that still have the one cent stamps of Washington and Franklin on them I also have one that has the Hudson Fulton Celebration stamp on it I dont know who to contact to find out some prices on them I also have one of the first aviator John Tweed that flew the first Thomas Headless Biplane in Chapman beach Madison Conn Could you possibly have any information on these Would be very grateful Thank you

  5. Carlton Schooley Sr Says:

    I collected postcards when I was a teen (mid 50’s to mid 60’s) – since then i’ve been “accumulating” postcards – altogether I probably have several thousand – now, that i’m in my 60’s i want to pursue postcards as a hobby – I have lots to trade or sell – I’m interested in collecting old publishers such as Tuck & Valentine & sons – also all types of transportaion, horses, old views of town streets or “birdeye” views of cities or towns, both United States & foreign to the USA – please contact me to either trade/sell or buy – I’m willing to travel to your home – my phone number in New Jersey is 609-434-1359

  6. Tom Boos Says:

    I have an album of about 200 postcards from the turn of the century(1900-1904). Most of these depict Chicago scenes but there are some of Detroit and Michigan. All are post-marked with messages on the undivided back. Can someone suggest where I might go to determine the value of these cards.

  7. Chris Miller Says:

    My grandfathers brother was in the army at Fort Yellowstone in 1914 and sent my grandpa a leather yellowstone postcard book and then the post cards to fill it. I know that one card is stamped sep. 14 1914 which also has writing on it. All the cards are photo printed on postcard paper a some of the photo’s are of the guys posted there some are of wildlife and some are of Fort Yellowstone. There are I think five or six from Minn. That one of them also has some writing on it but the mailed in an letter no postage markings or stamp been thinking of selling them for a while now but been searching the internet but have not seen any like them or the book I took photo’s of them to put on the internet but still need to upload them. If you could point me in some direction on how to find out a estimated price that would be great. Thanks

  8. emily Says:

    I am interested in any used vintage New England post cards, and also interested in any vintage from New England. I am not sure how I would contact anyone that’s commented here but I’d like to converse with Brenda Boutin, the lady that had the post cards from the farmhouse. Sounds like something I would be interested in purchasing.

  9. Mike Fields Says:


    I started collecting postcards to teach my 11 year old about geography..we started with old ball parks/stadiums all over the USA…he lost interest in about 3 months BUT here I am seven years later and he’s off to college in september and I’m the collector of all types of postcards. I pay fair prices for all different cards pre 1960….contact me at my email mfieldsofdreams@gmail.com or toll free in my office 877-022-2223

  10. Angela Coffin Says:


    I inhereited 16 old postcards from my Grandmother and I have no idea how to find out if they are worth anything or not. One is a real picture on the postcard and some of the other ones are postmarked 1906 one of them postmarked 1913 and has some kind of material on it. Can anyone help me? If you have any info or would like pictures e-mail me at angelacoffin33@myfairpoint.net Thank you.

  11. Bev Says:

    Hi, I am helping a friend out with some post cards that she has. There are 2 books and each has roughly anywhere between 200 to 400 postcards starting in the early 1900’s mostly european and many others. They are all in books in pristine condition. I have know idea where to take these to find out there worth. Would love anyones help!
    You can contact me @ blkillian@gmail.com

  12. Tyler Coburn Says:

    This is a message for Ann Waidelich. Ann, I read a very interesting interview with you on Collectors Weekly. I’m an artist and am looking to make some of my own postcards on cork. I wondered if you had any records or information about how such postcards were historically made – and information would be incredibly helpful, as I’m hoping to approximate the effect. I’ve been curious about this type of postcard since visiting the Cork Museum in Algarve many years ago. Please get in touch, as time allows

    Tyler Coburn

  13. Connie M Helton Says:

    I recently ran across 24 leather postcards. Some have been sent through the mail and contain stamps – 1cent- and a postmark most from Lignite, ND and are dated 19o6-a907

  14. Shantell Mendwz Says:

    i have a 1906 leather postcard in good condition. Im looking too see how much it would be worth

  15. Ann Waidelich Says:

    Leather postcards are worth about $1 – $4 depending on the condition and the image pictured on the “”card”.

  16. Denebia Says:

    While browsing different collectors item I found category about postcards which reminded me I have 2 postcards I got in the 50’s 60’s that are beautiful. They are done in, I would say, embroidery thread, silky-shiny. Does anyone know any history of these type postcards. I’m going to dig them out-been awhile since I’ve looked at them. Any help would be appreciated. As soon as I find them I will post pic on Show and Tell gallery. Thanks

  17. Cathileen Says:

    I bought a box of post cards from the early 1900’s through 1950’s from all over the U.S. including Wisconsin Dells and am having a hard time finding the value. Some have been sent to a particular individul and have stamps on them from the early 1900’s. I’m not too familiar with pricing and am having a difficult time finding people in Madison whom can help me with obtaining their value. Do you have any suggestions for me?

  18. Evie Says:

    I’ve begun collecting old postcards to help illustrate the family histories I’m writing, using the information I’ve gathered from 25 years of genealogical research. I’ve found quite a few postcards that were addressed, but not mailed. There’s no cancelation mark, no stamp, or any evidence of a stamp having been removed. Was it common for people to put postcards into envelopes to mail, even though they’d already addressed the card, or is there some other, more likely explanation? Thanks!

  19. Janice Thompson Says:

    My husband inherited about 300 vintage postcards about 10 years ago. Having no interest himself, I took it upon myself to learn about them and now buy and sell on ebay. Search ebay (under Vintage Postcards). Looking for those similar to your own will give you a sample of the current prices on many of the cards. Condition of the card is important. Another wonderful site is Metropolitan Postcard Club of New York, http://www.metropostcard.com to learn about artists, publishers and trends.

  20. DKMac Says:

    I inherited over a hundred postcards that had been sent to my gr gr grandmother for a postcard birthday party in 1906 and again in 1914. They were signed ‘from your loving niece’, ‘From your sister’ (meaning sister-in-law). I made a list of all these names and relationships and in the last 30 years have tied them all into a family tree. I now have their informal name, signature, and relationship to my gr gr grandmother. Then I organized a postcard party for both my dad and mom when they turned 90. It was fun to see all the cards that came from family and friends. I’ve marked the new ones with relationships, and all are now in albums chronologically.

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