Postcard Collecting for the Osborne Library


The Osborne Library loves to collect ephemera—those small objects that were intended to be thrown away after a fleeting use. Ephemera includes such items as postcards, trade and business cards, calendars, invitations, menus, etc. For us, they are a valuable record of textile history. We have a collection of hundreds of picture postcards that mostly show views of mills but also workers and machinery. Some were created to advertise a mill and its products but many were simply a town’s way of extolling its landmarks no matter how unattractive the factory. The basis of our collection was cards donated by “friends of the library” many years ago. The collection expanded as donors and staff spotted cards in garage sales, antique and collectible shops and in their own attics. In the early years, a postcard could be purchased for a song—10 or 25 cents. Today that’s a lot harder, as any eBay user knows.

The dictionary calls postcard collecting, deltiology, and it is one of the largest collecting hobbies in the world. Anyone who attends an “ephemera” or “postcard” show knows that dealers often display thousands of cards boxed and arranged by subject. Avid collectors spend hours flipping through them and it takes a keen memory not to purchase a duplicate of one you already own.

Initially “postal cards” were issued by governments with postage already affixed (and many still do). The first privately made “postcard” which required the sender to add postage was printed in Austria in 1869. In the U.S., the postal service issued pre-stamped “postal cards” beginning in 1873. It was not until 1898 that private companies in the U.S. were allowed to manufacture “postcards” that could be mailed for one cent. Many postcards, especially the higher quality ones, were printed in Germany, but World War I put an end to that.

Postcards come in many varieties: early examples were lithographed. These were followed by the “real photo” postcard which was printed directly on film stock paper starting around 1900. Today, you pay a premium for this type as many were published in small amounts. By the 1930s, the “linen” card printed on a linen-like paper stock and featuring color was all the rage, followed by the color “chrome” card with which we are familiar today. All of these styles tended to be manufactured simultaneously until WWII, although, today, the color chrome card dominates the commercial market. For collectors, however, the linen card is the most ubiquitous.

Dating postcards is fun and requires a little bit of detective work. If a postmark is not available or readable, the style of the back of the card can provide clues. Does it have a divided or undivided back? Does it have a white border? Does the stamp box on a real photo card say Azo or Velox? If there is a stamp, what did it cost? What is the style of the headings: “Correspondence” or Correspondence Here”? There are many guides to help you determine an approximate date.

Below are some examples from our collection. We try to collect postcards of the same mill from different years. Why? They give us a history of changes in the building and landscape. Sometimes a postcard is the only pictorial history we have of a particular mill. Finally, we like to find a postcard with a message that sums up the sender’s sentiments: Dear Mom and Dad, Here is a picture of the mill where I work. Work is tough. Hope to move on for better pay…


Clare Sheridan

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