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From the Simple Card to the Picture Postcard

The Postcard History

Excerpts from the publications by Professor Herbert Schwarzwälder

For as long as anyone can remember, the exchange of written messages, as an alternative to spoken communication, has been of great importance to those who could read and write. Be it official documents or private messages, vicious threats or passionate oaths of love, repeated reminders or thank you notes; the delivery of such letters to their final recipient has always presented a problem as they often concealed official or private secrets. That's why the messages or their wording often had to be sealed up or even ciphered so that only the recipient could determine the contents. The search for trustworthy deliverers extended from friends, via traveling merchants to paid messengers. The 16th and 17th century saw the establishment of private post lines whose horseback messengers stood in the royal or municipal service.

Wappen des Postunternehmens  Thurn und Taxis
The Thurn
and Taxis Post
Company Crest

Even after the post lines' operations were taken over by the government who guaranteed complete privacy, the letter contents still had to be protected against unauthorized access by folding, rolling up or by sealing. The envelopes were first introduced in 1820 in England. The first stamp, the Penny Black, was introduced in England after reforming the old confusing Penny Post into the Uniform Penny Post.

Penny Black
Penny Black

The need for short nonchalant messages that were not worthy of writing lengthy letters increased along with the increasing mobility of the middle-class: whether a person was on the beach or conquered a mountain, whether a person felt good or bad, or if the sun was shining or if it was raining. Soldiers wrote to their sweethearts or the traveling apprentice to his parents. The flourishing trade and the industry were also looking for means of sending short, low-cost messages. The suggestion for an open "Post Journal" that should be sold at the price of a single penny for postage, irrespective of the distance, came from the member of the secret Prussian Post Council Heinrich Stephan (later ennobled) on November 13, 1865 at the 5th German Post Conference in Karlsruhe.

Correspondezkaret Österreich The postcard honoring the 100th birthday of Heinrich von Stephan, the Director General of the North German Confederation, who introduced the postcard in 1870.

However, the proposal met with disapproval. The main objection was lack of confidentiality. Following Emanuel Hermann's advice on October 1, 1869, an individual who worked as the professor at the Military Academy in Vienna, the Austrian post-office administration introduced a "pre-stamped postal card" with the address field and an imprinted stamp on one side with the reverse side kept blank for writing messages. Because this innovation met with such great success, the postal administration of the North German Confederation followed the same pattern. On June 6, 1870, Bismarck signed the decree called the "Verordnung betr: die Einführung der Correspondenzkarte" (The Postal Card Implementation) which came into force on July 1, 1870.

Correspondezkaret Österreich The Austrian pre-stamped postal card

The regulation substantially followed the Austrian standards: one side for the address, the reverse side for the message. The general postage was one penny or three kreutzers. The postage for in-town deliveries was reduced. The card itself was free of charge. Thus, the German postal card was born! Thousands of the military postal cards were sent during the German-French war between 1870 and 1871. With this type of abbreviated communication a writing opportunity had now been opened up for those who were not used to formulating longer sentences. Additionally, the postage was only a half the cost of sending a letter. Further, privately printed cards with space for a compulsory stick-on stamp were authorized on July 1, 1872.

Countries that followed:
1870 Switzerland, Luxemburg und UK
1871 Belgium, Netherlands, Denmark and Finland
1872 Sweden, Norway and Russia
1873 USA, France, Serbia, Romania, Spain
1874 Italy

Karte Artilleristen

First-known picture postcard Pre-stamped postal card with artillerymen 1870

Correspondezkaret Österreich


The initial concerns regarding the infringement upon postal privacy proved pointless. In 1879, the German "Reichspost" already dispatched more than 122 million postcards. At first, the postcard did not represent, although not expressly forbidden, a visual medium. The birth of the picture postcard is not precisely known. It was between 1872 and 1874. The oldest-known postcard of this type is the pre-stamped postcard, with a cliché print of an artilleryman on the address side. It was sent on July 16, 1870 from the bookstore Schwarz (located on the Oldenburg Court) to his in-laws who lived in Magdeburg. Although this type of card never retailed, it created a role model.

The Lithographer Miesler allegedly produced picture postcards with images of Berlin around the year 1870. In 1871, Ludolf Parisius, a student in Göttingen, drew greeting card motifs that were distributed by the paper merchant Lange. In 1872, Rorich from Nürnberg engraved a Zurich city view in steel for the Zurich publisher Locher. Another engraving, this time in wood, was made in 1874. All these picture postcards were single-colored with the picture being displayed on the side where the message was supposed to be written. To write the greeting, the sender would have used the free space around the picture or write over it. Starting in 1878, one publisher began to produce picture postcards using photographic templates. But it was not until 1895, the postcard's heyday, when multi-colored mainly lithographic picture postcards became popular. The profession of postcard craftsman arose and pictures painted with watercolors served as the main template. Before long, other images were complemented by human life motifs. Collectors emerged; deltiological clubs were founded, postcard albums and other means of storage appeared on the sales counters. Thanks, not insignificantly, to the picture postcard, the population was submerged in wonder of exploring the world.

Correspondezkaret Österreich

Postcard albums dated 1905
(Collection of Hermann Ch. Büsing Company in Bremen, Germany)

Correspondezkaret Österreich

Postcards-Monocle around 1900
(Collection of Hermann Ch. Büsing Company in Bremen, Germany)

Due to the scarcity that followed World War I, the collector's zeal vanished and never again recovered to its past prime times. Now, the emerging tourism industry provided an opportunity for the wealthy to experience cities, towns and countries firsthand. As prosperity grew following World War II, the postcard faded into the background yielding increasingly to the enveloped greeting card which offered more privacy.

Text composition: Günter Garbrecht 1998, amended 2010 
Translation: Marcel Valtr, March 2011 

Map projections: Collection of Professor Herbert Schwarzwälder, Bremen, 1998 and Fotolia

Herbert Schwarzwälder 

* born on October 14, 1919 in Bremen
German historian and author

Professor Herbert Schwarzwälder has been researching the Hanseatic City of Bremen since 1953. The first interrelated reference work of noticeable facts and background information about and in the Hanseatic City constitutes a repository to Bremen's and Bremerhaven's past and present. Starting in 1961, he taught as the Professor of History at the Pedagogical College in Bremen and later, from 1971 until 1988, at the newly founded University of Bremen. His key areas of instruction included the history of the country, Nazi era and Hanse region. He delivered numerous public speeches respecting Bremen's chronicled events and cultural history; he published those about the Hanse and Northwestern Germany. His four-volume works on the history of the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen was published in 1975 and 1985. In 1988, he retired but still continues to research and publish as Emeritus.

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