Monday, February 1, 2010

A beginner's guide to collecting antique postcards

In these days of email, voicemail, faxes, and phones, postcards are starting to seem quaint and antiquated. Since 1893, when the first picture postcards were sold at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, postcards have been the communication tools of choice for travelers and tourists. The format has changed only a little over the years. In late 1901 the words "Post Card" began to appear on the back of printed cards. Until 1907 only the name and address of the recipient was allowed on the back of a postcard; any message had to be written on the face of the card, on and around the design. Beginning in 1907, cards were printed with "divided" backs - a line down the center separated the address from the message, and kept the face of the card unmarked. Just five years after the first appearance of postcards, the postcard publishing industry flourished: the period between 1898 and 1918 is called the "Golden Age" of postcards. During those twenty years billions of cards were mailed as adults and children around the world took up collecting.

Collecting postcards is still an enjoyable hobby. Although a card which cost one penny in 1912 might cost two or five or twenty dollars today, it is possible to amass an impressive collection of postcards without an enormous financial investment. And one of the best things about postcards is that they take up so little space.
There are a couple of things a beginner can do to get started collecting postcards. First, do some reading. There are good reference books at your library, including The Encyclopedia of Antique Postcards by Susan Brown Nicholson; The Postcard Price Guide by J. L. Mashburn; The Collector's Guide to Post Cards by Jane Wood; and Picture Postcards in the U. S. 1893-1918 by Dorothy Ryan. You can also find several periodicals, such as "Barr's Post Card News," published in Lansing, Iowa and "Postcard Collector," published in Iola, Wisconsin.

Next, decide what kinds of postcards you'd like to collect. You'll create a stronger collection and make shopping easier if you have some kind of focus. Do you like view cards? Perhaps you'd like to search for cards from a particular region or city. Perhaps you'd like birthday postcards or holiday postcards. Halloween postcards and cards with images of Santa are considered "very collectible" - meaning that they are popular, can be hard to find, and can be expensive compared to other cards. Are you interested in advertising, animals, politics, or sports? You can find cards in these topics, too. Or you might want to restrict your collection to a certain time period, like 1900 to 1920 or the World War II years. Once you have at least some idea of what you want, it's time to start shopping.

For the true thrill of the hunt, nothing beats prowling through antique stores, flea markets, and estate sales for old postcards. You'll need to be observant, because postcards are often tucked into shoeboxes in the corners of shops and stalls, or pasted into albums stacked under tables. Of course, you can always ask, but it's so much more fun to seek and find.

There are some real advantages to starting a postcard collection in antique stores. First, you'll see what's out there - what types of cards are easy to find and which are more elusive. Second, the more you study and handle antique cards the better you'll get at dating unmarked cards and spotting reproductions. Third, you can find some real bargains. If a dealer is charging the same price for all the postcards, that's a great big clue that he or she doesn't know how to price them individually. This can, of course, work to your disadvantage - you may be charged $5.00 for a $2.00 card - but the more time you spend shopping for cards, the more likely you'll spot the $10.00 card in the $5.00 box.

Regional postcard clubs are a good way to meet other collectors, learn about the hobby, and acquire cards through trade. Clubs also frequently sponsor postcard shows, where you can buy cards from dealers who will display their merchandise in albums or boxes. Sometimes postcards are sold at coin and stamp shows or trading card shows. Some postcard dealers sell their stock through the mail or in actual brick and mortar shops. The selection and quality of cards at shows and in postcard shops is much better than you can find in generalist antique stores. Dealers almost always price cards individually, and while the cards should be fairly priced, it is unlikely that you will find any bargains. Good postcard dealers know how to price their stock for the market.

Internet auction sites also carry lots of postcards, but this is not a good place for a beginner. It is impossible to adequately assess a postcard without feeling the paper and inspecting the condition. Creases, tears, and soil always detract from the value and should be reflected in the price. Stay away from Internet sales until you have a clear sense of what you want.

Before you buy, the most important thing is to look, look, look. The more time you spend studying old cards the better you will get at spotting genuine antiques. Until you reach that level of confidence, try these tips:

1. Only buy cards that have a legible postmark on them. A handwritten date may be genuine, but might not be; a government postal cancellation mark is pretty trustworthy. If a card is postmarked 1914, for example, you can be reasonably sure the card is at least 86 years old.

2. Notice the thickness of the card stock. Modern cards tend to be thinner and feel glossier than antique cards.

3. Notice the overall condition. Even cards in excellent condition will show signs of discoloration, fading, grime, and/or handling after 80 or 100 years.

4. Check the design of the card. If the paper feels right and the back is undivided, it probably dates before 1907.

5. Read the small print. Seems like obvious advice, but sometimes it's easy to be fooled: check to see if there is a copyright date or even if the word "Reproduced" appears on the card.

As you begin to amass a collection of postcards you will want to store them. If you want to preserve and protect the cards, you will need to follow some basic guidelines. Postcards are made of paper, and all paper is acidic to some degree. This means that your cards will self-destruct over time, no matter what you do. You can significantly delay the inevitable by housing your collection in a controlled environment. If possible, maintain the temperature between 70 and 75 degrees F. and the relative humidity at 50 to 55 percent. Limit exposure to light of all kinds, but especially avoid direct sun. Never use anything but pencils near your collection, and keep your cards far away from glue or tape. Keep your hands clean and hold loose cards only around the edges. Store cards upright in acid-free boxes or in archival-quality pages or albums. Separate cards from each other with acid-free paper or Mylar sleeves. Mylar or polypropylene pages and sleeves are ideal because they allow you to study the cards without actually touching them. Suitable storage materials can be obtained from library and archival suppliers like Gaylord, University Products, and Light Impressions; some postcard dealers also carry storage supplies.
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