A Brief History of the American Postcard

Iron Age Ads

England: American harvesting machines play an important part in harvesting the crops of England.

“England: American harvesting machines play an important part in harvesting the crops of England.”

International Harvester Co., 1910

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A defining moment in the history of American postcards has to be the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Picture postcards made their debut as souvenirs of that highly touted event. Available as sets and single cards, they carried home messages of unbelievable sights.

Postcards were functional, but certainly not pretty in the 20 years preceding the exposition. Nearly always they were without pictures or drawings; when there was an illustration, it was very small. The earliest U.S. postcard was privately issued in 1861, but it took more than 10 years (1873 to be exact) before the U.S. government’s first postal card went on sale. And that “plain Jane” card was purely functional – a message from a business or a simple reminder (“When you come for dinner Sunday, don’t forget a peck of potatoes …”).

But the cards that were used most often, and printed in the millions, were those with views that folks enjoyed sending to family and friends back home. As automobiles became more common, people traveled more. The Gettysburg battlefield, Niagara Falls and Atlantic City were the most popular destinations on the East Coast; national parks were popular out West.

Some of the most colorful and collectible cards in the postcard world are advertising cards, and the ones showing vintage farm machinery (like those on these pages), kitchen utensils and domestic aids are getting especially hard to find. Think of it this way: The manufacturer of a tractor, pump or kitchen table meat grinder improved his product every few years, so cards advertising his product had a very limited print run. If you’ve found any of those tucked away in an old Sears catalogue or a photo album or even the family Bible, hang onto those treasures! Like any antique in super fine condition, they’re worth their weight in gold. FC 


To submit a vintage advertisement for publication, send it to: Iron Age Ads, Farm Collector, 1503 S.W. 42nd St., Topeka, KS 66609; or submit high-quality digital images by e-mail: editor@farmcollector.com.