Picturing the Past: Collecting Real Photo Postcards

Farm-scene postcards are hot farm collectibles.

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Power on the farm in this undated photo postcard.

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Postcards featuring farm scenes are becoming popular with farm memorabilia collectors, but some folks may not know the unique history behind those fascinating pictures from the past.

In 1898, the U.S. Post Office announced that groups of farmers, with the help of their congressmen, could qualify for Rural Free Delivery mail. Prior to that time, only people who lived within towns with at least 10,000 or more residents could receive regular mail deliveries to their homes. Rural folks who wanted mail had to hitch up a team and drive -often for several miles - to the nearest general store's postal annex to pick up their mail.

The transition to Rural Free Delivery didn't happen overnight. In fact, it was 1906 before most farm families could count on a daily visit from the postman. As a result, the new delivery system added to the booming circulation of farm publications, daily newspapers and women's magazines. Another benefit of rural delivery was that a farmer could write his dear aunt in advance of an intended visit, and she'd have lots of fried chicken, fresh cornbread and hot apple pie ready when he and his family arrived.

In those days, it only cost a penny to mail a postcard anywhere in the U.S. With rural delivery and relatively inexpensive postage, colored postcards - printed by the stone lithographic process - became the rage at the turn of the 20th century. Most commercial holiday greeting and tourist-oriented cards were printed in Germany in huge quantities. In America, postcard albums were proudly displayed on parlor tables right alongside the family Bible.

'Real photo' postcards

George Eastman, of Kodak Co. fame, saw an opportunity to capitalize on the picture-postcard fad. In 1902, he unveiled a line of postcard-sized photographic paper on which black-and-white pictures could be directly printed. This new, 3 1/4-inch by 5 1/2-inch card stock was easy to develop and could be processed by ordinary sunshine, or at night with artificial light from a gas lamp. For those without time or temperament to print their own postcards, Kodak Co. would handle the so-called real photo postcards for only a dime each.

While many Kodak-style real photo postcards were made by family members, a thriving new enterprise was developed by itinerant photographers who traveled the countryside, taking pictures of people, farms, homes, businesses, local disasters and Main Street scenes. These photos were often developed on the spot, much like the tintypes and calling card photos of a half-century earlier. Local photographic studios cashed in on the postcard boom as well, and often sold images of local attractions to townspeople and tourists.

When itinerant photographers arrived with their horse-drawn darkrooms, an entire family might pose before the house or barn, often showing off personal treasures such as a rifle, a new bicycle, doll buggy, puppy or a favorite horse, dog, cat, sheep or pig. More than one photographer was known to advise his subjects not to interfere with the arrangement of the pose. 'You are in the hands of a professional artist and will soon discern that my work is of the highest quality,' a photographer might add to reassure any impatient or independent-minded posers.

Collectible postcards

Real photo postcards - black-and-white, with no printed dot pattern - are one of today's hottest farm collectibles. Unusual examples often bring bids of $25 to $100 or more from serious collectors. As with all higher-priced collectibles, there are reproductions and recently-printed copies on the market. Look for obvious signs of century-old aging and also for the 'place one-cent stamp here' box printed on the address side of the card.

Collectors also look for trademarks such as VELOX, SOLIO, CYKO, AZO (with a triangle border, pointing up) and ARGO. Those marks represent some of the most popular brands of photographic paper used between 1900 and 1920, and suggest those postcard photos are authentic, vintage images.

The typical photo postcard depicting a farmer standing in front of his barn with a team of horses, or a family group gathered at a table or in front of a Victorian farm house, is not a rare collectible. Even threshing scenes of average quality are quite common photo postcards. Collectors who search eBay, the Internet auction site, attend postcard shows, or hit the conventional auction and yard sale circuit should look for photos with wide-angle views of sharp focus and unusual composition, with lots of interesting props to aid in dating the image.

The high-quality lenses used in most vintage postcard cameras account for the fact that many real photo cards may be successfully enlarged using modern computer software. Local drug stores and camera supply shops can provide inexpensive prints from originals for those who aren't computer savvy.

Farm images currently in demand by collectors include vintage views of limited-production tractors, agricultural gas engines and farm implements actually working in the field, shop or barn. Any well composed occupational or harvest scene is also worth consideration by those new to collecting.

Farm children posing with a favorite pet, toy, doll or teddy bear are very popular images, and often bring $15 to $35 each. A rare postcard that could fetch up to $100 could include a boy with his dog-pulled wooden Studebaker farm wagon. Goat cart images are fun, too, and average $10 to $20 each at postcard shows and online collectible photo auctions. FC 

- Ronald S. Barlow is a photograph collector and has published eight books on antiques and the tools of early trades. His latest book, 300 Years of Farm Implements and Machinery, 1630-1930, is available from Farm Collector Books.