Picturing the Past: Collecting Real Photo Postcards

Farm-scene postcards are hot farm collectibles.

| March 2004

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.