19th Century Picture Postcards

By Maureen A. Taylor Premium

Q. Were some personal photographs printed with a postcard-like back? I am just now going through old photos belonging to my cousin. Many are unidentifiable black-and-white postcards. One postcard, however, my cousin identified as being people he could recognize. This makes me wonder if some of the other unlabeled postcards aren’t photographs taken by a relative.

A. In the late 19th century, the picture postcard became an inexpensive way to mail images to friends and relatives. You could purchase postcard views of locations sold by the Detroit Photographic Co. and others, or you could request to have your portrait printed as a postcard by a local photography studio. (Crown, 1976).

The first photo postcards just had a small strip along the bottom front edge for messages, but later evolved into the split-back version we’re familiar with today, with space for writing a message and an address. For additional information on the history of picture postcards, try to locate a copy of George and Dorothy Ryan’s Picture Postcards in the United States, 1893-1918 (Crown).
You’ll also find some tips for researching and dating these images, especially by using the design of the back of the card, at Playle’s Online Auction website.
Learn how to identify the people shown in your real-photo postcards, daguerreotypes, tintypes and other old family photos in Family Photo Detective by photo historian Maureen A. Taylor (Family Tree Books).