The first penny postcard in the United States was printed in 1873 by a Springfield envelope company that later patented a toilet paper holder.
The U.S. Congress on June 8, 1872 authorized the so-called “penny postcard,” which had postage pre-attached and could only be sold by the U.S. Postal Department. Postmaster General John Creswell awarded the printing contract to the Morgan Envelope Co., of Springfield Mass., and the first penny postal card was sold in Springfield on May 12, 1873. More went on sale elsewhere the next day. Within 2-1/2 hours, 200,000 reportedly sold in New York City alone.
Elisha Morgan started the Morgan Envelope Co. in 1864 with the purchase of four envelope-folding machines in Rockville, Conn. He soon moved the business to Springfield, where it grew steadily. The post office contract gave the Morgan Envelope Co. another boost, and soon it churned out boxed stationery, boxes and toilet paper.
Postcards had been around, but known as ‘correspondence cards,’ ‘mail cards,’ or ‘souvenir cards.’ If they had writing on them, they cost two cents. If they didn’t have writing on them (just an address), or if the government issued them, mailing then anywhere cost just a penny.
Then Congress changed the law on May 18, 1898, letting people send privately printed cards for a penny. The postcard business began to take off.
Golden Age of the Penny Postcard
Another change on March 1, 1907 ushered in the golden age of postcards. Congress allowed the divided back postcard. It had an image on the front and space for an address and a message on the back. For the fiscal year ending June 30, 1908, people mailed 677 million postcards in the United States. Back then, only 89 million people lived in the United States.
Another kind of postcard also gained popularity during the Divided Back Period: the “real photo” postcard. Kodak made it possible with the No. 3A Folding Pocket Kodak camera in 1903. It allowed people to take a black-and-white photo and then have it printed on postcard stock.
The Golden Age of Postcards peaked between 1907 and 1910, according to postcard historians. A craze for sending postcards swept the northern part of the United States, especially among women in rural communities.
Many postcard companies used U.S. art but German printers. The Golden Age grew less golden when the Payne-Aldrich Tariff Act of 1909 put a tax on German imports, according to some historians.
White Border Period
The White Border Period began with ink shortages during World War I. Printers began saving on ink by leaving a white border around the edge of the postcard image. That also made it easier to cut postcards, because it wasn’t necessary to be so precise.
Linen Card Era
The postcards depicting New England scenes on this page all come from the Boston Public Library Photo Collection. They were produced during the ‘Linen Card Era’ from 1930-45. New technology allowed printers to produce postcards on linen paper with bright dyes. They were cheap and attractive, used to advertise roadside attractions and tourist destinations. Artists altered them to make them more attractive, and the linen texture suggested canvas, which made the postcards seem artful.
The Chrome Era
The Chrome Era began with the end of World War II and continues to this day. Based on photographs, they have a glossy appearance due to the coated paper they’re printed on.
This story was updated in 2022.