Deltiological Delights:
Collecting Postcards for Fun and Profit

By Murray Laurie

As seen in The Antique Shoppe Newspaper, October, 2003

Addicted deltiologists spend small fortunes and haunt dusty, dimly lit attics to feed their curious habit. They compete with other deltiologists for rare specimens and lock their most valuable finds in safety deposit boxes. The deltiology bug may even have bitten you—without your even knowing it.

Derived from the Greek term “small writing tablet,” deltiology refers to collecting postcards, a pastime that is becoming increasingly sophisticated and specialized. Dozens of web sites cater to those who would buy, sell, or trade vintage or historic postcards. Those of us who haunt antique stores rarely pass up a chance to thumb through well-worn stacks of them in hopes of discovering something rare or personally evocative.

For more than a hundred years, the impulse to send greetings in the form of a picture postcard to the folks back home has been an irresistible one. What better way to brag a bit to stay-at-home friends and family! Some of the most prized postcards are those produced before the turn of the twentieth century. In Europe, artists, some of whom became quite famous, designed cards, some embossed and embellished with metallic colors. German printers, who had perfected the techniques of printing elaborate labels for candy and cigar boxes, produced many beautiful and creative postal cards as well.

Resort hotels soon realized the promotional potential and ordered postcards with idealized portraits of their buildings and grounds, all frozen in time with robin’s-egg-blue sky fading gently to peach, the trees and lawns forever bright green. The postcard printer or photographer obligingly and periodically updated these views, inserting figures with more current fashions or newer model automobiles. In contrast to these “glamour shots” were the many photographic cards that captured a more realistic view.

Guests were happy to pay for these advertisements and endorse them with a message on the reverse side: “Having a swell time…”, “The food is great here…” or “Mama says this is the best season yet…” Furthermore, the vacationers paid the postage to mail them to an entire network of potential new guests. Commercially produced cards first appeared in the United States in the 1890s, when postage cost just one cent, thus the term “penny postcards.”

Those with the earliest postmarks are often the most prized, and the most expensive. In some cases, it is difficult to tell which side is most fascinating, the one with the colorful image, or the other side with the canceled stamp, complete with post office name and date, a terse message, and the full name and address of the recipient. If the recipient was the saving kind, the card might be added to an album or packed carefully way in an old hat box, to be discovered years later as a treasured time capsule.

Civic boosters soon saw the value of placing images of their town’s attractions on postcards. Who could resist buying a view of Niagara Falls, the Empire State Building or St. Augustine’s quaint old buildings to mail back home? Producers of postcards quickly printed sets for all seasons and for every kind of historic landmark and natural wonder. In every small town and big city handy metal display racks soon appeared so that postcards were at the very fingertips of tourists in hotel lobbies, train stations, and souvenir shops.

Travelers snapped up the inexpensive cards with the pretty pictures and dashed off their abbreviated messages, absolved from having to write long letters describing the scenery and local attractions: “You would love this view…”, “My room is the one with the X…” or “Papa caught a big fish in this lake….”

Postcard producers, such as the Curt Teich Company of Chicago, the world’s largest, printed a small code number on each card so that they could be more easily tracked—and retouched from time to

Armory, Jacksonville, FL c.1924

time, as needed. Deltiologists use these codes to date the views, and the whole range for one vacation spot over time is a compelling visual record. More than 400,000 cards printed by this firm between 1898 and 1974 have been placed in the Lake County Museum in Wauconda, Illinois, a priceless archive of American history and culture.

Aside from the interest and allure of the picture post cards themselves, these little gems may inspire you to investigate early photographic and printing techniques, or add a new dimension to collecting stamps and postal memorabilia. Framed collections of postcards from a particular part of the planet or an assortment linked by a specific topic make excellent gifts and add a personal touch to home or office décor.

Florida museums, libraries and archives, as well as the state’s official photographic collection in Tallahassee, contain thousands of these colorful windows to the past. For the most part, they are arranged by subject and by area, some with views of towns and buildings that no longer exist. Not to be overlooked are the numerous internet sites that maintain brisk sales and auctions, display cards with current prices ranging up into the hundreds of dollars, and list reference books for the serious collector.

As with other print and paper collectables, postcard storage and display must take into account the overall preservation of each card. This means storing them in archival quality boxes or albums. A big no-no is the use of PVC plastic pages with slots that are too tight for the cards so that corners and edges become damaged. The value of each postcard, no matter how rare, decreases when the ink is faded or the paper stock shows undue wear and tear.

Some deltiologists specialize in one topic, such as courthouses, industrial scenes, public gardens, sports, or ethnic images. For those whose collecting passion tends toward the thematic, there are holiday cards featuring Santas and valentines, political cards touting candidates or promoting women’s suffrage, artistic images with Art Nouveau and Art Deco influences, architectural scenes of churches and synagogues, cuddly kittens and cute kids, rascally and risqué erotica, and views of just about every main street in the known world. Advertisements were printed as postcards too, some with brilliant graphic art to catch the eye and inspire potential purchasers.

Nostalgic views of your home town as you remember it forty years ago, scenes of a Florida beach where you met the love of your life, a fishing pier where you once caught a prize trout, or a resort hotel long ago demolished where you honeymooned may turn out to be a priceless memory trigger for you.

For serious historical research, postcards are an invaluable resource for dating changes to buildings

Roman Pool, Miami, FL c. 1944

and streetscapes, agricultural practices, social history, and natural resources. Postcards are also worthy of consideration as “treasures from the attic.” Recently, a website offered a postcard of one of the cars in the 1923 Indiana 500 race for $200 and a postcard advertisement for an early Italian motorcycle for $275, as well as a view of the Buffalo Bill Circus priced at $1,000. These eye-popping prices may send you scurrying to see what you already have in your possession or to take more seriously those idle moments of browsing through stacks of postal cards in shops and antique malls.

Whether you buy an old postcard of the Statue of Liberty for less than a dollar, pay several hundred dollars for a vintage view of the Kremlin, or have inherited an album of antique postcards from Cousin Alma, you are now enlisted in the ranks of deltiologists.

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