Undivided Attention

Some people have noted that the postcards I have been showing off in this column have had writing on the front, and asked if the message was just so long it wouldn’t fit on the back.  It’s a bit of postcard history reflected in the design of some of the cards.

            Sending a card through the mail without an envelope around it was made legal in the United States in 1861.  Other countries had been doing it, and it was very convenient.  But no idea can possibly be allowed to go around as simply as that.

            The United States produced what were called Postal Cards, and the idea was so popular that hundreds of thousands were sold the first few weeks post offices had them for sale.  Other people wanted to get into the act.  After all, there were companies producing envelopes for use in mailing letters, why not Postal Cards?

            So, a little reluctantly, the government allowed private citizens to produce cards for mailing.  HOWEVER, these could NOT be called Postal Cards: that was a governmental privilege.  If you wanted to buy cards from someone other than the Post office, you had to use Correspondence cards or Mailing Cards, or whatever name the printing company used for them.  The main difference here was that Postal Cards cost a penny to mail, but privately produced cards cost two cents.

            Furthermore, none of these cards could have messages on the address side of the card.  One side was for the message, the other for the address.  Anything else made it more complicated to read the address.

            In 1901, the government monopoly was ended, and not only could any kind of card (weighing under an ounce) be sent for one cent, but just anybody at all could call them Postal Cards, or postcards, which was becoming the more common term.  Sales, which had continued to be brisk, now went into the stratosphere, and millions of postcards were being produced each month.  Until March of 1907, however, it was still illegal to mail cards which had anything but an address written on the address side.

            Postcards with pictures on them had become popular during the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.  But until 1907, designers of postcards had to make sure that picture left space for the sender to include a message.  This is known as the era of the Undivided Back, as the back of the postcard had just one space, for the address. The space on the front for the message didn’t have to be a LOT of space: in the days when mail was delivered twice a day (occasionally three times on major holidays) it was customary to send a card saying “I’ll pick you up for dinner at 7.  And anyone with a long message could always write a letter.

            Some cards included just marginal space

            Others pushed the illustration to one side

            A few artists would include a little cartouche for adding a message

            Or enclosed the picture in a cartouche

            Others framed the message with the picture

            Or let the message frame the picture

            In the end, of course, American consumers being American consumers, the senders could ignore the design completely and just do what they wanted

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