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The Central Libraries > Mid-Manhattan Library > Historical Postcards

A Record of Style

Two pathways to style can be traced through the Historical Postcards of New York City.  The images on the front of the cards display an amazing variety of techniques available to the postcard maker in depicting a view.  The backs of the cards illustrate typographic styles popular at the turn of the century, as well as legal requirements that help to date the cards.

The image side: technical virtuosity.
Postcard creators and publishers made profitable use of new printmaking methods in lithography, photography, etching and screenprinting, often adding a few creative flourishes of their own.

Hold to light cards

Street scene, Chinatown.
Digital ID: 836339
This depiction of a Street Scene in Chinatown at night is a “Hold to Light” card.  Holding these two-layered cards to a light source accentuates the light from the moon, lanterns and windows depicted.

Tinsel and glitter

New York harbor from Brooklyn Bridge.
Digital ID: 836657
Silver and gold glitter was applied to emphasize contours of buildings or to outline forms. In this image of New York Harbor from the Brooklyn Bridge, red and silver glitter glides the eye to the boats, the shoreline, and the horizon.


Entrance to Dreamland, Coney Island, N.Y. 
Digital ID: 836497. Verso:  Digital ID: 836498.
Elaborate embossing on cards depicting Coney Island and other places for lighthearted pursuits made them perfect souvenirs.  Owners of these cards could also reproduce the image by rubbing a pencil across a piece of paper placed over the card.

Real photographs

View from the Woolworth Tower looking West
Digital ID: 836037
The rising popularity of photography ensured its prominence as a postcard medium, as negatives could easily be developed on photopaper with pre-printed text on the back.  Publishers distinguished “real photographs” from other printing techniques with an announcement on the card. This View from the Woolworth Tower looking West is identified as “a genuine photograph“ on the reverse.  “Real photograph” postcards are more likely to represent the view with some historical veracity.

Lithographic Techniques

Grace Church and the Wanamaker
Stores, Broadway, New York.
Digital ID: 836265
Technical advances in lithography permitted large print runs of postcards using different hand-colored plates for each color.  Imaginative applications of ink sometimes give the New York streets a fairytale flavor.

Stencil and brush (pochoir print)

High buildings in New York at night.
Digital ID: 836959
The stencil and brush methods used in this evocative rendition of a New York City sunset were precursors to screenprinting techniques developed and adapted by the pop art movement half a century later. 

The address side: a chronology of style

Fifth Avenue, New York.
Digital ID: 836592 (back), Digital ID: 836591.
For tourists, immigrants, residents and relatives, a souvenir of the sights of the Big City proved irresistible, and postcard publishers responded with an inexhaustible supply of sets picturing New York.  The Historical Postcards of the Picture Collection show every stage of the “golden age” of picture postcards.

Postcards published from 1893 (when the first set of picture postcards in the United States was issued) through 1898 are termed “pioneer”.  Because the Post Office reserved the term “postcard” for blank cards with postage affixed, these cards are imprinted with other descriptive words, such as “Souvenir.”  They also cost 2¢ to mail.

Brooklyn Bridge.
Digital ID: 836122 (back); Digital ID: 836121

In 1898, the U.S. government extended to private publishers the same 1¢ postage rate in effect for the blank government cards, but required special wording on the address side of the card advertising their generosity.  Postcard makers embellished the prescribed language with elaborate typographies.

On Dec. 24, 1901, the language requirements were eased—the term “Post Card” was permitted.  Flamboyant typographies showed no sign of diminishing.

New York Harbor at Sunset.
Digital ID: 836649

In the early years, the postcard correspondent was strictly forbidden to write anything other than the address on the back of the card.  As the aesthetic quality of the pictures on the front of the card advanced, fitting more than a signature became problematic. This view of a violet sunset at sea allows only a small scroll at the bottom left for the message.

Libby Castle, Fort Washington Park, New York.
Digital ID: 836876 (back), 836875
On March 2, 1907, the space on the back of the card was divided to allow for messages, and the format of the postcard as we know it today came into being.