Collecting postcards Part 1

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A lifetime of collecting - an antique postcard affair Part 1
By Mike Smith
Most postcard collectors I know caught the "collecting bug" early in life. It may have started with Dinky toys, Batman comics or sports card hoarding, but at one point in their lives, they became serious collectors.
My serious collecting started at age 12, and by the time I was 14 I had managed to assemble respectable Canadian coin and stamp collections. By my 20s, it was all stamps. My dream at the time was to have a complete Canadian collection – all 600 or so different stamps as listed in the current Scott Catalogue. Alas, not all dreams come true.
Most stamp collectors remember the huge price increases for Canadian material that shocked us in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I won't get into details, but let's just say that unless Conrad Black had a daughter I could marry, there was no way I could afford the 20 or so stamps needed to complete my collection.
As they say, when a door closes often a window opens up. While complaining about the high cost of stamps to a dealer friend of mine in Holyrood, Ontario, (Reg Powell of Queen's Bush Stamps), I was shown a wonderful circa 1910 patriotic postcard (see Figure 1). The design was intriguing, the colours were
spectacular and it was as Canadian as a hockey stick.
I had found a new hobby (deltiology) to satisfy my collecting bug without having to marry into money. I soon learned that there was a staggering amount of beautiful antique postcards available, they were relatively inexpensive (the Figure 1 card was only $5 at the time) and covered any subject you could imagine.
Figure 1. A beautiful, multi-coloured and embossed circa 1910 postcard with the Ontario Red Ensign, twig munching beaver and maple leaves.

Postcards weren't always so pretty. Invented in Austria in 1869 as a novel way to send messages through the post without an envelope, the first postcards were usually buff coloured, had an imprinted stamp and very little artistry.
Canada's first postcard, issued June 1, 1871, (see Figure 2), was a little sexier than most of the European versions, but still quite drab. By the way, Canada was the first country outside Europe to issue postcards. The USA's first postcard was issued May 12, 1873.
Figure 2. Canada's first official postcard, issued June 1, 1871. It was a nice looking card at the time, but postcard design had a long way to go.

Until the 1890s, the Post Office in Canada had a monopoly on the manufacture, distribution and sales of postcards. Privately produced cards could be mailed as "printed matter," but could not be called postcards and take advantage of domestic and international postcard rates. The monopoly ended on New Year's Day 1895 when Post Office regulations finally allowed privately produced postcards. This New Year's gift did come with a catch – private postcards had to conform to a restrictive set of specifications.
The most noteworthy restriction was the ban on putting anything other than the sender's and recipient's name and address on the stamp side of the card. By 1897, some of the restrictions were relaxed and soon pictures, ornate printing and advertising began to pop up on the stamp side.

The year 1897 was a watershed year for postcard design in Canada. Every year after, designs got better and better as private publishers competed for what was becoming a huge business in Canada and throughout the world. In the days before the telephone, postcard sending, receiving and collecting was unbelievably popular. Even after phones were introduced, postcards were nicknamed the "poor man's telephone" and continued to flourish.
When the Post Office finally amended regulations to allow the "divided-back" postcard in late 1903, the design floodgates really opened up. Inaugurated by Britain in 1902, the divided-back design effectively split the stamp side of a postcard into two halves. The left half could be used for the sender's message; the right half was reserved for the recipient's address (e.g., the postcard in use today). This freed up the entire flip side of the card for some amazing early 20th century designs (see Figure 3).
Figure 3. A very attractive Newfoundland postcard with a painted scene of St. John's harbour and portrait of Sir Robert Bond, Newfoundland's Prime Minister from 1900 to 1909.
With the advent of the divided-back postcard, the Golden Age of postcard collecting in Canada (1904-1914) began. Although collecting waned significantly after 1914 because of the horrors of WWI (see Figure 5) and the embargo on German-made cards, the Golden Age yielded enough cards to satisfy every modern collector. (Before WWI, German chemistry and printing techniques made her the most popular manufacturer of postcards for export to the world's publishers.)
Thanks to the postcard collecting craze in the Edwardian era, there is almost a limitless supply of these "miniature works of art" available to collect and enjoy today. Pick a theme, a location, publisher or artist and get started!

Figure 4. A British-made WWI postcard commemorating Canadian battles and victories, including Ypres, Vimy Ridge, etc.

Michael J. (Mike) Smith is an RMC graduate (Class of '77) and ex-naval officer who has been an avid collector of Canadiana for most of his life. His current passion is collecting and writing about Canadian antique postcards. He is currently working on his eighth postcard handbook. Visit

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