Instant messaging and instantly available SmartPhone photos have replaced traditional forms of communicating by phone, letters, greeting cards, and postcards.

Postcards were the first method of instant messaging — a quickly-written message of “I am thinking of you,” or “I will be home this weekend,” or maybe “Wish you were here.” No envelope needed and cheap postage.

The following is a brief history of postcard design. More in-depth study can date a card by the type of paper, ink, the printing equipment used, and the postage stamp.

1893 — 1898, Pioneer Period: Postcards made their debut at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Vendors used them for advertising their company or exhibit. The cards were undivided — one side for the address and the other for the message.

1898 — 1901, Private Mailing Card: The U.S. government gave permission to private printers to print and sell postcards — they were printed with Private Mailing Card.

1901 — 1907, Undivided Back: Cards had an undivided back, with the address on the back and message on the front. Post Card was printed on the card.

1907 — 1915, Divided Back: With a picture on the front, and the back for the address of recipient plus a message.

1915 — 1930, White Border: A time when reprints were made of Divided Back cards, as German postcard imports to the U.S. ceased.

1930 — 1945, Linen: Picture postcards became popular and the photos were printed on paper with a linen surface. This was the height of postcard use, as Americans were traveling more and sending postcards.

1939 — present, Photochrome: Look closely and you will find the word chrome somewhere on the colorful, slick-surfaced card.

Postcards and genealogy? Maybe you don’t have a picture of the hometown of an ancestor. Or a family story needs an image with it. Perhaps you know that a relative traveled — postcards can provide photos of the time and place.

Before you toss family collections of postcards, look through them and learn more about your ancestor. In 1999 I found my Grandma’s (born 1890 and died 1976) scrapbook of postcards. Many were like greeting cards, with beautiful artwork. I learned a few things about Grandma. Reading cards from several “suitors,” I gathered that she was a bit of a flirt. And one card from her mother admonished her with “you will be sorry” for doing handstands and cartwheels when she was six-months pregnant with her first child. If I were writing about her, this independent spirit would add to the story.

Garage sales, museums, antique stores, as well as online websites can be good places to find cards. My favorite source is eBay. I type in the town, browse the cards and, at no cost, maybe view a street where an ancestor lived.

“Learning history can put an ancestor in a time and place.”

Becky McCreary is a member of Southern Arizona Genealogy Society and teaches “Storytellers: Writing family stories.” Genealogy Today articles are archived at The column may not be reprinted without the written consent of the author:

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