Vintage Postcards from the Early 1900s

How to Collect Colorful Vintage Postcards

Thanksgiving postcard illustrated by Samuel L. Schmucker and published by John Winsch in 1912

Collection of Pamela Y. Wiggins

The first deltiologists, also known as postcard collectors, approached the hobby casually. Most every home in the early part of the 20th century had a postcard album holding greetings from near and far. Students presented them to teachers, relatives used them to keep in touch at a distance, and an occasional beau would profess his love for his lady with a beautifully decorated card.

When antique dealers and collectors run across a Victorian postcard album now, the album itself is most often in tatters. The cards tucked safely inside, however, are beautifully preserved. In fact, for being more than 100 years old, most of these cards have held up remarkably well.

What Collectors Can Look for Today

Holiday Cards. Vintage holiday postcards from the early 1900s to the early 1920s are highly sought after today. Every holiday, from New Year's to Easter and Christmas, was commemorated with these bright, cheerful cards. The more obscure holidays are generally the most sought after, with Halloween cards being some of the most expensive and hard to find. Another popular theme for collectors is Santa Claus. Some of the rarer versions can be quite costly to add to a collection.

A postcard painting shows a child looking at a Thanksgiving turkey, 1909. Published by the International Art Publishing Company, the text reads 'Hearty Thanksgiving Greetings.'
Transcendental Graphics / Contributor / Getty Images

Well-Known Publisher Cards. Publisher's marks to look for on greeting postcards are John Winsch, Raphael Tuck & Sons, and International Art Publishing. These all have followings among collectors. Cards drawn by notable artists such as Louis Wain, Ellen Clappsaddle, Frances Brundage, and Samuel Schmucker, along with others, are also seen as desirable cards.

Art by Ellen Clappsaddle on a Halloween postcard produced in New York City circa 1910.
Transcendental Graphics / Getty Images

Photo View Cards. Photo view postcards dating to the 1940s and '50s, and even older versions, are also collectible. Many people enjoy searching for picture postcards of hometowns, landmark buildings, and varied vacation spots. Framed collections such as these make quite a conversation grouping when hung down a hallway. In fact, it's like taking a wonderful trip down memory lane for visitors to a home or business.

Humorous and Risque Cards. Some collectors choose humorous cards or those with a risque overtone, and these make unique groupings in the appropriate setting as well. The possibilities are endless when narrowing down your focus, or you can simply choose a variety of cards that appeal to you.

Shopping for Vintage Postcards

There's usually a stack or two of postcards to browse through in most antique stores or shows. For a dollar or two, you can find a little treasure to take home and add to your stash without going into debt. Nowadays, it might take $3 to $5 a piece to get a modest collection started, but that's still a very affordable price point.

Santa or Halloween cards, however, are rarely available to the casual browser and are hardly ever available for a dollar or two. In antique shops and at shows, collectors can expect to pay $5 to $100 or more for a Santa postcard. Halloween cards are very rarely available at all, except online. For bargain cards, keep an eye out around Valentine's Day, St. Patrick's Day, and Thanksgiving by digging through a basket here and there. Common birthday and photo view cards usually sell for $1 to $5 apiece as well. Attend a book and paper show, and you'll be wowed with all the possibilities in every category.

Many postcard fans turn to online auctions these days to add Santa and Halloween cards to their collections. Hard-to-find Fourth of July cards can be found through online shopping as well. Prices vary widely, and there are times when the same Halloween card will sell for $25 one week, and $100 the next. With so much volatility, it's wise to watch the market before getting carried away with buying. Closely watch the condition variations as well to make sure you don't overpay.

A Word About Reproductions

Vintage postcards have been widely reproduced, especially Halloween examples and the most popular Christmas postcards featuring Santa Claus. Most of these are not embossed like the originals and some will note that they are reproductions somewhere on the card. There's nothing wrong with enjoying reproductions if they fit your collecting style. Just be sure you're getting the real deal if you do decide to splurge on a rare card.