About Postcards

The Penny Post

The paid-for by sender or “penny post” postal system was developed by the great Victorian reformer Sir Rowland Hill in 1840. A cheap, standardised postage rate was introduced within the UK, and was paid for by the sender, who purchased a stamp to attach to the letter, rather than the receiver paying on delivery.

Prior to this it was the recipient of the letter that paid the fee due and each letter had to be weighed to calculate the cost. The postman had to wait for payment and the whole process was unnecessarily cumbersome. For many poorer households the postman’s knock can’t always have been a welcome sound! Few but the very well off were able to use the postal system. In the late 1830s the cost of sending a letter from England to Ireland was about a fifth of the weekly wage of a poor labourer.

Penny Black

Above – the first British stamp was the Penny Black, issued on the 6th May 1840 and which featured the head of Queen Victoria at 15 years of age.

An introduction to the Postcard

On the 1st October, 1869, the first postcard, a pre-printed correspondence card, was sent through the public postal service in Austria. The card had the address on one side and a message on the other, but no picture. Before this, there were advertising cards – sometimes posted – but more often than not hand-delivered.

Victorian postcard - Copy

Above an early British postcard.

As people caught on to the usefulness of this cheap and fast method of sending messages, the poor man’s telegram – remember the telephone did not yet exist – national postal services authorised the sending of postcards through their postal systems.

Date when postcards were first mailed:

1869 – Austria

1870 – Switzerland, Britain

1871 – Belgium

1872 – Russia, France

The first UK postcards, introduced by the Post Office in 1870, were plain cards with a pre-printed stamp. The sender wrote the address on one side of the card and a brief message on the other.

Postcards started to be sent internationally in 1875, after the first meeting of the General Postal Union www.upu.int in Berne, Switzerland.

First there was the ‘Undivided Back’- the address only on one side and the message, or later, the picture and message, on the other. The introduction of images started in the 1890s when small ‘vignette’ style pictures encroached on the message side of the card.

Salville House Enniscorthy FRONTSalville House Enniscorthy BACK

From the 1st September 1894, the British Post Office allowed postcards published by other than the government to be posted. A halfpenny gummed stamp had to be added to these cards before posting. Not having to print a stamp onto the card freed the postcard publishers to use any number of printing methods, and also to produce photographic images. The same year saw the first picture postcards produced in the UK.

In 1899 the UK adopted the internationally accepted standard postcard size of 4.75ins x 3.5ins – known as Court Cards. The address and stamp were on one side, while the other side held an image and any written message. Because the image often occupied a good deal of the space, the message would have to be crammed in to whatever space was left – quite an art in itself.

However, it was not until the advent of the ‘Divided Back‘ in 1902 that the postcard era truly arrived – the picture on one side and message and address on the other.


Even after the introduction of the ‘Divided Back’, it was still only possible to write a message on the address side when posting for delivery within the UK.  Consequently, the example above being for France could only have the address on the ‘Divided Back’!

Whether in the 21st century with the amazing advances in communications technology – the internet, digital photography, Skype etc. – the postcard still has a role remains to be seen. Postcard publishing seems to be reverting to a cottage industry with a large number of small operators turning out all sorts of specialised cards. The postcard is still being used by some businesses as a medium for advertising by way of direct mail but even this may just be a blip on the way to a paperless society.

The all too common racks of curly, discoloured cards hanging outside shops is certainly not the way to go unless postcards are to become solely the preserve of collectors.


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