Developments before the Golden Age of Theatre Postcards - 1840-1901

Penny Black The world's first adhesive postage stamp, the Penny Black, was issued in Great Britain in 1840. (Before that, it was the recipient and not the sender who paid for delivery.) As a proof of payment and to prevent illegal reuse of the postage stamp, a hand-stamped cancellation mark was used. Other governments, realising the revenue-benefits of the new system, began to follow suit - first in Europe and then, in 1847, in the United States. As postal services were seen to cheap and reliable, they rapidly became widely used. Although a few individuals and companies did send cards by post, it was to be some time before post cards were issued.

Accepting a suggestion made by Dr Emanuel Hermann, the Austrian Post Office issued the world's government postal cards on October 1, 1869. They had an imprinted stamp (costing half the normal letter rate) and only the name and address of the recipient could be written on the back. The Corresponendz Karte ('Correspondence card') was a great success and, in the next few years, Austria's example was followed by many other countries - Germany in 1870, the United States in 1872 and Japan in 1873.

There were, of course, individual and companies who continued to send out their own cards - but those that did so had to pay the full letter rate. Moreover, in the United States, private cards could not have the single word 'Postcard' on the back of the card.

The United States Postal Service's monopoly of the cheap postcard rate was ended on May 19, 1898, when Congress passed the Private Mailing Card Act that allowed private companies also to print cards that could be sent at the lower rate. The words 'Private Mailing Card' had to be printed on the back of these private cards, the government retaining an exclusive right to the word 'Postcard'.

The Golden Age of Postcards 1901-1914


On December 24, 1901, the United States Government permitted private companies to print the words 'Post Card' or 'Postcard' on the undivided back of cards and to cease using the required words 'Private Mailing Card'. This meant that, in the United States (as in many other countries), writing was still restricted to the front of the card. If people chose not to use a plain postcard but one of the many with an illustration on the other side, they had to write what they wished in whatever space was available.

The government-imposed postal restriction slowed down the development of photo postcards that had begun to appear in 1900. Known as 'Real Photo' postcards, they were printed on film stock paper. Although the majority of these were either trade or private cards, many were portraits of popular entertainers.

Dorothea Baird Constance Collier Lena Ashwell Cecilia (Cissy) Loftus Edith Wynne Matthison Irene Vanbrugh
Click image to enlarge

In 1902, Great Britain became the first country to allow divided back cards, allowing senders to write both a message and the recipient's address on the back of the card. France took the same decision in 1904, as did Germany in 1905 and the United States in 1907. This important change ushered in the Golden Age of Postcards.

With the development of printing technology and the growing demand of the public to have postcards with high quality photographic images, an ever-growing number of companies began publishing postcards.

At a time when post mailed first thing in the morning to an address in the same area would be delivered in the afternoon, the cheaper rate of postage for postcards guaranteed enormous sales.


It is estimated that, during this time, the number of postcards purchased doubled every six months. The United States Post Office declared that, in the fiscal year ending June 30, 1908, a total of 677,777,798 postcards had been mailed (or just over 8 for each person living in the country). Of this total, it is estimated that European postcard publishers produced over 75%.

The printing quality of Edwardian postcards varied considerably. Several companies (including Rotary, Philco and Davidson) produced high quality real photos, while others manufactured badly printed copies on cheap paper that were obviously intended only for those wanting to amass a large collection. British companies also distributed postcards with high-quality coloured photos that were all printed in Germany. At this time, British and American companies produced, in comparison, only second-rate coloured prints.

Although most of the postcards published dealt with tourist or hometown attractions, many were concerned with the theatre and its extremely popular stars. Although there was a legitimate theatre catering largely for an affluent social elite but, for the rest of the population, the most popular form of public entertainment was variety and the music hall. People were fascinated by the lives and adventures of the theatrical stars. In this period, it had become, at last, socially acceptable to be an actress and, perhaps in imitation of the King Edward whose fascination with young theatrical women was notorious, many aristocratic males made actresses their mistresses and even, occasionally, their wives.

During this Golden Age, it is generally believed that the collection of postcards became the most popular collecting hobby that has ever existed.

You may also be interested in these associated sites:

A History of Playbills and Theatre Programs

The Golden Age Of British Theatre

The Camerino Players

Medieval Drama Links

Bibliography of Cornish Medieval Drama

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