Postcards may have up to four different names printed on them or sometimes none at all. They are most often found on the card’s back, though they may appear on a front tab or even across the image. In place of a name, a logo is often substituted.
Who are these people? Sometimes we use guesswork to identify the references found on postcards. The most common name on a postcard is that of the publisher who commissions the postcard and supplies the image. The next likely name to be found is that of the printer who manufactured the card. Other names found may include the distributor who placed the cards in retail outlets, the photographer who supplied the initial photographic image or the artists’ nameif the card reproduces artwork. Often a single company performed more than one of these roles.
A number of factors can lead to confusion when trying to glean information off a postcard. Few cards were copyrighted. When a copyright and date does appear, it is usually for the photograph, not the postcard. The copyright date and the printing date usually do not match and could be decades apart. Large publishers, in search of images, often bought out the stock of photographers without giving any credit to them. Even photographers who bought the photo inventory of another photographer, would often publish those images with their own name on them. Because of this trade practice, we sometimes find two different cards with the same image being credited to two different photographers. More often than not, no one knew where an image came from.
Sometimes a card may have a distinct look of a well known publisher but that publisher's name will not appear on the card. These cards were often privately contracted by individuals, but it may have been through the recognized publisher or directly with the same printer that the large publisher used. While some publishers printed their own cards, others contracted this work out with a variety of printers, and consequently their cards may have many different looks. Because of the way postcards were manufactured any five and dime store could become a publisher. Sometimes a local printer produced just a few different cards for a local store . While the facts concerning some postcard companies are well known, they remain a mystery for other companies. It should also be noted that many cards were published with no information about their sources.
HOW POSTCARDS WERE MADE
AND THE PEOPLE WHO MADE THEM
Postcards were manufactured in a variety of ways, some of which differed over time. Listed below are the major players in postcard production and their typical roles during the Golden Age. The process of creating a postcard took anywhere between two weeks and four months to complete.
Salesman - Printers and distributors both had salesmen working for them who would search out retail outlets for their cards; but in addition there were also independents who played a different role. Independent salesmen would often contact the same retail outlets, discuss an image they might want, and then make arrangements with a printer to have a card made. Not tied to any company, independent salesmen could search out the highest quality or lowest bid, depending on their clients' needs. Salesmen basically acted as middleman, employed to facilitate card production between a would be publisher and the potential printer.
Publisher - All cards start with a publisher’s intent to produce a postcard. First an image must be chosen. For view-cards a regular 5 by 7 inch photograph was usually required. Larger photographs were used but smaller ones were problematic. Even the image for an art card would be photographed, unless made directly from an artist’s etching plate or woodblock but this is rare. The next step was to send the photo to a printer and sign a contract to print a given number of cards for a set price. Printers required a minimum order of 500 to 8000 cards to create an economically feasible press run. This number was often determined by the type of press that would be utilized. When high-speed presses arrived, 25,000 cards would sometimes be printed at a time, but this was not applicable to all techniques. Since almost all postcards were made from black & white photos the publisher would have to specify the colors desired on the card. Many times the printer would just make them up. A number of the larger publishers were also printers.
So who were the publishers? They can be classified into four main categories. While individuals sometimes printed cards, this was rare but it was sometimes done for family use, similar to printing personalized note paper. Photographers were usually the only individuals who printed cards in small numbers. As postcards gained in popularity at the turn of the 20th century, the postcard format supplanted previous forms of popular photography. It was practically required for any commercial photographer to produce postcards to stay in business. Many not only published real photo cards, but their images were often turned into printed photo cards as well.
Small stores were the mainstay of postcard publishing. Tens of thousands of these establishments such as family owned pharmacies would either send their own photographs off to be printed or they bought cards directly from catalogs and salesmen. A few small businesses such as stationers were sometimes capable of printing cards on their own. Some of these cards were manufactured by small local commercial printers that were not in the postcard business. These publishers are responsible for the vast amount of view-cards that capture small town America.
Large businesses associated with the tourist industry were also major publishers of postcards. These included the Grand Hotels as well as the many steamship lines and railroads that brought people from one place to another. These cards were ussually contracted out with larger postcard publishers and they became a form of self promotion.
There were also large publishing houses with some being little more than middlemen moving cards from printers to stores while others were totally self sufficient from the printing of cards to their final distribution. It must be noted that some small companies produced large quantities of postcards for that was the main focus of their business. Some of the worlds largest publishing houses also began producing postcards at the beginning of the craze as well as other types of companies not normally associated with postcards. But despite their large size they often did not produce cards in quantity for they were only riding the wave of opportunity with this sideline.
Photographer - Anyone with a camera could make a contract with a printer to have a photograph turned into postcard. Small stores would sometimes hire a local photographer to take pictures for them. Many professional photographers also sent their work out to printers and supplemented their studio work with postcard sales. In this way they became publishers of their own work. Larger publishers had their own staff photographers that would travel the country capturing scenes of small towns and attractions. Sometimes publishers would acquire images from photo supply houses. There was little copyright protection and different publishers would use the same photograph.
Production Manager - Once the black & white photograph was printed it would go on to the printer’s production manager who would make decisions on how to alter it for postcard production. Notes regarding colors may have been provided by the photographer or the customer ordering the card. Many production managers were artists in their own right so in the absence of any instructions they could make these decisions alone. They might paint over image areas most open to interpretation to denote desired colors. Instructions might also be written directly on the photo to indicate other needed changes. Sometimes cut and paste techniques were used to alter the composition, or add or subtract various features. The photo would then be passed on to the retoucher to carry out the instructions.
Retoucher - Though some means of optical color separation was available through filtering since the 19th century, many postcards used nothing more than the eye of the printer’s artists. The retoucher removed all parts of the image on each plate except those that would print a designated single color. This could be based on the production managers instructions, or in their absence on his own creativity. Productions managers usually worded out general color schemes and important details but for the more mundane parts of an image such as sky or trees the retoucher made the decisions. Because skies were often washed out of the photograph it was the retoucher who would draw them in. It was during this process that any feature deemed unattractive within the composition could be removed. At other times objects showing specific fashion or other tell tale details were removed so not to date the card and give it longer shelf life. People, cars, and boats were also sometimes added. Many of these subjects were stocked as decals that could be transfered to the printing plate with pressure without the time consuming task of drawing them in. But if they were added to the picture plain at the wrong level, which all too often happened, they fell out of scale with the rest of the image. Tone was sometimes added in a similar manner by adding bed day patterns.
Printer - After the printer received the retouched negative from the production manager it would be copied onto a photo sensitive tissue. Depending on the process by which the postcard was to be printed a halftone screen might be needed to impart tonal gradations. This tissue would then be adhered to a plate or litho-stone and the image chemically transfered. This process would be repeated with a new plate for every color that was to be printed. Most printers would only use four basic colors while others might employ over twenty plates to produce a more natural look. Much retouching work was done at this point directly on the printing surface. The cost for monochrome printing obviously required less labor and was much cheaper, which also made it popular. Paper would be fed over each plate on the press printing one color at a time in perfect registration. Many images could be printed at one time on a single sheet if a large press was available. The large printed sheets or webs would be cut down to size after drying.
Distributor - While small publishers may have had cards printed to sell in their own store, larger publishers may not always have had specific customers in mind for the cards they printed. These cards would be handed over to distributors who already had business arrangements set up with jobbers on a national or regional basis. Many large distributors also published cards on their own, often using various printers as quality or price dictated. Some like news agencies distributed postcards among their own newsstands. Distribution was highly competitive and unfair practices often led to battles in court.
Some postcard companies functioned as the distributor for postcards from other publishers as well as their own. Advertisements would be aimed directly to the collector offering assortments of cards on different subjects. These cards were often priced below the retail price available to most consumers.
Jobber - Jobbers often purchased postcards from distributors or small publishers, who in turn would sell them to various retail stores or newsstands they had created ties with. Many small businesses needed to carry a variety of cards but couldn’t afford to publish them in quantity, so they bought their cards from jobbers who would sell the same cards to different stores. These middlemen could disperse large quantities of cards among the many. Jobbers were often in conflict with publishers and printers who sold postcards directly to retailers causing them to organize boycotts.
A highly detailed Alphabetical List with accompanying illustrations is provided,
with the expressed permission of the author, Alan Petrulis of the
Metropolitan Postcard Club of New York City. We thank Alan, who also
serves as Vice President of his club, for this contribution.
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