In 1896, Congress fueled a postcard craze, completely by accident, when it introduced Rural Free Delivery of mail. A little more than a decade later, Congress kneecapped the phenomenon, again inadvertently. Representatives hoped the Payne-Aldrich Tariff of 1909 would help American printers cash in on postcards’ popularity. Instead, it ended up hurting the industry and undercutting the entire fad.
Picture postcards debuted in America in 1893 at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, serving as souvenir images of this special event. Postcards were already popular in Europe and caught on quickly in the United States, even though the Post Office Department (as the U.S. Postal Service was known at the time) initially charged the same two cent delivery rate as a regular letter. Yet Americans proved willing to pay for the novel prospect of mailing friends and family a pretty picture of their travels—or perhaps just the main street of the next town over.
Opportunities to buy postcards soon popped up everywhere. Enterprising printers, mostly in Germany, produced inexpensive and high-quality lithograph prints for American publishers. Postcards featured everything from national landmarks, like the U.S. Capitol, to small town places of note—often including the sometimes-interesting homes of local Members of Congress. Many cards simply reproduced photographs, but others incorporated embossing, foils, and other decorations. They soon made their way into shops on every corner in towns across the country.
A few changes in postal policy encouraged an explosion in the popularity of this colorful means of casual correspondence. In 1898, the rate to send a postcard was lowered to one cent. In 1899, an even more important catalyst occurred: Rural Free Delivery. It meant that the Post Office Department began home mail pickup and delivery at all U.S. residences, obviating a long trip to the nearest post office. Back in 1893, one-term Georgia Representative Thomas E. Watson introduced legislation for the service. Congress appropriated the small amount of $10,000 to try it out, though the Postmaster General balked at implementing such a big change on such a tiny budget. But in 1896, when Congress appropriated $40,000 for the project, the Post Office Department began rolling out home mail service for all.
The combination of being visually appealing, inexpensive to buy, and easy to send (and receive) meant postcards found an especially enthusiastic audience in the American countryside. Between 1905 and 1909, there was a 410 percent increase in postcards delivered to rural homes. Even more astounding, there was an 846 percent increase in cards collected from rural addresses. Through this “golden age” of postcards, usually dated from 1907 to 1915, Americans sent hundreds of millions of postcards every year. Pessimistic pundits wrote think pieces lamenting the inevitable decline in the art of letter writing, withering in the shadow of the one-liners scribbled on the back of picture postcards. These alarms were premature, however.
Although postcards never completely disappeared, their heyday peaked swiftly. The decline began soon after the passage of the Payne-Aldrich Tariff in 1909. Tariffs are taxes levied on imported goods. During this time before income taxes, tariffs were the most important source of revenue for the United States. The Payne-Aldrich Tariff intended to lower tariffs on most goods to support industries in the United States. Not everyone agreed that cheaper imports would help bolster their industry, and lobbying commenced among special interests. In a sea of proposed tariff cuts, postcards were a strange and specific object of particularly aggressive lobbying. Some printers, like International Art Publishing Company, argued for lower postcard tariffs. Their business flourished as the robust German printing industry provided them with high-quality products. The postcards printed there were known for their well-executed colors, embossing, metallic foils, and other embellishments that attracted enthusiastic consumer correspondents.
Others in the industry, though, felt differently. These printers argued that increased tariffs on postcards from abroad would help U.S. workers, including many skilled workers who could fill the gap created by fewer imports and increase revenues for domestic printers. When the tariff passed, the latter group carried the day. Imported postcards were taxed at a much higher rate than before: 15 cents per pound at import, and 25 percent at the time of purchase.
Ultimately, the tariff disappointed the domestic postcard industry. Despite the arguments of lobbyists that U.S. producers were up to the task, consumers and many sellers judged otherwise. Although American producers were plentiful, creating ample supply, the demand waned because they just weren’t making what consumers wanted. As the variety and quality of postcards dwindled, so did sales and postage revenue.
For the next few years, printing trade publications regularly bemoaned the declining state of their industry. In 1910, the American Stationer observed a connection between quality and sales figures, “If people want post cards, they will certainly insist on having the sorts which take their fancy, and it is the publisher who most correctly gauges public taste who gathers laurels of success, not the speculative producers, who think that any kind of rubbish, so long as it is ‘cheap’ is bound to sell.”
The following year, when the popularity of postcards was well into its decline, Novelty News, another trade publication, offered a scathing review of the state of postcard printing. The author, a postcard producer from Wisconsin, lamented the cheap quality and “abominably bad” colors of the current stock of American-made cards. “As these manufacturers apparently could not turn out as good a card as the German manufacturers, they probably believed a protective tariff would assist them to overcome the obstacle,” he observed. “We got the increased tariff at their behest, and the bankruptcy of hundreds of post card manufacturers and firms followed.”
And so died a fad. Although postcards persevered as travel mementos for decades to come, the numbers bought and sent never again approached the more than 900 million per year reached during their golden age.
Sources: An Act to provide revenue, equalize duties, and encourage the industries of the United States and for other purposes, P.L. 61-5 (5 August 1909); Daniel Gifford, American Holiday Postcards, 1905-1915: Imagery and Context (Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2013); Chicago Daily Tribune, 7 April 1907; New York State Public Library, “Wish You Were Here!: The Story of the Golden Age of Picture Postcards in the United States,” accessed 9 April 2020, http://www.nysl.nysed.gov/msscfa/qc16510ess.htm; United States Postal Service, “Rates for Stamped Cards and Postcards,” accessed 20 May 2020, https://about.usps.com/who-we-are/postal-history/postcard-rates.pdf; United States Postal Service, “Rural Free Delivery,” accessed 21 April 2020, https://about.usps.com/who-we-are/postal-history/rural-free-delivery.pdf.Follow @USHouseHistory