Looking Back: Postcards as items of art

They used to be a quick, easy and cheap way for people to communicate

A summer exhibit at the Maple Ridge Museum: “Art of the Postcard.”

Through the constant stream of pictures on TV and the internet, either selling or showing us something, it is hard appreciate the popularity of the picture postcard as something more than a novelty.

Postcards, as we are familiar with them today, have taken a considerable amount of time to develop.

First restricted by size, colour, and other regulations, postcard production blossomed in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Postcards were popular because they were a quick, easy and economical way for people to communicate with each other.

By 1900, subject cards had been published, featuring the Boer War and royal events, and in that year, the post office allowed both address and message to be written on one side of the card, freeing up the whole of the other for the picture.

Britain became the first country to introduce the ‘divided back’ postcard format we are familiar with today.

According to Breaking News: The Postcard Images of George Alfred Barrowcloud: “In 1901, 5.4 million Canadians sent 25 million postcards, and 178,659 British Columbians posted 760,000 cards. In 1910, seven million Canadians sent off 45 million postcards; and 407,000 British Columbians posted 2.7 million cards. These numbers pale in comparison to the U.S. … and seem paltry when it is remembered back in 1903, 58 million Germans had already posted over 1 billion cards.”

Given the popularity of the postcard album, it’s certain that countless more were purchased, but never mailed.

Today deltiology, or the collection of postcards, is a popular hobby.

The First World War changed the emphasis of the subjects featured, and afterwards picture postcards never regained their popularity.

Commercial postcard photographers concentrated their efforts where the money was, which typically meant photographing places visited by tourists. The photochrome postcards were in colour, and their images closely resemble photographs, which are the ones most familiar to us today.

In the 1990s, the advent of e-cards and e-mail started the decline of the postcard’s popularity.

Today, postcards are typically purchased as souvenirs, rather than a quick way to communicate.

The Maple Ridge Museum’s kick-off to summer exhibits in the public library begins in July on the “Art of the Postcard.”

Illustrating the different eras of postcards, along with showcasing cards and albums from local household collectors, with mention to George Alfred Barrowcloud and his impact. He was one of the few Canadian photographers that showed interest in happenings beyond city limits, going into the Fraser Valley producing unique panoramas, and photographing people and places that were off the beaten track.

And also where the postcard finds itself today, viewed more as an art item.


– Allison White is curator of the Maple Ridge Museum.



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