One of this year’s most significant philatelic anniversaries is likely to slip by without most collectors even noticing. It is the 150th anniversary of the release of our nation’s first postal card, an example of which is shown (Figure 1).
Figure 1. A mint example of our nation’s first postal card, Scott UX1.
Why the low collector interest? For whatever reason, interest in postal stationery (stamped envelopes, lettersheets and postal cards) seems to have waned greatly in the past few years. Part of the significance of the anniversary of our nation’s first postal card (among other things) is that, unlike the vast majority of postal paper of the period, the penny postal has a very specific release date connected with it – May 12, 1873. More on this in a bit.
Although postal cards are still released, they aren’t used by the non-collecting public nearly as much as they used to be, their primary purpose – brief communication – having been supplanted first with the broad distribution of the telephone and, ultimately, by email and text messaging.
But for about a century, postal cards played a vital – no, essential – role in the commercial and social development of the United States. This workhorse of American life and business was the primary source of brief communication to an entire nation for decades. They carried advertisements, reminders, personal notes, jokes, news of family joys, tragedies and triumphs, and countless invoices, orders and other business communications broadly to a rapidly expanding nation.
The time period of the postal card’s heyday spanned two world wars and countless other conflicts, as well as the infancy of telegraphy, the invention of the telephone, the birth and golden age of radio, the genesis of television, the birth and growth of the motion picture industry and the development of electronic communications.
The aeroplane (as it was called early on) was still just a dream in 1873, and space travel was nothing more than a fantasy. Despite these later world-changing major advances and developments, people still lived, died, laughed and engaged in all the mundane details of daily life – and much of this was recorded in one way or another on the postal card. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
If letter mail has been around for centuries, why did it take so long to develop the concept of the simple postal card? After all, it’s a piece of paper with preprinted postage and an open back for writing. The first postal card wasn’t even released until 1869, by Austria, four years before our own.
One big drawback to the concept of an open-backed postal card was the shocking idea of one’s private thoughts and communications being out there for all to see (hard to believe at a time when people share the most intimate aspects of their lives freely on social media, but I digress). It was also all about the money, or at least to postal administrations that feared a loss of revenue with the introduction of cheap postage.
Predictably, it seems consumers were more than willing to give up some privacy for the cheap, convenient postal card, but some in the U.S. Post Office Department saw a foreshadowing (unfounded, as it turned out) of a tremendous loss of postal revenue. After all, it was still adjusting to the postal rate reductions of 1851, despite the vastly increased volume of mail generated by cheaper postage.
The Post Office also was concerned that with the open back of the postal card there was the potential for users to write obscene, embarrassing or otherwise objectionable or offensive communications for all to see.
Figure 2. U.S. Postmaster General John A.J. Creswell, who was responsible for bringing the postal card to fruition. (Courtesy Library of Congress.)
Types of the First Postal Card
There are two main types of the 1-cent Liberty postal card, Scott UX1 and UX3, differing primarily only by watermark (see accompanying images).
The first type released (May 12, 1873) has a large, interlocking “USPOD” monogram watermark that appears once per card. This is Scott UX1, which catalogs for $375 mint (no writing or printing on either side), $70 unused (uncanceled, but may have writing or printing) and $25 used.
The second type, UX3, has a smaller, repeating “USPOD” monogram watermark. These cards have a current catalog value of $75 mint, $22.50 unused and $3.50 used.
A third type is an unwatermarked variety, Scott UX3a, which is listed only used, at $775. This variety also explains why there is no Scott UX2.
Originally, the unwatermarked card was listed as Scott UX1. But, when it was discovered through research that the unwatermarked type was never an authorized full press run (a small printing was likely used in July 1873, before the new dandy rolls with the smaller watermark were delivered, and there was a small trial press run authorized in May 1874), they were delisted as a major number and listed as a variety of UX3 (UX3a). Rather than renumbering the entire section or simply not having a UX1, Scott made the decision to list the large watermark type as UX1, leaving UX2 as a void in the numbering.
It should be noted that by the late press runs of 1875, the dandy rolls that impressed the watermark into the newly formed paper were wearing out and many small watermark types (UX3) either have very faint or nearly non-existent watermarks. Due to the premium attached to no-watermark cards (currently $775 used), expertization is highly desirable prior to purchasing one.
Detecting watermarks on the first postal card is not difficult; virtually any strong (preferably LED) light source will reveal enough of the watermark to determine type. For assessing either no watermark or different orientations of watermarks, the use of a light table and watermark fluid will suffice. There are premiums for different watermark orientations, as well as for stitch watermarks, an unintentional variety caused during the papermaking process.
The large USPOD monogramed watermark (UX1) appeared only once on each postal card.
The smaller USPOD monogramed watermark (UX3) was a continuous marking on cards, with more than one appearing on each card. The vertical stroke of the “P” is bent in this example – a premium variety.
Still, with multiple countries jumping on the bandwagon, U.S. Postmaster General John A.J. Creswell (Figure 2), recommended in his 1870 annual report that the United States release a postal card, but Congress did not approve this recommendation until August 8, 1872. At that point, Congress approved the authorization for the release of a 1-cent postal card, but there was no allowance made for an appropriation of funding to print them. U.S. Attorney General George Henry Williams (Figure 3), ruled that no contracts could be awarded for printing postal cards without proper funding, resulting in an additional delay, awaiting the necessary appropriation.
Figure 3. U.S. Attorney General George Henry Williams effectively delayed the release of the first postal card by not allowing any contracts to be solicited or let until money was appropriated by Congress to print the first postal card. (Courtesy Library of Congress.)
Finally, in December 1872, the appropriation was made, allowing the postmaster general to advertise for bids. On Feb, 27, 1873, the Morgan Envelope Co. of Springfield, Mass., was awarded a four-year contract to print postal cards and the USPOD announced such in a May 1 release. However, production problems dogged the company, which was unable to distribute any cards until May 12. Figure 4 shows a production specimen of the card from the first sheet printed that day and handstamped by the “U.S. Postal Card Agency.” The text on the reverse of the card (not shown) reads:
“The first Postal Card contract was awarded to the Morgan Envelope Company of Springfield Mass. March 28th 1873. The first issue of Postal Cards began on the 12th day of May 1873. The first perfect sheet of Postal Cards ever printed, contained thirty-six (36) cards, and was approved by the U.S.P.O. Department April 30th 1873. I certify that this Postal Card was taken from the first sheet approved by the Department. Geo. N. Tyner, U.S. Postal Card Agent.”
Figure 4. Specimen example of a postal card printed on the same day it was released in Springfield, Mass. (Courtesy Robert A. Siegel Auction Galleries.)
A supply of cards was immediately sent to the local Springfield Post Office, where they were placed on sale the same day. This was followed by Hartford, Connecticut; Boston; New York City; and Washington, D.C., on May 13, and Philadelphia and other large cities May 14 and shortly thereafter. Thus, the well-documented May 12 date is an actual first day of release for the card, not just an earliest-known use; but all of these early dates are rare and eagerly sought by specialists.
Figure 5. Postmarked May 14, 1873, the day after the postal cards were made available in Harford, Conn., this promotional card was mailed.
Shown (Figure 5) is one of the first promotions (if not the first) of this new communication and promotional tool. The card was postmarked May 14 in Hartford, the day after it was first available there. Case, Lockwood & Brainard was already one of the largest printers in Connecticut, and immediately recognized the potential of the postal card. The firm was able to secure a supply of the new cards on the first day they were available in Hartford (May 13), set text, print a promotional message and mail them the following day, long before the cards were available in most places. This was an extraordinary turnaround time for a printed product. This particular example was mailed to the company of E. Tucker & Sons, a contemporaneous and local dealer in paper and twine.
The printed message on the reverse of the card, shown in Figure 6, reads:
"SPECIMEN COPY of the NEW POSTAL CARDS, exhibiting one of the uses to which they are adapted, viz.: as a cheap, convenient, and effective method of Advertising. The undersigned are prepared to furnish them in large or small quantities. Also, to do Wood Cut, Price List, and Job Printing, and to make every description of Blank and Account Books, Town Records, Memorandums, etc., to order, in the best manner, and at low prices."
Figure 6. The reverse of the Figure 5 card, printed and mailed within a day of receiving the first cards available at Hartford.
Varieties of the First Postal Card
The so-called “Big Hole” plate variety (of which there are several types) is the most major plate variety found on the nation’s first postal card. The enlarged inset. left, shows the variety more clearly.
In addition to paper and ink color variations collected by specialists (and there is a large variety), there are several notable and highly collectible plate varieties that can still be found in collections and dealer stocks containing quantities of these postal cards.
By far, the most notable of these is the so-called “Big Hole” variety, an example of which is shown above, and that can be found on both types of cards. Deceptively, this is not just one variety, but is found from actually four different subject plates (a complete collection would include 16 cards). How to distinguish these sub-types is beyond the scope of this article, but there are significant premiums associated with all types of the Big Hole variety, which is most easily recognized by the apparent “dent” near the upper left of the left vertical frame.
Case, Lockwood & Brainard Hartford, Conn.
True to form, the postal card proved to be a fantastic advertising tool for business and was immediately popular with postal patrons. Figure 7 shows the reverse of a card, an example of just one of the intricate illustrated advertisements known on these cards and Figure 8 shows an 1875 piece of sheet music inspired by and written about the new-fangled and popular postal card, The Postal Card Galop. (A galop is a lively form of dance music that originated around 1800, reached its peak shortly after the Civil War and nearly disappeared by the 20th century.) Figure 9 shows an inset of the “postal card” from the cover of the sheet music, a close, but apparently legal, facsimile of the real thing.
Figure 7. Just one example of hundreds of different intricately designed and printed illustrated advertisements found on the first U.S. postal card, considered a pioneer postcard.
Figure 8. The Postal Card Galop sheet music, released in 1875, due to the popularity of this new medium. (Courtesy of Library of Congress.)
Figure 9. Detail of the “postal card” shown on the cover of the Figure 8 sheet music – a fairly decent facsimile of the real thing.
To return to the pictorial advertising for a moment, there are hundreds of designs known, all of which are also of interest to deltiologists (postcard collectors). Because a true picture postcard was not legally available until after a congressional act of 1898, postal cards bearing pictorial advertising images are considered “pioneer postcards” and can, in some cases, be worth hundreds of dollars due to the cross appeal to two different hobbies.
Oddly, the first postal card had an effective life of only two years, having been replaced by the second Liberty design of 1875 (Figure 10), but not because the card wasn’t popular. In all, nearly a quarter-billion postal cards were produced during those first two years! According to the United Postal Stationery Society, there were slightly more than 31 million No. UX1 produced, and almost 208 million of No. UX3.
Figure 10. The first postal card type was replaced by this design in 1875.
But there was a need for change. Paper and ink were two of the largest obstacles. Much of the watermarked paper stock used for the first card was inconsistent in quality and difficult to print on. Further complicating matters was not only providing a more or less consistent brown ink color at a time when pigments were ground by hand, but the brown ink proved abrasive and difficult to work with. The new card was printed on a non-watermarked paper stock (except for an early printing using up old stock) in black ink and, although there were some changes made, that design served the public for 10 years, not being replaced until 1885.
Our first postal card has been studied a great deal over the past 150 years, with the dean of postal cards being the late Charles Fricke (1921-2017), who built on early studies and added tremendously to them, including a virtually comprehensive plating study.
Fricke ultimately published hundreds of articles and two books devoted to the cards. Those titles, A Contemporary Account of the First United States Postal Card (which traces its development from concept through reality utilizing official correspondence, newspaper articles and other contemporaneous accounts), and Plating the First United States Postal Card (which lays out a comprehensive study of the card and its varieties) are considered essential works for anyone seriously contemplating the study of these cards. Both books were first published in 1973, on the occasion of the centennial of the first U.S. postal card. These classic references and have just been updated and republished by the United Postal Stationery Society this year. Details are available through UPSS, PO Box 3982, Chester VA 23831-3982, or on the group’s website, https://www.upss.org/code/publications.php.
That Mysterious Line
The first U.S. postal cards (UX1 and UX3) are the only ones to feature address lines. While this was a handy thing for some, it proved difficult for others and downright baffling for many.
In addition to the three ruled lines beginning with a script “To,” there was a shorter fourth line at lower left, directly adjacent to the bottom of the three primary lines.
It was a simple thing for most to deduce that the three lines were intended for recipient’s name, street address and city and state (some simply used them for recipient, city and state). But what was the purpose of the fourth line? No one really knows for sure, and the USPOD never stated a purpose. Since the space was available, it was used.
According to a non-statistical survey of about 2,500 cards created by postal card student Bradley Horton some years ago, about 10 percent of postal card users found some use for the additional line. Those uses include (oddly enough) name of recipient, street address, city and state, but a number of other uses were noted as well. Among those that make the most sense, he observed county, date of writing, company or business name, profession or title of recipient, department of a company, building name, post office box number, sender’s name, date of mailing, postal instructions (“please forward,” “care of,” routing “via” and others), message (such as “in haste”), advertising, subject of message, a decorative design and more.
In addition, some recipients utilized the space to docket date of receipt. Whatever the purpose, many notations found their way to the mystery line. Have you seen others?
This preprinted postage-paid reply card utilized the extra “mystery line” at lower left to add the country name to their address. It is possible this was the original intended purpose for the line.