THE WORLD'S FIRST post card was issued in Austria on Oct. 1, 1869, and proved so popular that many other countries followed suit--Britain and Switzerland in 1870, for example, and the United States in 1873.
The first postal cards--as they were called--issued by the General Post Office in Great Britain were not elaborate; they were designed to hold the address on one side and a message with a simple illustration on the other. Such cards came complete with a printed halfpenny stamp. It was not until 1894 that independent companies issued post cards for use with an adhesive stamp. Oddly enough, picture post cards were not generally available in the United States until the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, when government-printed cards with color views of the exhibition were sold.
After that date, however, the use of picture post cards became widespread throughout the country, and their popularity was enormous. A great many fine artists produced cards: Charles Russell and Frederic Remington with Western subjects, for example, and Charles Dana Gibson with the beautiful portraits of women for which he is famous.
One of the earliest forms of the illustrated card (and a precursor of the post card) seems to have been the visiting card with a written message. About the middle of the 18th Century, visiting cards, at first plain and the size of playing cards, were printed and engraved in decorative style--often with classical designs, sometimes with landscapes and public buildings.
As post cards developed, they catered to almost every taste. They depicted views and places of interest, historical and social events; they were used for propaganda and political purposes and for advertising. They glamorized kings and queens, actors and sports figures; many of them were humorous. There were novelties of every description: cards that changed views when held to the light; revolving discs showing many pictures; cards that squeaked when pressed or that changed shape when a tab was pulled; cards made of leather, tin or even feathers.
Today, unusual antique post cards can be expensive. One such card, delivered on Sept. 20, 1902, after a flight from Manchester to Haslingden by Balloon Post, recently sold at auction for $2,500. Other prices: $25 for a 1910 color photolithograph of San Francisco; a view of the famous Sing Fat Co. Oriental bazaar in Los Angeles for $8, and garage-sale post cards that can sell for five for $1.
The post card itself is a remarkable social document, recording the many aspects of the past far more vividly and far more immediately than any history book. Colorful and inexpensive, the supply is virtually unlimited.
Old post cards are available at Cherokee Book Shop and Morrison & Kline in Santa Monica; Millstein's General Store in West Los Angeles; Westwood Coin Exchange in Westwood; Big White Elephant in West Hollywood; Dutton's Books in North Hollywood; Jay's Antiques in Pasadena; Century Antiques in Glendale; The White Elephant in Burbank; Collector's Thrift Shop in Santa Ana, and Snooty Fox Antiques in Ventura.