The magic of early picture postcards

I’m prone to misquote Dr. Johnson in saying “He who is tired of postcards is tired of life” (actually he said London). Samuel Johnson (who has statues to him in Lichfield and London) found the capital endlessly fascinating, and liked nothing better than to wander round exploring it. I feel there’s much the same satisfaction in postcards, which themselves reflect the whole of life. Pictures, messages, publishers, artists, postmarks, senders and recipients all provide a stimulus for exploring the background to each postcard, whether that’s a 1960s view of Butlins, a World War One soldiers’ postcard, or an Edwardian view of a suburban back street. But I believe the rela gems are the early picture postcards produced in the five years after the Post Office allowed private firms to publish postcards that could be mailed with an adhesive stamp, from 1st September 1894. Before that, the Post Office itself controlled the supply of postcards, from their own first plain ones in 1970 through various official pictorial commemorative issues, to advertising cards produced for businesses. All these had a preprinted stamp on the card.

The Scarborough firm of ETW Dennis was the first to get a foot in the door, with a couple of artist-drawn views of North and South Bays. The earliest posted one was on 15th September 1894. Other publishers joined in, again with sketches – photographic cards did not appear in any quantity until c.1902. Most of the early postcards were of court size (115 x 89mm) or intermediate size, rather than the Edwardian format we are so familiar with. The message had to appear on the picture side, with the back reserved for the address, so the pictures only occupied a small part of the front.  It was foreign tourists and business people who bought these early cards – the majority are found posted to Europe – and the British public’s enthusiasm for postcards was slow to take off. Not until Raphael Tuck began publishing cards, and marketing them aggressively, did a home audience arrive. For years we’ve traced the earliest postcards produced for each location in the U.K., judged by a posting date, and the results are published in Picture Postcard Annual, updated when necessary. It’s fair to say that only a small minority of collectors go for these beautiful early cards, but they are the classics of picture postcard history. And only one person can own the earliest postcard from Margate, Leeds, Lichfield or wherever.  I think Dr. Johnson would have loved them.



  1. A beautifully illustrated postcard of London, published by German firm Blumlein and posted to Germany in December 1897.
  2. Soutahampton court card, published by E.J. & Co. (a local firm?) but printed in Germany. It was posted to Holland in December 1898.
  3. I once had the earliest known postcard of Hastings! This one was sent to Germany on 10th August 1895. Then someone else showed me a Hasings card posted… a day earlier!
  4. Back of the Hastings postcard.


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