Uncommon Treasures: Vintage Photo Cards

What is a photo card? A typical answer would be “It’s a greeting card or a postcard with embedded photos of family members or friends.” This is true, however, each photo card is also a design project which reflects a style of the epoch in which it was created.  A photo card may become a family memorabilia or a collectable. Thus, it is not just a stationery product, but rather a way to preserve family history.

The first photo cards became popular more than one hundred years ago, along with the development of photography. Since the mid-nineteenth century, photo studios in Europe and North America have been offering their clients mailable photos in a lithograph printed and hand colored paper frames. Such framed photos quickly became popular.

However, the official history of photo cards started with the so called “cartes de visite,” – miniature photo portraits which were used as calling cards. At approximately 2 ½ x 4 inches in size, they could fit in any envelope and caused the collecting obsession during the 1860s, which became known as Cartomania. People collected photos of celebrities and views of favorite places and sites. Sometimes cards were mailed to celebrities printed on them in the hope to receive them back signed. If a card was returned, it would be placed in a special album.

In 1903 Kodak introduced a new camera, designed for postcard-size film, which allowed the general public to take photographs and have them printed on postcard backs. This was the beginning of the custom photo cards era. Christmas, Easter and Valentine’s Day photo greeting cards were printed in black & white, and then colored with aniline dyes. Many photo studios developed their own design templates which allowed embedding customers’ photos.

Click on cards to view larger. Images from http://www.loc.gov, http://www.photographer.ru & http://www.commons.wikimedia.org

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