The early 1900s ushered in the golden age of real picture postcards. According to U.S. Post Office figures, 677,777,798 postcards were mailed in 1909 alone. Not surprisingly, camera makers honed in on a need and began producing cameras like the 3A Folding Pocket Kodak Camera that shot real picture postcards instead of film. In 1903 such a camera fitted with a quality lens cost as much as $78 (that’s roughly $2000 today).
Affordable postcard-format cameras like the Chicago Ferrotype Company’s Mandel-ette postcard camera soon emerged. These were simple box cameras with fixed-focus lenses. In the back of the camera was a black changing bag through which the photographer moved an exposed paper negative to the built-in developer tank attached to the bottom of the camera. The best part was that in 1919 the Mandel-ette, complete with tripod and enough material for 116 postcards cost the grand sum of $7.75 ($173.81 in today’s funds). Itinerant photographers snapped them up and took to the road.
Enter the traveling photographer
Among them were children’s photographers who traveled with a pony, a donkey, or a handsome goat-drawn cart to act as props. Between the first decade of the new century and the early 1960s, thousands upon thousands of smiling children posed for their portraits holding the reins of the photographer’s sidekick—sometimes in costumes provided by the photographer and sometimes wearing the dress of the day. Since this was an era when few working class families could afford a camera, picture-taking day was a highlight of many young lives, especially if the child was posed on a pretty donkey, a pony, or in a photographer’s goat cart.
These charming images are popular collectables today. Most are 3¼”×5½” but Mandel-ette cameras also produced a 2½”×3½” card, though larger and smaller postcard backs could be used if desired (the smallest, just 1¾”×3″ in size). One of their beauties is that they’re inexpensive (few in my collection cost more than $15 apiece) and readily available. I find most of mine on eBay but flea markets and antique shops are fertile hunting grounds, too. Older relatives often have these winsome photos tucked away. Ask!
Sometimes details of the child (or children) are written on the back of vintage picture postcards, sometimes not. When not, there are several ways to determine roughly when the photo was made (collectors of goat and goat-wagon pictures are in luck; “goat men” often decorated their props with the names of towns they were working in, along with the year).
Undivided-back cards were printed and mailed between 1901 and 1907. Only the sender’s address—no other writing—was permitted on the back of the card. Messages, if any, were written on the photo itself. On March 1, 1907, the United States Post Office okayed the divided-back card; the address was to be written on the right side and any message to the left.
The postage on mailed cards sometimes dates them, too. Between 1872 and 1917 a 1¢ stamp mailed a card anywhere in the United States. As a wartime measure, postage rose to 2¢ in 1917, then dropped back to 1¢ in 1919. A penny carried a postcard to its destination until 1952, so most of these cards bear 1¢ stamps.
Paper manufacturers marked their postcard backs in various ways; if you can identify the paper manufacturer, you can approximate the age of the card. Stamp boxes (the area where the stamp is to be placed) varied widely from maker to maker, as did material printed on stamp backs, the top portion of the back that doesn’t include the stamp box.
Studying the photo itself may help do the trick. What are people wearing? Are there vehicles or architectural structures in the background you can date? Is there a flag in the picture (flags were popular props with some photographers); if so, with how many stars?
These treasures shine as wall decor and just plain interesting collectibles. Their value is largely subjective: while investment-minded collectors avoid damaged cards, many of my favorites have a folded corner or a ding or two. Smiling children and a clean, well-cared for animal are my first concern; if the photo has been lovingly handled, so much the better.
These treasures are perishable and should be framed or stored using archival materials.