I just went to eBay’s “Collectibles” category and clicked on “Postcards”: 1,788,849 results were noted, in categories ranging from “Advertising” and “Amusement Parks” to “U.S. States, Cities & Towns” and “International Cities & Towns” (along with “Supplies & Reference” – i.e., postcard sleeves, album pages, etc., for collectors – and “Other,” some 100,000 miscellaneous cards).
That’s a lot of postcards! And yet, almost all of the categories concern the subject matter of the images on the cards; only one, “Real Photo,” relates to the artwork, the production process or the texture of the cards.
This is interesting, because postcards have changed a lot over the past 125 years or so that they have been in regular use – since before most people had telephones, and in some places the mail was delivered twice a day. Most very early postcards that I’ve seen were plain-Jane functional – basically, index cards with printed postage on them, a design that the U.S. Postal Service was still selling up until fairly recently, if they aren’t still. As lithographic processes advanced, postcards got more artistic and more colorful and were generally printed on better card stock to hold the ink.
In the early 1930s – when art deco style was the look – “linen” postcards (printed on paper card stock with a linen-like appearance) went into large-scale production. They are easily recognizable, the “Greetings from [fill in the place]” kind (known as large-letter cards, which were actually depicted on a series of U.S. postage stamps) being the most famous examples: printed in striking pastels, with a matte cross-hatched textured finish that, if you hold the cards up to the light, actually looks like a linen weave.
Rare, striking and unusual linen cards are highly sought after by collectors, not simply for their graphics but because they absolutely scream post-Depression, World War II and postwar America. There are 1939–40 New York World’s Fair cards, “Keep ’Em Flying” wartime cards, direct-mail product adverting cards, Route 66 cards and diner cards and a gazillion other roadside cards from the early baby boom, when many American households bought their cars and started to hit the road to see the country they had defended against fascism.
To me, an avid although sporadic collector of linen cards, these are windows to an era, a time when people actually WROTE messages to one another, stuck stamps on and popped them in a mailbox. Some linen cards are just so cool, they are models for advertising artists even today – and just light-years ahead of e-cards in terms of design sense. (Again, if art deco is your thing, then linen postcards may be just the collecting area for you: Check out the many Miami Beach hotel cards and the ones featuring streamline diners and locomotives and Greyhound bus stations.)
The guy who “wrote the book” (the first real book, as far as I’m concerned) on linen cards – as well as a price list for the clueless – is Mark Werther, a Pennsylvania architect and orchid grower who collects a lot of different things (porcelain, flamingos, Mexican sombreros) who not only hits all the postcard shows he can but has also written many articles for Barr’s Postcard News (www.BarrsPCN.com), the Time magazine of postcard collecting. Mark’s volume, co-authored with Lorenzo Mott, is titled “Linen Postcards: Images of the American Dream” (published in hardcover 2002 and available for $39.95 on Amazon.com) is both art book and reference work, as is his paperback “Linen Postcards: Images of the American Dream Price Guide 2004” ($11.95 on Amazon); in fact, considering that many sellers of postcards on eBay don’t really know a linen card when they see one (and beware the difference between “linen” and “linen era” cards: Read on …), I think these are a must. (Note: Mark is working on a new price guide, hopefully available this summer.)
I first read about Mark in 2002, when “Linen Postcards” was just published, in an article about linen cards written by Bart Ripp, one of the best writers the Tacoma News Tribune has had in recent years. (They got me hooked on linen cards – as if I needed another hobby.) I have asked Mark his advice many times over the years and am much impressed not only with his experience but his artistic sensibilities (again, he’s an architect): You may not be lucky enough to find a Rembrandt etching at your local Goodwill thrift shop, but Mark may help you spot a great and possibly valuable linen card among a box of postcards the next time you go to a garage sale or flea market.
Recently I asked Mark for some basic information on linen postcards:
AmeriCollector: When were linen postcards produced?
Mark Werther: There were forms of linens produced in the United States as early as 1906 or 1907. What is considered a classical linen postcard was first issued in 1931 by Curteich of Chicago. Linen cards were produced until about 1959.
AC: What’s the difference between a linen card and a “linen era” postcard? How can you identify a linen card?
Mark: A linen card has a raised pattern of fine lines usually perpendicular to each other, similar to linen fabric. All the linen cards required intensive rendering work from craftsman. The number of lines, depth and pattern vary greatly from manufacturer to manufacturer. There were other cards produced during the 1931–59 linen era using matte paper with no raised line patterning. I believe that these matte cards are as valuable as the linens. Other types of cards, like chromes (shiny picture-type cards), also started during the linen era but are in totally different category
AC: Why did postcard makers stop making linens, and what were they replaced by?
Mark: Linens were produced for close to 30 years. That is a long run. When the chrome-type cards were perfected by the mid-1940s, they caught the interest of the public and were far less labor-intensive to produce than the linens, thus the start of the demise of linens. The popularity of the chromes, combined with the availability of inexpensive cameras in the mid-1950s, like Brownies and Anscomatics, allowed the masses to take their own color pictures of the sites, so the linens were less desirable.
AC: What is the price range for linens? Are they going up in price? What are the rarest cards?
Mark: Linens have steadily risen in price, but they can still be found in 25-cent boxes. Usually, individual linens are in the $2 to $6 range. As the artistic quality, scarcity, and interest in the subject increases, so do the prices of the cards. Better-quality cards in categories like diners, drive-ins, great restaurants and advertising are commonly priced from $10 to $75. Great advertising cards that are scarce can command prices up to hundreds of dollars.
AC: What are the hallmarks of a great linen card? What are the most popular categories?
Mark: Lorenzo Mott, my friend and co-author of the “Linen Postcards: Images of the American Dream,” used the term “stunner.” A great linen card usually falls under the “stunner” category and is a card that is superior based on better graphics, color, contrast, sharpness, composition and display of subject. These cards stand out from the average cards. Luckily, the “stunners” can often be lesser-priced cards. The popularity of linens is in the eye of the beholder/collector.
AC: How important is condition in general? What condition issues make a card unacceptable for a collector?
Mark: I have always believed that unused, near mint to mint linens are the most valuable cards. (Note: “Mint” means no rounded corners, edge wear, creases, stray marks, stains or fading. – DC)
AC: How important is condition if a card is really rare?
AC: Should collectors avoid postally used cards?
Mark: There are collectors who like cancels and messages. It is a matter of setting one’s own standard. I have avoided the used cards, as they most often do not meet my requirement of near mint to mint condition. I do make an exception with those with special advertising, salutations and commemorative cancels and with important addresses and messages on the backs.
AC: What advice would you give a new collector? Where are the best places for collectors to find great cards?
Mark: I avoided postcards for nearly 30 years of collecting. There needs to be a catalyst that lights the collecting fire: a special subject, color, a time period, historical references. When I started, I relied on postcard dealers at paper and postcard shows. Unfortunately, they were not providing all of the answers. There was no one book on linens that covered the subject. My friend Lorenzo and I then decided, since we were doing the extra research, we might as well condense it into a book and published “Linen Postcards: Images of the American Dream” in 2001. This was followed by the price guide in 2004. So this sounds like a self-advertisement, but the book is still the only all-encompassing reference guide. It is a short course in one location and gives the new collector a great advantage in appreciation and identification of linens. For further information, there are individual references to diners, “large letters” and hotels, and specialty books on cartoons and some locations.
AC: When will your new price guide due to be published? How many price entries and photos will be in the book?
Mark: I plan on about 40 pages with updates on prices on the 500 images in the book: 100 images in the 2004 price guide plus another 200 images and prices. Hopefully it will be out by mid-2011.
AC: Are you discovering anything new about linen cards?
Mark: I am discovering new linens all the time and am amazed at the wealth of historic information contained in the images and descriptions. Especially rewarding is to find “stunners” that represent the best of the linens.
All images courtesy Mark Werther