Dating and Authenticating Real Photo Postcards

Real photo postcards are postcards with genuine photographic images on the fronts. They do not have “ink-and-printing-press” images but are actual photographs on photopaper. They were designed and printed on the backs to be mailed, often having handwritten letters, addresses and postage stamps on the back.  

Real photo postcards with baseball subjects are popularly collected by vintage baseball card and memorabilia collectors, and prime examples of famous players and teams can fetch big bucks at auction.  However, real photo postcards can be found with a wide range of subjects, including other sports, movie stars, politicians,  nature and animals.  Vintage real photo postcards, including of non-sport subjects, is a major collecting area all around the world.

1920shighschoolteam
1920s high school baseball players
louisebrooks
1920s postcard of silent movie star Louise Brooks

Most real photo postcards were essentially family photographs and snapshots intended to be given to relatives and friends or to be put in the family album. The factory made real photo postcard photopaper that happened to be a convenient size for such purposes. These family photos and snapshots will show standard family poses, including little Jimmy in his school uniform, the family picnicking or a wedding reception.

Many vintage real photo postcards are family photos
Many vintage real photo postcards are family photos

Some real photo postcards were used for advertising or sold to the public at stores and are equivalent to trading cards– and, thus, actively collected by trading card collectors. Many of these show celebrities such as movie stars, sports stars and politicians. You can find examples picturing everyone from Ty Cobb to Red Grange to Greta Garbo to Thomas Edison.

Some famous sports photographers sold real photo postcards.  This includes George Burke (the photographer for the Goudey and Play Ball sets),  Carl Horner (the photographer for many early 1900s cards including the T206 Honus Wagner) and legendary boxing photographer Charles Dana.

circa 1936 George Burke postcard of Joe DiMaggio
circa 1936 George Burke postcard of Joe DiMaggio
Carl Horner postcard of the 1904 New York Giants
Carl Horner postcard of the 1904 New York Giants

 

Dating Real Photo Postcards

Real photos are dated by the back designs and text and, as shown later, authenticated by some basic knowledge of old photography.

In the United States real photo postcards originated in 1901. The American design of postcards was regulated by United States law and can be dated in general by the text and designs. Below is a brief description of the vintage designs.

Post Card Era (1901-1907) The use of the term “POST CARD” was granted by the government to private printers on December 24 1901. Earlier cards were called ‘Private Mailing Cards.’ Only the address was allowed to be written on the back of the card during Post Card Era. A blank panel was put on the front for messages.

Divided Back Era (1907-   ) Postcards with a divided back began March 1 1907. The address was to be written on the right side and the left side was for writing messages. This is the same style used today. The early images were ‘full bleed,’ meaning that they went all the way to the edge of the card. White borders were popularly introduced around 1915. In more modern times, both full bleed and white borders were made, but the white borders almost always date mid 1910s and after.

Post Card Era’ back: With the earliest real photo postcards, only the address could be written on the back. This back dates the postcard as being from 1901-07
Post Card Era’ back: With the earliest real photo postcards, only the address could be written on the back. This back dates the postcard as being from 1901-07
Divided back postcard. The left side was for the letter and the right side was for the address.
Divided back postcard. The left side was for the letter and the right side was for the address.

 

Giving an ApproximateDate to a Real Photo Postcard by the Stampbox Markings

Many real photo postcards have text identifying the brand of paper. If this text exists, they will be found in the stampbox. The stampbox is the little square in the upper right hand corner that the stamps are placed on.

If a real photo postcard has the stampbox text, the below chart will help determine the general period in which the postcard was made. (Chart courtesy of the2Buds.com).

The stampbox is in the upper right.
The stampbox is in the upper right.

 

Stampbox Markings  Dates

AGFA ANCO  1930s — 1940s

ANSCO (2 stars at top and bottom)  1940s — 1960

ARGO  1905 — 1920

ARTURA  1910 — 1924

AZO (Squares in each corner)  1925 — 1940s

AZO (4 triangles pointing upward)  1904 — 1918

AZO (2 triangles up, 2 triangles down)  1918-1930

AZO (diamonds in corners)  1907 — 1909

AZO (nothing in corners)  1922 — 1926

CYKO  1904 — 1920s

DEFENDER (diamond above & below stampbox) 1910 — 1920

DEFENDER (diamond inside stampbox)  1920 – 1940

Devolite Peerless  1950 and later

DOPS  1925 — 1942

EKC  1940 — 1950

EKKP  1904 — 1950

EKO  1942 — 1970

KODAK  1950 — present

KRUXO (nothing in corners)  1907 — 1920s

KRUXO (Xs in corners)  1910 — 1920s

NOKO  1907 — 1920s

PMO  1907 — 1915

SAILBOAT  1905 — 1908

SOLIO (diamonds in corners)  1903 — 1920s

VELOX (diamonds in corners)  1907 — 1914

VELOX (squares in corners)  1901 — 1914

VELOX (4 triangles pointing up)  1909 — 1914

VITAVA  1925 — 1934

azo text in a stampbox
azo text in a stampbox

 

Postage dates and stamps

Postally mailed postcards will have the dated postage cancellation stamp.  No better way to date postcard.  In fact, the blank backed Pinkerton Postcards were confirmed to be vintage (there were doubts by some collectors), because a few were found to have been used as postcards with 1910s postmarks on the backs.

1907 postmark
1907 postmark

 

Other tips between for telling the difference between genuine vintage examples and modern reprints

As old postcards can easily be reprinted on home computer printers these days, the following are some additional tips for telling the difference between vintage and modern reprints. As you might expect the counterfeit ones will be of primo subjects, such as Babe Ruth, Shoeless Joe Jackson and Jim Thorpe. Needless to say, it is good practice to buy from reputable sellers who guarantee authenticity. If you want a second opinion, PSA and SGC grade real photo postcards.

* Silvering in the image as sign of old age. Silvering is when it appears as if the silver has come to surface of the image. If it exists, it is more noticeable at the edges and in the dark areas of the image, and when viewed at a specific angle to the light. If you change the angle of the photo to a light source, the silvering will become stronger and darker, sometimes disappearing. It can range in intensity and often resembles a silvery patina.

The key is that silvering is an aging process and appears after decades. The presence of silvering is very strong evidence of a real photo postcard’s old age.

silvering is seen in the dark areas of this image.
silvering is seen in the dark areas of this image.

* Early real photo postcards are on thinner stock have matte backs, though the fronts can be glossy. If the back has a smooth, plasticy surface, it is modern. Kodak introduce plastic resin-coated paper in 1968.

* Cyantotype real photo postcards.  You will occasionally see real photo postcards with bright blue images. These are cyanotype photos, with cyan meaning light blue. Cyanotype was an old type process. Cyanotypes, even antique ones, don’t get silvering.

1906 cyanotype real photo postcard of a baseball team.
1906 cyanotype real photo postcard of a baseball team.

* If the front and back have a multi-color dot pattern under strong magnification, as on a modern baseball card or computer print, it is more than probably modern reprint, likely made on someone’s home computer.

 

Baseball Cagers

With March Madness approaching, let’s take a look at old Topps cards of players who excelled on the hardwood as well as the diamond. My focus is on cards that used cartoons to convey the players’ basketball prowess.

reed-frontreed-back

The first card I collected with a basketball cartoon was the ‘69 Ron Reed. He was a quality player at Notre Dame which resulted in the Detroit Pistons drafting him in the third round of the 1965 draft. He would go on to play for Detroit from ‘65-‘67. Ron had a long baseball career in which he became only one of eight pitchers with 100 wins and 100 saves.

gibson-frontgibson-back

Hall-of-Fame pitcher Bob Gibson was an outstanding college basketball player at Creighton in his home town of Omaha. He delayed his storied baseball career for a year to play with the Harlem Globetrotters.

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6’7” Frank Howard played at Ohio State where he was an All-American in both baseball and basketball. Frank was drafted by the Philadelphia Warriors but decided to sign exclusively with the Dodgers in ‘59.

debusschere-front1965-dave-debusschere-r1971-72-dave-debusschere-basketball

Dave Debusschere was a duel sport star at the University of Detroit who signed with White Sox and the Detroit Pistons in ‘62. He had brief stints with Chicago in ’62 and ’63, finally giving up baseball after 1965 season. Dave had a Hall-of-Fame basketball career which included two championships with the Knicks in the 1970s. Incidentally, Debusschere was player-coach of the ‘64-‘65 Pistons at the age of 24.

groat-frontgroat-back

The first Duke basketball player to have his number retired was ‘60 NL MVP Dick Groat. An All-American in ’51 and ’52, Groat was named UPI National Player of the Year in ’52. He was the third overall pick by the Fort Wayne Pistons where he played for one year. Dick was not only a key cog for the ’60 World Champion Pirates but helped St. Louis win the title in ’64.

hamilton-fronthamilton-back

Steve Hamilton was a two-sport athlete at Morehead State in Kentucky. He was drafted in ’58 by the Minneapolis Lakers where he played for two years including seeing action in the ’59 championship series loss to the Celtics. Steve had a 12 year MLB career as a relief pitcher primarily with the Yankees. By pitching in the ’63 and ’64 World Series, Steve joined Gene Conley as the only players to participate in a World Series and NBA final series.

conley-frontconley-back

The aforementioned Conley is the only player to win both an NBA and MLB championship. After his time at Washington State University ,where he played in the College World Series, Gene signed with the Boston Braves in ‘50. He concentrated on baseball for two years before signing with the Celtics in ‘52. He only played for the Celtics for two years before deciding to go back to baseball exclusively. Five years later, Gene changed his mind and rejoined the Celtics. He won championships with them in ‘59’ ’60, and ’61. His one appearance with Milwaukee in the 1957 World Series made him a duel champion.

obrien-frontthe-o-briens

Johnny and Eddie O’Brien were basketball stars for Seattle University in the 1950s despite being only 5’9”. Johnny was an All-American guard in ‘53 leading the Chieftains to the NCAA tournament. The twin brothers were drafted by Milwaukee Hawks but decided baseball was a more promising career path, signing with the Pirates in ’53. Both siblings played off and on from ’53 to ’59. Interestingly, both were position players and pitchers in the big leagues. Eddie and Johnny were the first twins to play for the same team (Pirates) in the same game.

dick-ricketts-2dick-rickettsricketts

Another basketball All-American was Duquesne’s Dick Ricketts who accomplished the feat in ’55. The 6’7” Ricketts was selected number one in the NBA draft by the Hawks in ’55 as well. Dick went on to play for the Rochester and Cincinnati Royals for three years. His major league baseball career consisted of 12 games with the Cardinals in ’59. Many of you may remember his brother Dave who caught for the Cardinals and Pirates.

harmon-frontharmon-back

Chuck Harmon was a star baseball and basketball player at Toledo in the late 1940s. He had a tryout with the Celtics in ’50 but didn’t make the team. Chuck signed with the Reds and became the first African-American player to appear for Cincinnati in April 1954.

ainge-frontainge-back

Danny Ainge was a standout basketball player at Brigham Young while playing baseball for the Toronto Blue Jays. He is well remembered for almost single handedly pulling off a last second win against Notre Dame in the 1981 NCAA Tournament. Ainge was awarded the John Wooden award as the nation’s most outstanding player that year. Ainge lasted three seasons with the Jays before deciding to devote his efforts to basketball exclusively. He signed with the Celtics in ’81 and went on to have a solid NBA career.

There are several examples of cards that mention a player’s basketball career in print. The ‘54 Jackie Robinson, ’56 Frank Baumholtz, ’71 Cotton Nash, ’74 Dave Winfield and several Tony Gwynn cards all allude to collegiate or pro basketball careers. If you are familiar with other examples, please post in the comments.

Different sizes, weird cards, one album

Only in Cooperstown can you go into a baseball card store and find inexpensive genuine autographed cards. Baseball Nostalgia, right next to Doubleday Field, is a frequent haunt of mine. They’ve been around for 40 years, were once the flagship of TCMA, and remain as the depository of awesome things. They have rows and rows of autographed cards, not only big stars but nobodies. Maybe nobodies is unfair; let’s say non-stars.

Last year I bought a handful of signed cards, but in the little pile of goodies were a few photos (Jim Bibby, Buddy Bradford) circa 1974 and a postcard of Jack Brohamer from 1975. Why would anybody buy a signed Jack Brohamer postcard? Readers of this blog know the answer to that.

The Brohamer card is pretty sweet and, as I was researching for a new book proposal, I stumbled on the fact that Ken Berry (outfielder, not F Troop star) finished his career on the Indians. I didn’t recall that, Googled, and came across the one card of Berry in brilliant mid-‘70’s Cleveland garb. It was from the same postcard set as the Brohamer! It took time, but I finally got the full set last week, shipped in sheets.

I grabbed an album off the shelf that would be appropriate housing for this set. It’s an album of misfit cards – oddball sets, different shapes and sizes, in 2-pocket, 4-pocket and 9-pocket sheets. Besides the 1975 Cleveland Indians set (here’s a photo of one page, not with Brohamer but with Ed Crosby, Frank Duffy, John Ellis and Oscar Gamble, for Dan Epstein), the other sets are:

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1963 Pepsi-Cola Tulsa Oilers

12 panels, 2 cards per panel, 24 cards with a big loop above to hang on bottle tops – what more could you ask! The Pepper Martin card is the coolest, but for my card collecting age group (I’m 54), a minor league set with Jim Beauchamp, Tom Hilgendorf, Chuck Taylor and some batboys, is hard to resist. It’s not a very pricey set, I have no idea when I got it and how much I paid, but it’s way cool.

img_2410

1966 East Hills Pirates

There are a few great regional sets featuring the Pirates of the 1960’s – KDKA, Grenier Tires and East Hills. Produced and distributed by a big mall outside Pittsburgh, the East Hills set is very nice and essential for Al McBean completists. Sure, Clemente and Stargell are the highlights, but every Bucco picture is a gem. There’s something about Matty Alou that fascinates me. He seems a bit like an alien, if an alien could hit .342.

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1961 Nu-Card Baseball Scoops

Not odd in size, the Nu-Card cards are odd in content. Contemporary quasi-achievements are sprinkled amongst all-time moments. Was Roy Sievers’ 1957 American League Home Run title equivalent to Lou Gehrig’s streak or Willie Mays’ 1954 World Series catch? If you’ve got an 80 card set to fill, you bet it is!

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1966 St. Petersburg Cardinals

A bit larger than regular postcards (they peek out above a regular 4-pocket sleeve), this 20 card set was put out by Foremost Milk. Of course, nothing screams hot summer in Florida more than a glass of milk. Sparky Anderson’s card is the key, and here he is. You can’t tell me this dude was only 32 at the time.

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There’s something about these sets that resonate with me – there’s a romantic vision I have of suburban Pittsburgh 10-year olds bugging their Mom to take them to East Hills for a Gene Michael card, or some kid deciding to buy a pack of Nu-Cards instead of Topps and insisting that Nu-Cards were better. The very idea of seeing shelves of Pepsi bottles with Tulsa Oiler card hanging from the necks makes me light-headed.

 

Reviving the ancient custom

I found reference to the Obak baseball cards in an issue of the United States Tobacco Journal from 1909.

United States Tobacco Journal – October 9, 1909
from Google Books

I found several different advertisements from 1910 that featured the Obak brand, but I haven’t found one for the smokes featuring cards.

San Francisco Chronicle – June 8, 1910
from GenealogyBank.com

Here’s an example of the T212 Obak cards.

Obak T212 – W. Hogan
from the Library of Congress

A nickel a pop?  I’d buy them by the carton.  And I don’t smoke.

The Final Card

 

Starting in 1972 I devised a card collecting strategy to insure completing sets. I would purchase wax packs for the first two series. After saving my allowance and bottle collection money, I would purchase the later series through mail order. Many of you may remember that hobby companies sold cards by series. I continued this practice in 1973 before deciding to give up over-the-counter collecting and order complete sets starting in 1974. (By which time Topps was putting out every card in a single series.)

Completing the 1973 set came down to finding #154: Jeff Torborg. He was on the Angels that year having come over from the Dodgers in 1971. Torborg is best known for having caught three no hitters including Sandy Koufax’s perfect game in 1965 and Nolen Ryan’s first. He would later go on to manage the Indians, White Sox and Mets. Living in the small town of Selah, Washington limited my access to hobby shops that might carry singles. I’m not sure I knew that “Sports Collectors Digest” existed, where I may have found a “singles” source. Thus, continuing to buy packs was my only recourse.

The Selah Variety Store was a classic small town five-and-dime that served as the town’s sole source for baseball cards. This was an era when kids could ride their bikes or walk for miles around town without anyone being concerned for their safety. One spring Saturday I jumped on my bike and headed off in quest of Jeff Torborg.

Using the dollar my grandpa gave me every Saturday, I purchased nine packs at $0.10 each. I left the store and opened my packs next to the bike stand. Once again I was disappointed as no Jeff Torborg emerged. As I started to leave, a younger kid came out of the store with one pack of cards which he proceeded to open. Although I was a very shy kid, my need for Jeff Torborg overwhelmed my usual reticence. I approached him and ask him if I could see who he got. Sure enough, there was Torborg! Without hesitation, I snatched the card from his hand and gave him my nine packs. I jumped on my bike and rode off before he could register an objection.

The kid probably ended up with some great cards since first two series of the 1973 set contains such Hall-of-Fame players as Clemente, Aaron, Palmer and Frank Robinson. Perhaps the nine extra packs triggered a lifelong passion for collecting. More likely he followed the path of most “normal” people and gave up card collecting as he grew older. Hopefully, he hasn’t held a grudge all these years over losing Jeff Torborg to a chubby, weird kid on a purple stingray bike.

Dead Imitates Art: The Cultural Imagery of Fernando Valenzuela and his 1984 Topps Card

A number of years ago, my father gave me an 8”x 10” painting of Fernando Valenzuela’s 1984 Topps card.  The subject of the painting, however, was depicted as a calavera, a Mexican iconography image celebrating Dia de los Muertos, playing for the “Deaders.”  At the time he presented me with the painting, I was thrilled, of course, but also overwhelmed with other things going on around me.  I placed the painting on one of my shelves housing numerous baseball books and artifacts, and never paid much attention to it over the years.

Recently, among my random baseball card buying sprees, I came across the ’84 Fernando card and remembered, “Oh yeah, the painting.”  So, I went back to the piece and really started to look at it in a new light.  I found a new appreciation for the work not only in the sentiment that this was a gift from my father, who would pass away two years later, but in thinking about the painting as a reflection of my own culture and its place in the history of Chicano pop culture.

What we find is the intersectionality of baseball as art in the form of a baseball card, and the traditional and celebratory imagery of one of the greatest baseball heroes in the Mexican and Chicano community.

In Mexican culture, “calaveras” or skeletons, are ubiquitously depicted in “Dia de los Muertos” or Day of the Dead celebrations, in usually fun and happy scenes.  Dia de los Muertos, celebrated on November 2nd, is a time when we remember our friends and family who has passed on.  We build little altars, and make bits of food and desserts as an offering.  It’s a sacred time in our communities.  Calavera scenes in art portray normal life and everyday activities, just in skeleton form.  It might seem weird, but it’s home to me.

By the time the 1984 season rolled around, Fernando was having a pretty good start to his career.  He was 49-30 with an ERA of 2.55 in 97 starts over three years as a pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers.  No one had ever quite seen a pitcher like Valenzuela before.  He was a baby-faced, pudgy kid with a wide smile, who could light up a room and galvanize a community.  As he looked to the heavens before releasing a killer screwball or a commanding curveball you wondered how in the hell he did that.  He just did.  He was Fernando!

In 1981, his first full season, the 20-year-old led the National League in games pitched (25), complete games (11), innings pitched (192.1) and strikeouts (180).  Remarkably, he won Rookie of the Year, the Cy Young Award, the Silver Slugger Award (.250 batting average with 16 hits), and was 5th in MVP voting.  Not to mention, he was an All-Star.  Over the next two years, the Mexican native’s star would continue to rise, as did his popularity.

For kids and families in East Los Angeles, Fernando had reached cult hero status.  There was an incredible sense of pride when he pitched.  It was as if he was pitching on behalf of all Mexicanos and Chicanos in southern California!  That affinity translated into repeated sold out crowds when Valenzuela took the mound at Dodger Stadium in those years.  As with most cult heroes, we must find a way to uniquely capture their essence in a visual medium.  Among the shops on Brooklyn Avenue and Whittier Boulevard in the barrio, Valenzuela’s image was everywhere!  This was pride.  Pride in him, pride in our community, and pride in the Dodgers.

Years later, the calavera representation of one of my baseball heroes came into my possession, thanks to my dad who knew what it would mean to me.  I honor his memory, and the painting created by Joaquin Newman, here in these words.  I hope to continue this discussion in a presentation at SABR47.  Mr. Newman has created similar works with several other ballplayers that I will also showcase this summer.

 

Those Damned Slabs!

I love the feel of cards. Not modern glossy cards and definitely not those uber-glossy, oily mid-‘90’s cards that stick together when stacked! I hate those.

In 1998 I started working on the 1963 Fleer set. It seemed easy to put together from scratch, a 66 card set with one harder to find checklist. I lucked out with a few reasonably priced lots, then, since I was already hooked on eBay, started hunting down stars. I did well, finding EX-MT or better cards for reasonable prices. Soon enough, I’d have the whole set and sock it away in a box, my preferred method of storage.

Then I started winning auctions for graded cards. Not because I preferred them (see tactile thoughts above), but because the price was right. Now I had a dilemma. How to store the set? I couldn’t put nearly all of a complete set in a box and put what would end up as four graded cards somewhere separate. I thought about cracking the holders, but I’m pretty feeble when it comes to the most basic skills and, for sure, that would have resulted in ruined cards and me bleeding. So I ended up putting 63 cards in top loaders and finding a box to hold those and the oversized graded cards. Now, when I look at that set, I don’t get the enjoyment of having a stack of 50+ year old cardboard in my hands.

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The rise of the graded card ruined the hobby for me (until recently). I get it – it provides a certain consistency of grading, better than the old days when you had to take the seller’s word for how a card looked (though putting up actual scans goes a long way in accurately portraying raw cards). It definitely made it easier to buy online with confidence and, in the beginning, it made sense to grade stars and superstars, but when commons started getting graded, it killed the joy of completing sets for me (again, until recently). Every card in remotely nice shape was slabbed.

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I came up with a solution to knock me out of my card doldrums and the problems of slabbing. Starting last year, I completed a 1971 Topps baseball set in a condition only a fool would grade. Many many are EX-MT, some pretty sharp for a set notorious for chipping and bad centering. A lot are VG at best and some look like they were run over by a car, repeatedly. Still, now I can pull out the box and flip through them all, getting that smooth sensation from the fronts and that rough feel of the backs.

Still, as I work to complete multiple older sets, I’m running into the problem of key cards in slabs. I’m not sure what to do – pass them up and wait for a raw card, or suck it up and end up with a card or two in slabs? I know what I’d prefer – raw cards only – but I know that price will dictate results, exactly like it did almost 20 years ago.