Real Photo Postcards (Searchable Database)

The term “real photo” identifies a card that was actually printed on a photographic paper. It so happens that the publication of these postcards conveniently coincided with the narrow time frame of our “Golden Age of Railroading” (1880-1916). Produced as a commercial venture, these cards combined the practical function of written communication via the postal service with a photographic image. Jotting a quick message on a postcard and mailing from any location for a penny was as common as using the cell phone today.

The subject matter and character of postcards of all types of manufacture varied. Historical Postcards commemorated such events as war, parades, social events, or disasters such as a flood, fire, wreck, etc. These disaster cards are of value to us in that they documented train wrecks, depot fires, etc. View Postcards have been the mainstay of collectors for many years—and the main focus of our interest here. View Cards provide historic reference to buildings, places, streets, towns, and yes, railroads, that no longer exist. They have effectively preserved images from one hundred years ago.

Another pleasant aspect of postcards is the availability of such images. Postcards by nature are collectible, and fortunately over the years, armchair historians have carefully acquired and preserved a cadre of cards that fit their collecting desires. But for these cards even to initially survive being tossed away years ago, they had a collectable factor shortly after their initial purchase. This is where their use as a written correspondence has been many a card’s saving grace. Someone may have saved a personal card from a friend, relative, or loved one as a momento, only for it to fall into future generations’ hands, and ultimately collectors. It should also be noted that not all preserved cards have messages written on them. So some may have been kept specifically for their photographic imagery.

The “Golden Era” of postcards was the Divided Back (1907-1915). This was the first time the message could be written on the same side as the address, thereby opening up the backside to a full bleed image to all four edges of the card. Use of postcards soared, and production increased correspondingly. For a penny postage, written communication could be sent anywhere in the U.S. Remember, this was in the age before telephones and radio. This is the era in which the “real photo” flourished.

Eastman-Kodak’s introduction of their new 3A Folding Pocket Kodak Camera in 1903 started the “Real Photo” postcard revolution. This camera was portable and used roll-type 122 film that produced postcard-size (3-1/4" x 5-1/2") negatives. This camera was easy to use and could be toted to nearly anywhere to produce high-quality images. Kodak also offered postcard papers that had the necessary imprinting on the back side of the card. The “real photo” card possessed a much higher quality and level of detail compared to other printing processes such as lithography.

Another aspect of the “real photo” card was that it could be manufactured locally with minimal equipment and investment in capital. Kodak thus empowered nearly anyone to enter the postcard business. It was at this time that many small postcard producers came to be in communities all across the Midwest. The smaller quantity of cards needed for these smaller markets was ideal for the hand-printing process of “real photo” postcards. Kodak’s 3A FPK development was largely responsible for the creation and preservation of so many local “hometown” images of the period that we enjoy today.

On the backs of many cards, the names of companies were often printed. Names such as “Photo by Bayle’s, Chillicothe, Ill.,” “Genuine Photo by C.U. Williams, Bloomington, Ill.,” “Carroll Post Card Co., Carroll, Iowa,” “Made by Photo and Post Card Co., Mason City, Iowa,” “J.D. Brown and Son, Missouri Valley, Iowa,” “Chas. E. Jacoby, Sioux Rapids, Iowa,” “A.J. Kingsbury, Photo Finisher, Antigo, Wis.,” “Made by H.H. Denison, Barron, Wis.,” “A real photo made by H. Montgomery, Hartford, Wis., U.S.A.,” and “B.H. Dingman, Pub., Plymouth, Wis.” Some of these companies were also photo studios, or did other work in addition to postcard production.

Some only produced for a short time, others grew and became larger and covered a wider geographical area. Examples of the larger companies were the L.L. Cook Co., which appeared to have offices in Milwaukee, Chicago, and Lake Mills, Wisconsin (their later cards were proudly proclaimed as a “Sterling Quality Photo made by...”); C.R. Childs of Chicago, a major manufacturer who traveled extensively; the Cook-Montgomery Company, Minneapolis; and Curt Teich, Chicago (minimal “real photo” product).

The postcards in this searchable database are presented with the understanding that their copyright protection has expired. Individual printed copies will not be sold at this time. A special December 2007 issue of our magazine Railway Gazette features many of these postcards. You can order it by clicking here.

A variety of postcard back sides show handwritten messages, manufacturer's marks, and postmarks that date these cards. (click on images to enlarge)