Although known since decades before, it wasn’t until last century’s first years that issuing and using postcards reached an impressive peak. At a time when current means of communication didn’t exist, these became the ideal means to make the average citizen aware of other countries’ characteristics and customs in a world of which little was known back then. Thanks to their low cost and the possibility they offered of greeting or writing short messages to people who were away in a quick and safe manner, postcards were soon sold and sent by the millions contributing to develop the rising publishing and touristic industries. At the same time, they became an ideal means of expression for many of the best contemporary artists. Hundreds of professionals of all kinds, such as photographers, painters, draftsmen, designers, lithographers, printers, etc. intervened in their making.
So it’s safe to state that postcards were during their golden age a determining factor in universalizing graphic expression by making the works of different artists available for the first time to the general public.
As to the digital approach given to this theme in our website, we can say than back at the time when these experienced artists created their countless postcard series, putting their small works on paper so that they reached millions of people all over the world, they couldn’t imagine their creations would be ideal to be admired in full screen one hundred years later thanks to the development of computing and internet.
Maybe due to its geographical location, or the fact that Cuba was established as a republic in 1902 coinciding with the beginning of postcards’ golden age, diverse and vast series were issued here. These represent a true treasure nowadays, both for collectors and those interested in Cuban history and culture.
In order to help our visitors better understand everything related to postcards and how this phenomenon behaved in Cuba, we shall proceed to state some interesting aspects more thoroughly:
The origins of postcards…
Although the idea of printing engravings in the form of open letters dates back to the 17th Century, the consensus is that is was in Austria, in 1869, where for the first time a post office recognized the validity of postal cards with the stamp printed on them favoring them with a postage lower than that of letters. This resulted in a rapid success, and over a million of these postal cards were sold within the first month. They were rectangular, and its dimensions were approximately 12 by 8.5 centimeters. The top right corner of the obverse included a printed stamp worth two crowns, showing the emperor’s sphinx, an inscription in the middle reading “Correspondez-Karte”, and the Austro-Hungarian imperial coat of arms at the bottom.
First known type of postal card, printed in Austria in 1869 and circulated the following year.
Actually, these first pieces showed no illustrations whatsoever, and collectors know them as “enteros postales” (postal cards) because stamp, message, and address are contained in one single piece, with no need for an envelope. Their success was a result of the simplification introduced by them, and their low cost.
However, the leap towards illustrated postcards was taken when private printing of similar pieces was authorized. Although these cards required a stamp to be stuck to them for postage, they could contain some sort of image. Typography Schwartz de Oldenburg, in Germany, is considered to be the pioneer in this new type of postcards. Hotels, spas, monuments, and world fairs pavilions were the first motifs shown on the small cards the standard size of which became 14 by 9 centimeters. They soon became popular, because of their low prices and the fact that they offered the same advantages of their predecessors, the postal cards (quickness, low cost, and the possibility of exchanging information at a time when the development of means of communication was incipient).
From that moment on, the peak of postcards increased until last century’s early years, when they reached their golden age. Postcard production diversified driven by a flourishing publishing industry and covering, in addition to the initial themes of landscapes and views, others like sports and historic events, commercial advertising, beautiful models, famous singers, actors, etc. Other series the artistic compositions of which were based on countless motifs, known as author postcards, also outstand. During this period, the use of advanced printing techniques together with the work of important designers produced exceptional pieces that constitute nowadays a treasure for collectors.
This flourishing kept on going until World War One, which not only brought difficulties in terms of correspondence exchange, but also resulted in the shutdown of important publishing houses, especially those based in Germany and other European countries. This affected the industry, and even though it continued to exist, it never recovered its former glory. Factors such as sharp breakthroughs in communication technology in a century characterized by impetuous development, gradual changes in the tastes of the population that had adopted more practical life styles, etc. resulted in dwindling interest for postcards. They remained as a means to congratulate loved ones on important dates or memories of places that had been visited. They were no longer so necessary to communicate or know about other countries and their customs, because by then telephone, cinema, television, and lavishly illustrated magazines fulfilled this task. Furthermore and most significantly, in the 1940’s the creation of new mechanic printing methods and cheaper production techniques had an adverse effect on their quality, and postcards lost the charm and creative aura that had characterized them.
Collecting postcards… the influence of Internet…
Known as deltiology, the interest for collecting postcards that arose practically since they were first issued with the creation of clubs and houses of exchange, buying and selling in almost every country, was given fresh impetus during the 1970s and has retained an upward rhythm for the last decades.
Even though their grandchildren aren’t produced nowadays in the same quality and quantity, antique postcards are enthusiastically collected all over the world by people attracted by the memories, testimonies, and art they contain.
In the last few years, the swift breakthroughs of Internet have brought about the so-called e-cards, which are offered in numerous websites and thanks to modern audiovisual means and the advantages of being fast and free of charge are sent by the millions to web visitors.
Nevertheless, Internet’s greatest contribution regarding postcards has been the infinite possibilities it offers for sales and exchange. Millions of pieces which formerly aged in old albums or in stock of isolated shops can now reach those who are truly interested even when these people are in the most remote places. In other words, this activity has become globally extended for the sake of dealers and collectors. For example, postcards with images of little known cities (formerly difficult to trace and sell) presently reach high prices when offered in online auctions that make them available to all potential buyers at the same time.
Identification of the different types of postcards according to their issuing period:
Despite the fact that, as previously mentioned, postcards initially emerged in Europe, in order to analyze their presence in Cuba we shall turn our gaze towards the United States and the development of their production in this country. American publishing houses produced a large percentage of the pieces that make up the Cuban collection and exerted enormous influence on local publishers.
Type 1 … The pioneers: 1889 – 1898
Cuba didn’t exist as a republic when they first began to be printed. They showed preferably images of the Universal Expositions, touristic places, and views of cities, their buildings, parks, streets, etc. Their design included several images together, making room to write the message, which were drawings made from photographs. They were mostly lithographed in colors, although other procedures like phototypography and photogravure were sometimes used. The name for postcard on the back in the language of the issuing country identified them as such together with a framed space for the stamp.
Many are to be found in Cuba that were sent from North America. They read “Souvenir Card” or “Mail Card” on the back, and have a space for the postage that cost 2 cents back then to mail abroad.
Example of a postcard dating back to the period of the pioneers printed in 1897 by American Souvenir Card Co.
Very few known pieces from this period show Cuban motifs due to the domestic situation on the island, back then at war against the Spanish domination.
One of the few known Cuban postcards of this period, printed in Havana in 1896
Type 2… Private Mailing Cards’ period: 1898 – 1901.
They emerged when in May 1898 private printers were authorized to produce and sell postcards. They all read “Private Mailing Card” on the back. These were very varied pieces, because they were produced by many isolated houses with different designs and criteria.
They are characterized by being narrower that their predecessors (14 by 8 centimeters) and by the fact that from this moment on postage was reduced to 1 cent.
In Cuba, this period coincided with the American Intervention. Therefore, several series were printed here sponsored by American entities, with different specifications on the back, either in English or Spanish, but always reading “Private Mailing Card” and indicating they were authorized by the government.
Postcard printed during the American Intervention by M. Ruis y Ca., a private publisher in Havana
Type 3… “undivided back” period: 1901 – 1907
Starting from December 1901, the inscription reading “Post Card” appeared on the back. Beautiful pieces were made during this period, because image began to be prioritized even though it occupied more space. However, it was still forbidden to write the message on the back, and many were written over the image.
Most pieces, designed by American or Cuban houses, were printed by European ones (mostly German), which established branch offices in both countries. On the back of all pieces, sometimes in several languages, there’s the inscription “Universal Postal Union” international organization that regulated postcard sending and commercialization from that moment on. Since this coincided in time with the foundation of the Cuban Republic, most postcards printed in Cuba show the old national coat of arms in different sizes and on different places.
Postcard printed Wilson’s in Havana, in early 1902.
Type 4… “divided back” period: 1907 – 1915
This variant began to be used in England since 1905, bringing about substantial advantages. However, it took a while before they began to be used in the United States and Cuba, in 1907. The fact that the back was divided made it possible to write both address and message on it, leaving the image untouched. This contributed to a large extent in bringing about a huge collecting boom. Now the image filled the whole postcard, without external edges or blank spaces for the message. This was the true peak during the so-called “golden age” of postcards, which became a true addiction for majorities. The golden age came to an end with the beginning of World War One that had an adverse effect on mailing and led European houses, mostly the German ones, to stop their work hence dropping quality and quantity of editions.
Divided-back postcard showing a view of Prado in Havana, that circulated in 1914
Type 5… “White border” period: 1915 – 1930
This was the time of emergence of many lower quality printings made in the United States with lesser materials by staffs with less experience. They are easily recognized by the white border surrounding the image that was introduced in order to safe ink and make print runs cheaper. This was a clear sign of the war’s impact, and marked the beginning of quality decline in postcards’ issuing.
White-border postcard with a view of the Malecón Habanero (Havana’s Seafront), printed in North America.
Type 6… “Thread Postcards” period: 1930 – 1945
These were printed exclusively by American publishing houses, which used during this period a high quality paper, rich in fiber, the texture of which felt like threads, protecting the postcards from the manipulation in the mailing process. In addition, they used higher quality ink the shades of which were brighter and more diverse. They were printed in larger quantities, because they were cheaper to make, and in general terms they are abundant in the collecting market.
Once again the industry was affected by a war, in this case World War Two, since most of the industry’s staff and means were diverted in order to fulfill the war’s needs.
Postcard printed on “thread paper” with a view of the Hotel Nacional in Cuba.
Type 7… Photochrom period: 1940 onwards.
This period was characterized by a completely different technique which made it possible to obtain images with a great variety of shades that reflected reality accurately on a shiny surface. These were ultimately real pictures, in colors that were directly obtained. Another advantage was their low cost of production thanks to the development of photography. This was a slow process in the beginning due to the effects of the war, but already in the early 1950s their success over all predecessors was overwhelming.
Although beautiful and striking, this type of postcards turn out not to be so interesting for some collectors, maybe because the images they show are more recent and easier to obtain or because they lost the halo of antiquity and creative touch distinguishing their predecessors.
Photochrom postcard published by Roberts Tobacco Co.
Other types of postcards according to their characteristics…
Real Photo postcards: 1900 onwards
These appeared as soon as the first photographs began to be printed on robust paper (until then photos were printed on thin paper that was later mounted on cardboard: Cabinet photos, Cartes de Visite, etc). It’s difficult to tell when they were made exactly, unless signed and dated by the photographer. Therefore, most of the times one has to find clues in the images they show.
Another difficulty is that this type of Real photo postcards is sometimes hard to differentiate from those printed, so it’s necessary to look at them under a powerful magnifying glass in order to find a smooth surface, with the shine coming from silver nitrate and no dots, which characterize the latter ones.
Those depicting views, historical events, accidents, etc. are much sought by collectors since not many of them are to be found and some are unique. In addition, they show real and unaltered images. They are undoubtedly pieces of great documental value by reflecting the smallest details and making it possible to obtain large format reproductions when digitally treated. Also those taken by renowned photographers are valued very highly. Actually, they are nothing else than a photograph sized in the format of a postcard, that were printed in very limited amounts. In the case of valuable pieces, one has to be careful for it could be a reproduction from an original (a photo of a photo) or a modern print by someone who could obtain the original negative.
They generally show on the back the name of the paper manufacturer or printing process: Azo was the most used together with others like Velox, Kodak, Ekc, Cyko, etc. (in general each brand can be traced back to a specific period of time). Furthermore, they must show the inscription Post Card and the stamp frame.
Kodak is an interesting case. They produced in the late 1900s several cameras exclusively to obtain this type of real photo postcards (even a revolutionary pocket camera), which used postcard-size film (therefore making it possible to obtain images in great detail), and that even had a small window on the back that when opened allowed the photographer to write a description with a small metal pointer. That is the reason why some pieces show irregular writing that, though not professional, are a hint of exclusive.
Interesting real photo postcard showing an odd car accident
In Cuba they were produced to a larger or smaller degree with views of all cities on the island, and in some cases they save certain cities from oblivion. Pinar del Río, for example, was a not very developed city where only a short series was printed, and all other testimonies we have obtained are photographic.
One variant of this type are those known as “romantic postcards” among collectors, which reached their peak in France during the 1920s, some 200 thousand being printed every year. They were designed by specialized studios, and showed singular decorations and images of women, couples, and children in different poses and outfits. They can be easily distinguished by the shine and deep colors resulting from the process of photographic reproduction that was used. They were widely distributed in Cuba in all stores, and they were the majority’s favorites to send greetings to relatives and love messages. They are so abundant in nowadays market and their motifs so repetitive that they are not valued very highly apart from those showing exceptional themes, such as nudity, black people, sports, etc.
Typical postcards of the period of illuminated photography published in the 1930s
Also due to their importance in Cuba, we shouldn’t fail to mention the so-called publicity “postalitas” (small postcards), which resulting from the same production process were printed by the millions to fill different albums. Especially cigar factories used them profusely, and although their size is smaller, they are very similar to their bigger sisters in form and content. Particularly those related to baseball reach impressive prices. Their production and the themes they dealt with were so broad that this kind deserves a section of its own, which will be included in our website in the future.
They always derive from the creative or design work of a given author, who could be a painter, draftsman, caricaturist, etc. The starting point is in all cases an original piece later reproduced in postcard format. They generally bear the author’s signature somewhere, and they can be very valuable depending of how important the artist might have been. Even great painters like Utrillo, Toulouse Lautrec, Casas, etc. designed and drew several postcard series during their time.
This type of piece was not printed often in Cuba. We have seen some copies of European pieces made by local lithographic workshops. On the other hand, foreign pieces of excellent quality distributed by several houses in the capital are abundant. Many others were also sent from abroad as a result of correspondence between close family and friends or collectors’ exchange. There are two main kinds:
Art Nouveau postcards: 1898 – 1910
These fall within the context of a decorative arts movement that began in the late 19th Century in Europe (especially in Vienna and in France with poster designers), characterized by the use of pale colors, elaborate motifs, fanciful lines and abundant ornaments, and the woman’s presence as a central theme in most compositions.
The greatest exponents were the important designers Alphonse Mucha and Raphael Kirchner. Many pieces especially from the latter are to be found in Cuba, either sent from abroad or sold by local distributers. In general, these are unfortunately written up front and in bad shape due to postal handling.
Examples of “art nouveau” postcards printed during last century’s first decade
Art Deco Postcards: 1910 – 1930
These date back to the time when this movement appeared, being Art Nouveau in decline. Art Deco’s formal characteristics were the absolute opposite of its predecessor: bright colors, long stretched out lines, elongate shapes, and preference for the Greek and Egyptian past. They weren’t abundant in Cuba because they were produced in small quantities for the elite.
“Art Deco” postcards printed in Europe approximately during last century’s third decade
Postcards’ presence in Cuba…
Since Cuba was a colony affected by the impact of an independence war at the time when postcards first appeared, these were hardly known (except a few rare ones issued by the Spanish party which constitute today true museum pieces) until the American Intervention that began in 1898 and lasted until 1902. During this period, their production was subject to the rules established in the United States for this activity. Later on, with the foundation of the Republic, postcard production reached a significant peak, and several Cuban publishing houses issued printouts. Still these postcards would mostly meet American interests since it was them who issued many series destined to a market the main consumer of which were American citizens and tourists.
In Cuba, like in most small countries, there weren’t lithographic workshops with sufficient technology to print color postcards with quality. These came mostly from Europe, Germany in particular. However, there were Cuban firms that ordered such works to the best producers worldwide by using the traditional method of sending the pictures that corresponded to the places that had been selected together with the information needed for their subsequent printing.
It’s interesting to emphasize than in spite of Havana not being one of Latin America’s biggest cities, it was undoubtedly the most depicted in postcards. Its strategic location, together with the fact that it was so popular among the close northern neighbors who saw it almost as a picturesque and tropical territory within their own nation, most of them dreaming with visiting it, contributed to this phenomenon. The emblematic Morro Castle, the Prado promenade, the Malecón, and numerous important places and buildings were recreated from a hundred different angles. As a result, they became known worldwide thanks to postcards.
An interesting detail is that there were printers and bookstores in several interior cities that self printed series of black and white postcards which, despite not being of the best quality, constitute unique testimony of our past. Since these were destined for local consumers, they are much more rare and diverse than those belonging to the color series the print runs of which repeated the same views, because they were meant to be sold to tourists.
Collecting postcards in Cuba…
Let us proceed to list the main supply sources for those interested in this kind of collecting in Cuba:
- Although Cuba didn’t have the typical clubs or associations for those devoted to the hobby of collecting postcards that were abundant in the rest of the world, there were in fact since the early 20th Century many people who liked exchanging postcards with people from abroad, making up as a result big collections that are extremely interesting both for the views they show and the postages they contain.
- In addition, the typical postcard albums kept as memories by high society families (thanks to the widespread habit among young ladies of the epoch of collecting important figures’ signatures on cards they received via postal mail) constitute an important source for collectors.
- Finally, and also of great importance in this matter, the personal belongings of elderly people who either as memories or curiosities have kept for decades big lots of postcards of numerous kinds.
As to how they can be obtained, local collectors generally turn to numismatic and philatelic clubs, where postcards are traditionally traded since a specific association gathering postcard collectors has not yet been created.
These factors (abundant pieces and lack of collecting culture) have contributed to the fact that Cuba has been for decades a paradise for foreign collectors visiting the island looking for lots they obtain at very low prices given the ignorance of their real value in the market.
However, as previously stated Internet’s quick development and the hundreds of online shops have begun to modify locals’ perception over these interesting pieces that day by day gain aficionados and more comprehensive information.
Main issuing houses of Cuban postcards…
As it follows, we will include a list of the main issuing houses of postcards in the republican Cuba, which we have made up by reviewing the pieces of our collection.
La Moderna Poesia. Obispo 133-135
C. Jordi. Havana, Cuba, Made in USA.
C. Jordi. Obispo 106, Havana,
Camino, Josefina No. 28 Fotografica
Casa Morris, Habana, Cuba.
Colección Mateos. Fotografica
Diamond News Co. Havana
Ed. Viena. Obispo 75 Fotografica.
Harris Bros. Co. Havana
Harris Bros. Co. Havana. Made in USA.
J. Charavay, Obispo 131
Jordi. Amargura 72. Habana. Fotografica
Mario L. Guardiola, Obrapia 511. Made in USA.
R. Corral. Obispo 75 . Fotografica
Roberts & Co., made by E.C. Corp. Co.
Roberts Tobacco Co. Printed in USA.
Ruiz y Ca. “La Universal”, Obispo 34, Habana
The Rotograph Co. N. Y. (Germany)
Wilson’s Obispo 41 y 43. Habana.
Wilson’s Obispo 52, Habana.
Following our site’s prevailing trend, it is our intention to cover in this section Cuba’s graphic history, mainly during the republican period, with the help of postcards’ kindness.
In order to help those organizing their collections of these pieces, and at the same time trying to establish a guideline about the pages that can be seen in this section, we will proceed to show the different chapters in which we have organized the Cuban collection.
About Havana City the following pages are to be found:
The streets of the city.
The Paseo del Prado.
Parks and squares of the city.
Havana’s Central Park.
The Plaza de Armas.
Havana’s Bay and Port.
Hotels of the republican period.
Interesting places of the city.
Churches and fortresses.
Havana’s clubs and societies.
As to interior cities, according to the administrative regions that existed during the republican period and the number and importance of printouts about them, we have established the following classification:
Pinar del Río province (capital city, Viñales, Artemisa, etc.)
Isla de Pinos.
Province Havana (Güines, Bejucal, etc.)
Cárdenas, Varadero, and other cities of the province of Matanzas.
Province of Las Villas (Santa Clara, Sagua, Caibarién, etc.)
Province Camagüey (Ciego de Ávila, La Gloria, Morón, Nuevitas, etc.)
Santiago de Cuba city.
Guantánamo and Caimanera. The Naval Base.
Province Oriente (the remaining cities, such as Gibara, Manzanillo, etc.)
Referring to general topics that cover the whole island there are: (20)
Typical customs and scenes.
The sugar industry.
The tobacco industry.
Politics during the republican period.
Portraits of outstanding figures.
Architecture in Cuba.
Caricatures. Massaguer’s works.
Radio and television artists.