Real Photo Postcards: An In-Depth Guide to RPPC Postcards

January 13, 2024

Real photo postcards, commonly called RPPCs are a unique type of vintage postcard that has captured the imagination of collectors, photographers and historians for over a century.

Real photo postcards aren’t just ink-and-printing-press images; they are genuine photographs on photo paper, capturing moments frozen in time. Mailed with handwritten letters, addresses, and postage stamps on the back, RPPCs offer a unique glimpse into the past.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore the history, process and value of RPPCs.

Table of Contents:

What is a Real Photo Postcard?
The History of Real Photo Postcards
The Process of Creating Real Photo Postcards
Why RPPCs Are Collected Today
How to Tell if a Postcard is an RPPC
How to Date RPPC Postcards
Famous Paper Brands on Postcard Backs
Major Stampbox Markings and Publication Dates
What is the Value of a Real Photo Postcard?
Grading and Condition of RPPCs
The Most Valuable RPPC Postcards Sold at Auction
Where to Buy and Sell RPPCs

What is a Real Photo Postcard?

Let’s start with the basics. A real photo postcard (RPPC) is a type of postcard that was made by transferring a real photograph onto postcard paper.

Unlike other postcards, which are typically printed from a negative, real photo postcards were produced by printing a positive image directly onto the postcard paper.

Did you know? Postcard collecting is the third most popular collectible hobby in the United States.

The History of Real Photo Postcards

Real photo postcards date back to the late 1800s. The introduction of new printing processes and advancements in photography made it possible to produce high-quality photographic prints in large quantities.

As a result, real photo postcards (RPPCs) became a popular form of communication and self-expression for both amateur and professional photographers.

During the early 1900s, RPPCs were widely used for personal and commercial purposes. People would send postcards to friends and family, capturing memories of their travels, daily life and special events.

You’ll find lots of RPPCs in old family photo albums – just check the back of grandpa’s portrait and you might find a postcard back. Businesses also used real photo postcards for advertising and promotional purposes, showcasing their products and services in a unique way.

The Process of Creating Real Photo Postcards

The process of creating RPPC postcards was both time-consuming and expensive.

Photographers would have to take a photograph, develop the film, make a negative, and then transfer the positive image onto postcard paper. This process would often take several days and required a great deal of technical skill and attention to detail.

Despite the challenges, RPPCs became increasingly popular as the technology improved. The use of RPPCs gradually waned in popularity as advancements in printing (such as half-tone printing) and changes in photographic processes occurred.

Why RPPCs Are Collected Today

RPPC postcards are valuable both historically and monetarily. RPPCs serve as a lens into the past, allowing us to see people’s lives, the events they attended, and the places they visited.

In addition, the rarity and uniqueness of RPPCs make them highly prized by postcard collectors. Some of the most valuable real photo postcards are those that feature rare or unusual subject matter, such as portraits of famous people, historical events or scenes from long-gone towns, villages and businesses.

Various types of collectors are interested in RPPCs:

  • Historians and researchers find valuable information in studying RPPCs for social history, fashion and architecture.
  • Genealogists and family historians sometimes use RPPCs to trace their family’s roots, examining the portraits of loved ones, or images of the towns and cities associated with their past.
  • Photography enthusiasts often gravitate to RPPCs as tangible examples of early photographic processes.
  • Niche collectors wlil focus on specific themes within RPPCs, such as transportation, baseball, architecture, or particular historical events, creating specialized niches within the broader group of postcard collectors.

How to Tell if a Postcard is an RPPC

For one thing, real photo postcards (RPPCs) can be identified by the distinctive texture and finish of the postcard paper. Unlike other postcards, which are typically printed on glossy or matte paper, RPPCs have a unique, slightly rough texture. Additionally, the printing process used to produce real photo postcards results in a distinctive, one-of-a-kind image.

Is there a caption?
Some RPPCs bear a handwritten caption, often white in color, which was actually scratched into the negative.

Use a magnifying glass to examine details.
Dots or pixels are used in contemporary printing methods to recreate images commonly found in newspapers or magazines.  With a magnifying lens or jeweler’s loop, examine the postcard image – there shouldn’t be any visible dots in a genuine RPPC photograph.

Look for silvering.
Silvering, an aging process seen at the image’s edges and dark areas, is a strong indicator of an RPPC’s old age.

Postcard publisher’s marks.
Collectors also look for the names of some of the noted postcard paper brands of the day. The names VELOX, SOLIO, CYKO, AZO, and ARGO will pop up regularly on the backs of RPPCs.

Those marks identify some of the most popular brands of photographic paper used between 1900 and 1920. If you spot one of these marks, combined with some of the above mentioned factors, it’s a good indicator that the photo is a genuine vintage image.

How to Date RPPC Postcards

Both the front and back sides of RPPCs can be used to date them (keep reading to get all the details on RPPC postcard backs). The postcard’s manufacturer mark can be found in the stampbox corner on the back of most cards, though not all.

Check the date of the postal cancellation.
A postal cancellation on the back will almost always bear a date, although that date isn’t always necessarily the exact year that the photograph was taken.

Remember that sometimes real photo postcards were made, but weren’t actually mailed until some time later. We’ve seen some that weren’t mailed until 20+ years after the photograph was taken. An unposted postcard won’t have any postal markings, though.

Read the handwritten message.
A handwritten message on the reverse can help narrow down the date. Again, the postcard may not have been mailed until sometime after the photo was taken, but a contemporary message (if the sender was kind enough to date it), can be really helpful.

Check the stampbox markings.
Turn the card over and check out the stampbox – that’s the little square up in the right corner on the back of a postcard. Here you can take note of the name of the paper brand used on the card and do further research to get an approximate date range. Skip further down to see some of the most common paper brands you’ll encounter.

Become a photo detective.
Study the image and any details you can spot by making a high resolution scan or using a magnifying glass. Do some research to understand historical time periods for clues like automobiles, fashion, signage, and businesses to get clues as to the picture’s date.

Postcard Eras Used for Dating RPPCs

The Post Card Era (1901-1907)
During the Post Card Era, the U.S. government officially sanctioned the term “POST CARD” on December 24, 1901, replacing the previous designation of ‘Private Mailing Cards.’

During the time of the private mailing card, postcards were restricted to featuring only the recipient’s address on the back, leaving the front blank and available for any kind of written messages.

Divided Back Era (1907-Present)
The Divided Back Era marked a huge change in postcard design. Postcards with a divided back became the standard, allocating the right side for addresses and the left side for handwritten messages – a format that still looks familiar to us today.

Edges and Borders
Early postcards of this era adhered to the ‘full bleed’ design, where images extended to the card’s edges. Noteworthy, around 1915, was the introduction of white borders, a stylistic shift that exploded in popularity.

In more recent times, postcards featuring both full bleed and white borders coexisted, with the latter predominantly indicating a post-1910s date.

Famous Paper Brands on Postcard Backs

VELOX, SOLIO, CYKO, AZO, and ARGO are names associated with historic photographic paper brands that were widely used in the production of real photo postcards (RPPCs) and other photographic prints during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Though these are just a handful of the most well-known American brands, each represents a specific type or brand of photographic paper, and collectors often use these markings to help identify and date vintage RPPCs.

VELOX: Velox was a popular brand of photographic paper introduced by the Nepera Chemical Company in the late 19th century. Velox prints are known for their smooth surface and were commonly used in the early 1900s. The Velox brand was widely used by amateur and professional photographers alike.

SOLIO: Solio refers to a type of photographic paper produced by the firm of Francis Blake, which later became part of the Kodak company. Solio prints are characterized by their matte surface and were widely used in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

CYKO: Cyko is another brand of photographic paper, known for its popularity in the early 20th century. It was manufactured by the Ansco Company, which later merged with Agfa. Cyko prints often have a glossy surface and were used for various photographic purposes, including postcard production.

AZO: AZO is a well-known brand associated with real photo postcards. It was produced by the Eastman Kodak Company. AZO prints were commonly used between 1907 and 1918. The presence of the AZO stamp on the back of a postcard can aid in dating the photograph.

ARGO: Argo is yet another brand of photographic paper. It was manufactured by the San Francisco-based Photo Paper Company. Argo prints were popular in the early 20th century, and their distinctive markings on the back of an RPPC can assist in identifying and dating the image.

These brand names are valuable for collectors and historians as they provide clues about the era in which a photograph or postcard was produced. The specific characteristics of the prints, combined with the knowledge of these historic brands, contribute to the identification and dating of vintage RPPC postcards.

Visit Playle.com for the internet’s most invaluable guide to identifying RPPC postcard brands and dates.

Major Stampbox Markings and Publication Dates

The table below is by no means exhaustive, but it does cover many of the major brands and dates commonly seen on vintage RPPCs. Consult Playle’s page on real photo postcard stamp boxes for an illustrated guide.

BrandYears
AGFA ANCO1930s — 1940s
ANSCO (2 stars)1940s — 1960
ARGO1905 — 1920
ARTURA1910 — 1924
AZO (Squares)1925 — 1940s
AZO (4 triangles)1904 — 1918
AZO (2 up, 2 down)1918 — 1930
AZO (diamonds)1907 — 1909
AZO (nothing)1922 — 1926
CYKO1904 — 1920s
DEFENDER (diamonds)1910 — 1920
DEFENDER (inside box)1920 – 1940
Devolite Peerless1950 and later
DOPS1925 — 1942
EKC1940 — 1950
EKKP1904 — 1950
EKO1942 — 1970
KODAK1950 — present
KRUXO (nothing)1907 — 1920s
KRUXO (Xs)1910 — 1920s
NOKO1907 — 1920s
PMO1907 — 1915
SAILBOAT1905 — 1908
SOLIO (diamonds)1903 — 1920s
VELOX (diamonds)1907 — 1914
VELOX (squares)1901 — 1914
VELOX (4 triangles)1909 — 1914
VITAVA1925 — 1934

How to Spot a Reproduction RPPC

As with so many higher-priced collectibles, there are reproductions and recently printed copies of old real photo postcards on the market. If you’re a new postcard collector, keep an eye out for obvious aging signs as well as the ‘place one-cent stamp here’ box printed on the address side of the card.

Paper Quality:
Original RPPCs were most often printed on thick, matte, and sometimes textured paper. Reproductions may be printed on modern, glossy, or overly smooth paper. If the paper feels too smooth or has a plastic-like texture, it could be a repro.

Image Quality:
Time to whip out that magnifying glass again. Reproductions may show signs of modern printing techniques, such as pixelation or dot patterns visible under magnification. Original RPPCs, produced through photographic processes, lack these modern printing characteristics.

Silvering:
Silvering (the metallic silver appearance that can occur on vintage photographs over time) tends to be more visible along the edges and in darker areas. Not every RPPC exhibits silvering, but many do. Repro RPPCs, being new prints, will usually lack the silvering effect that naturally happens with age.

Printed Information:
Original RPPCs may have handwritten or printed information on the back, including the photographer’s name, location, or a message. Many modern reproduction RPPCs will replicate all of that information, you’re likely to see a modern print marking along the lines of “Place One Cent Stamp Here” in the upper right corner of the back side.

Postage and Cancellation Marks:
Genuine RPPCs that were actually mailed will have postage stamps and / or cancellation marks. Repros are unlikely to have these markings unless intentionally added for a vintage look.

What is the Value of a Real Photo Postcard?

An RPPC’s worth depends on a number of elements, primarily its age, the subject matter, rarity, condition and desirability of the image. RPPCs are among the most popular and potentially valuable of all postcards collected.

A few notes on values of these postcards:

  • American RPPCs sell substantially better than other countries
  • Small towns and villages are highly collected; large, famous cities are typically extremely low in value and postcards of these places were mass produced
  • The older the card, usually the more desirable it will be
  • Identified places, events and people are more desirable than mysterious, unidentified images
  • The themes of sports, especially baseball, are among the best selling RPPCs

Grading and Condition of RPPCs

A very general overview of commonly stated conditions for RPPCs, and postcards in general ranges from poor condition to mint condition. The better the condition, the more desirable a postcard will be.

Of course rarity plays a factor – an incredibly scarce postcard, even in average condition, will still be valuable to the collector anxious to buy it.

  • Poor Condition – Many creases; heavy corner or edge wear; corner or edge tearing; missing corner(s).
  • Average Condition – One or more creases, but better than Poor Condition.
  • Excellent Condition – Some slight corner and/or edge wear; corners may be somewhat rounded from wear; slight yellowing or age; no creases.
  • Near Mint Condition – Very light signs of wear; corners and edges are nearly perfect; possibly light yellowing from age.
  • Mint Condition – No damage; perfect or nearly perfect corners and edges; only very light yellowing from age.

The Most Valuable RPPC Postcards Sold at Auction

WorthPoint’s price guide gives a good idea of some of the most expensive vintage RPPC postcards sold within the past decade or two.

  1. (1907) Walter Johnson, baseball Hall of Fame pitcher, wearing his uniform, sold for $23,558
  2. (1911) New York’s Lincoln Giants baseball team, important in Black American baseball history, sold for $18,172
  3. (1909) Wright Brothers “aeroplane” grounded at College Park, MD, sold for $10,000
  4. (1912) Jim Thorpe, Olympic athlete of Carslisle Indian School, sold for $5,999
  5. (c1920s) Artoria Gibbons, the Tattooed Lady of the circus, sold for $2,875
  6. (c1910s) Empress Theater frontage with various size posters advertising “Gertie”, the trained dinosaur, sold for $2,550
  7. (1912) Studio portrait of Eugene Debs with his Socialist Party political poster, sold for $1,614
  8. (1910) Southern Pacific Railroad depot in Seabrook, Texas, sold for $1,255
  9. (c1920s) Hong Kong, China street scene showing a tram to Kennedy Town, sold for $1,225
  10. (c1930s) Meyers, El Dorado County, California garage and gas station at Lake Tahoe, sold for $1,136

Navigating the Marketplace: Where to Buy and Sell RPPCs

For those eager to expand their collection or find new homes for duplicates, there are a number of options for buying and selling RPPC postcards.

Postcard Fairs and Paper Goods Shows.
One of the most fun is a postcard fair or paper goods show. There are a few major shows in the United States each year where dealers and collectors converge on thousands and thousands of boxes of vintage postcards of all kinds.

Buying and Selling RPPCs on eBay, etc.
The internet offers any number of options for buying and selling RPPCs, the largest being eBay where there is a continual flood of RPPCs of all varieties available. HipPostcard is another online marketplace specializing in postcards, it acts as a platform where users can buy and sell vintage postcards. For special, rare and particularly collectible cards, check online auctions.

Buying Postcards at Online Auction.
Here at Britannic Auctions, we regularly sell RPPCs at auction, both individually and in collections, making it easy to quickly acquire new postcard stock. Join our mailing list to get alerts for these sorts of postcard auctions.

Conclusion

Whether you’re a seasoned collector, a newcomer eager to learn, or someone considering the potential value of your collection, Britannic Auctions provides a platform to not only buy and sell these unique artifacts but also to connect with fellow enthusiasts. If you’re interested in learning about the value of your RPPC collection, get in touch for a free appraisal.

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