Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The History of "Real Photo" postcards

Through my work I have been blessed with the task of scanning in a large collection of World War I-era photographs. The photographs were taken by a Soldier during 1918/19 and feature images of the French and German countryside, burned-out churches and even a battlefield scene. Rare images to be sure. Many of them have white writing on the front and all of them are printed as postcards. While I have seen "real photo" postcards before, these photographs made me wonder where they had come from and how had the Soldier been able to make prints that included scrawled information on the print?
A sample of a WWI photo with hand-written caption. From the Library of Congress.
"Real photo" postcards, also know as RPPC, are actual photographs printed on sensitized paper using glass plates or film negatives. From 1905 to the 1930s real photo postcards opened photography to everyday people, hence an explosion of photos and the mailing of photo postcards. Many of us have at least a few real photo postcards in our collection.
Fred Jacobson, a distant cousin through my Butler line.
The reverse side of the above photo.
"Dear Isabell, I had this taken on my way home and forgot my tie. Isn't it a joke. With love, Frederick."

The example above is a photo of a distant cousin in my Butler line. Notice on the back that Fred mentions he had this photo "taken on my way home." It is a good example of the new immediacy of photography at the turn of the century.

Robert Bogdan and Todd Weseloh have written a great book about RPPCs: Real Photo Postcard Guide: The People's Photography. They discuss the impact of real photo postcards on photography and society. The book is available here in preview format on Google Books. The book also includes many references and is a guide for dating your RPPC.

On page 43, Bogdan and Weseloh answer my question as to how the Soldier was able to write a caption on the front of the photo. It appears that they probably did this to the negative prior to printing the card.

I must say that I am very smitten with RPPC. Without them, I might have had no photographic record of many of my ancestors. Have RPPCs changed your genealogical research?


Cynthia Shenette said...

Thank you for posting about this. I have lots of these in my photo collection. I've wondered about RPPCs, but haven't taken the time to research the format. I especially appreciate the book recommendation!

Heather Kuhn Roelker said...

I'm glad you liked it Cynthia! I have always been interested in postcards and wondered how my ancestors would have gotten their photos on one. I had to dig deeper and the book helped clarify the process.

Kathy Morales said...

I've wondered about these postcards too. Thanks for the information. I'll take a look at the book too.

Wendy said...

Thanks for the information and link. I too have wondered about some of my ancestors' photo postcards. It's interesting that many of the photo companies online offer real photo postcards even today.