(RP Postcard, RPPC)
There is considerable confusion about what is meant by a “real photo postcard”.
Unless they are made from artwork or cartoons, all postcards begin life as photographs. -But they should not all be labelled as “RP”.
The change in postal regulations which permitted cards with a picture on one side and the address on the other provided an opportunity for small town photographers. For years they had sold so-called “album fillers”. Now, when work was slow, they could produce photographic prints of the right size for mailing. Photographic supply houses were quick to offer print-out papers of the regulation postcard size (3 1/2 by 5 1/2 inches). These stock photographic papers had the usual light-sensitive emulsions on one side and a handy template for the address and postage stamp on the other. At first, no message was permitted on the address side. Soon, the regulations were altered to permit a message on the left half of the address side — the so-called “divided back”.
The negatives of the day (which still included glass negatives) were not 3 1/2 x 5 1/2 in dimension, but this was not always a problem as photographers simply cropped the image to fit the card.
Photographic historians and collectors have appropriated the term “Real Photo Postcard” (or RP Postcard or RPPC) to apply to this specific type of card.
The Kodak Company was ever alert to opportunities. In 1903, Kodak came out with a film proportioned to print out onto the postcard papers with a camera to fit, the Kodak 3A Folding Pocket Camera. The appearance of this camera tells us how quickly the interest in postcard prints had grown.
Kodak used the term “Real Photo Postcard” when promoting the new film and camera, but they were not the only company to use the phrase.
Amateur photographers, who did not have a shop on main street, also liked the idea of making postcards to show off their work to family and friends. They ordered postcard photographic stock for use in their home darkroom, typically set up in the tool shed or the pantry. Not everyone wanted to invest in a special camera like the Kodak 3A, but like the professionals, amateur photographers could produce postcards by cropping the negatives from the camera they already owned. If they lacked skill or judgment, the resulting image might not properly fill the card. The church interior (above) is not a Real Photo Postcard but it shows the challenges of cropping images to fit.
Whether the product of the shop on the main street, or an amateur photographer, RPPC’s were produced in very, very limited edition. The shop on main street might print out thirty or forty, perhaps one hundred if the view proved popular. The amateur might make as few as one or two.
The photographic postcard paper has a major disadvantage. The address side (back) was generic and there was no way to identify the subject. Some professionals got around this by scratching a caption in reverse on the negative. This would show as a legible title when the negative was printed. (See Moscow School above.) Amateurs relied on the written (holograph) message on the back.
Because of the lack of a printed title, RPPC’s are difficult to date and identify. If the card has been postally used, the postmark can be a help. Also, the stamp provides evidence. For example, in the United States, postcards required a one cent stamp from 1898 until 1917, when the price went up to two cents. It came back down to one cent in 1919.
The manufacturer of the postcard stock usually marked the back of the card, often in the block where the stamp would cover it. In Canada, so-called “AZO” postcards first appeared in 1904. The earliest papers (1904-1918) have four triangles pointed up in the stamp box. AZO papers with diamonds in the corners of the stamp box apparently were produced almost concurrently, and date from 1907-1909.
Understanding of this kind of evidence is increasing all the time. This is the reason that it is so important to collectors to see the back of the card, and why owning the original (and not just a scan of the front) is critical for an archive.
The heyday of RPPC’s is from about 1898 until the the mid 1920’s although amateurs continued to produce them as a hobby through much of the 20th century.
RPPC’s are labour-intensive to produce, making the profit small. Professional photographers quickly found that they could make more money selling their rights to publishers or manufacturers to print out their products in large numbers. The resulting commercially produced cards could be purchased very cheaply wholesale and sold for as much as the old RPPC’s. Moreover, RPPC’s were black and white. Postcard publishers could use colour lithograph processes (chromo-lithography) to produce a coloured card, which was very appealing to the customers.
Postcards made by printing out on a photographic stock have been produced commercially throughout the twentieth century, in black and white and in colour. After about 1970, they include very glossy colourful photographic views. However, to the collector, the term Real Photo Postcard is assumed to mean a limited-edition, locally produced card, the product of the so-called “golden age” of postcards between 1898 and the late 1920’s. A card mass-produced by a commercial publisher using a photographic process is not an “RPPC”.