Picture postcards

Humorous postcard
Humorous postcard
Larger postcard image

Until the middle of the 19th century, people typically mailed messages to each other via the privacy of sealed letters. The concept of a postal card printed and sold by a governmental body originated in Germany around 1865. Although there would be a loss of privacy, the attraction of a postal card was that it could be mailed for much less than the normal letter rate. The Post Office issued its first postcards in 1870 with a halfpenny stamp printed in the corner. The address was written on one side of the card and the message was written on the other side. There was no picture. It was only in 1894 that the Post Office allowed the private publication of postcards for use through the mail with an adhesive stamp. The postcard became a viable medium for commercial photography in 1902 when the British Post Office permitted both the address and message to be written on one side of the card thus freeing the whole of the other side for the picture. By this time the size of postcards had also been largely standardised at 4¾ x 3½ in.

Postcard depicting John Knox's house
Postcard depicting
John Knox's house
Larger Knox House

The Scots were important pioneers in the picture postcard industry. The first Scottish firm to have produced illustrated postcards was George Stewart and Co of Edinburgh in 1894. Valentines of Dundee Ltd, established in 1851, were early exponents of photographic processes and later grew to become one of the largest photographic companies in the country. By the late 1890s Valentines had mastered collotype printing, a lithographic technique that was used extensively for the production of picture postcards in the early 20th century. The company produced many thousands of cards with views of Scotland, England, Wales and further afield before ceasing postcard production in 1970. They kept their postcard images up to date and commercially viable by freely adding and removing features from their negatives.

The National Library of Scotland owns over 10,000 postcards in a variety of different collections. In terms of named collections, the Meikle Collection focuses on Europe and is especially good for cards on France and Italy. The Lochgelly Collection concentrates on Scotland but also contains materials on England, Continental Europe, North Africa, Canada and the United States. The Borthwick Collection focuses on English and Continental European subject matter.

Postcard depicting Staffa
Postcard depicting
Larger Staff image

The Townley Collection contains the majority of the Library's postcards. The collection was presented to the Library by Mr A Townley in 1961 and contains over 7,500 postcards sent during the first six decades of the 20th century. Some 5,000 of these portray scenes of Britain with the strongest representation being of English towns, English seaside resorts and beach scenes, English churches and cathedrals, and scenes of activities in English market squares and village streets. There are smaller sections focusing on the towns and countrysides of Scotland, Ireland and Wales. Foreign postcards are well represented, with cards from over 25 different countries in Europe, Africa, Asia and North and South America. France, Switzerland and Italy are particularly well covered. There is also a section of cards concentrating on British railway locomotives and railway scenes.

A proportion of cards in these various collections display postage stamps and manuscript text. There is an index to the National Library's holdings of Scottish postcards in the form of a series of loose-leaf sheaf binders located in the Issue Hall. There are no printed indexes to postcards representing other regions of Great Britain. Ten of these binders provide access by topographical place name and nine give access by publisher. There is also one non-topographical index binder for postcards depicting 'situations' such as humorous cards, and a small index of artist/photographers.

Further reading

  • Allan, Bob. 'Postcards, a guide for new collectors'. York, Lynne Hudson & Bob Allan, [1997?] (shelfmark: HP2.97.6628)
  • Byatt, Anthony. 'Collecting picture postcards, an introduction'. Malvern, Golden Age Postcard, 1982 (HP2.83.3149)
  • Hill, Cuthbert William. 'Picture postcards'.> Aylesbury, Shire, 1987 (HP2.87.6653)
  • James, Peter. 'Catalogue of picture postcard artists'. Wells, The Author, 1995 (10.87/11)
  • Klamkin, Marian. 'Picture postcards'. Newton Abbot, David and Charles, 1974 (S.219.b)
  • Monohan, Valerie. 'Collecting postcards in colour, 1914-1930'. Poole, Blandford Press, 1980 (H2.80.1520)
  • White, Geoff, 1937. 'Collecting military postcards'. Backwell, G White, 1987. (HP2.87.4254)


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