Penny Marvels: New Zealand Postcards in 1911 – article from Issue 94

by Alan Jackson.     

Imagine you lived in Christchurch in the year 1911.  Then, 80,000 people lived in Christchurch, 102,000 in Auckland, 70,000 in Wellington and 64,000 in Dunedin; the population of the whole country was just 1 million, 44% in the South Island and 56% in the North Island. 

Plain Post Office postcards, imprinted with a postage stamp, had been around in New Zealand for 35 years (the first one having been issued in 1876).  In 1911 this type of card was still extensively used for commercial or administrative purposes, where privacy was not a primary consideration – for example, to advertise new products, to advise despatch of goods, to advise that a representative would be calling, or to act as a reminder of meetings.  The version in use in 1911 was a ½d blue postcard with an imprinted stamp of King Edward VII (who had died in May 1910).  The new king, George V, was not crowned until 22 June 1911.  The ½d King Edward postcard continued in use until 1915.

Pictorial privately produced postcards were popular and very widely used in 1911.  The craze for pictorial postcards had started in Europe in the 1890s.  They did not begin to be widely used in New Zealand until about 1903 and from then until the First World War, huge numbers of them were produced and sent through the post.  By about 1905 they were available in such variety and profusion that many people began to collect them in albums, whether they had been sent through the post or not. 

The designs were often very attractive and the cards were cheap: typical prices were between 1d and 3d each, sometimes up to 6d for particularly ornate cards, so even working class people could afford to buy them and to collect them.

Postcards were also an effective means of communication in the days before most people had telephones (the widespread installation of phones in private homes did not occur in New Zealanduntil the mid-1920s).  There were two mail deliveries a day in the metropolitan areas so it was possible to send someone a postcard in the morning to arrange a meeting in the afternoon or evening – and you could be sure the recipient would get the message in time.

In 1911 the cost of sending a postcard (plain or pictorial) within New Zealandwas just ½d (whereas a letter cost 1d).  This low rate had been in force since December 1907.  Previously postcards had cost 1d to post, the same as the letter rate, although until December 1907 it had been possible to send a postcard at the cheaper ½d “printed matter” rate, providing only a short “formula” message was added.  This restriction regarding the message was removed from 2 December 1907.

From July 1903 it became allowed to write a message on the left half of the address side of postcards (previously that side was devoted to the address only).  This meant that the picture or illustration could occupy the whole of the other side.  Very quickly manufacturers began producing cards in the new format and almost all New Zealand postcards produced from about 1905 onwards are of the “divided back” type.  The standard size of postcards in New Zealand (set by Post Office regulation) was 5½ inches by 3½ inches (about 14cm by 9cm) and had been since 1898.  This was the case in most of the rest of the world at that time too. 

Most postcards published in New Zealanduntil 1908 were printed abroad in large batches (typically at least 500 at a time), notably in Germany and Austria, which offered quality at an attractive price, and also in Britain.  Cards printed inNew Zealand in this period tended to be of lesser printing quality (though there were exceptions). New Zealand also imported huge quantities of pictorial postcards published overseas, especially from Britain.  Tastes here were very similar to those in Britain.  From about 1908 a change began in New Zealand towards cards with a “real photo” finish.  This particularly applied to photographic view cards or event cards.  If well done, the clarity of these cards was superior to the earlier printed cards.  Using a photomechanical printer, this new type of card could be produced quickly in considerable numbers.

Alternatively, local photographers could use manual methods to produce “real photo” postcards (using specially sensitised card stock) one by one from photographic negatives. 

This enabled comparatively small editions (typically 20 to 50 cards) to be produced quickly for local sale (an option that had not been available previously).  This technical advance meant that, from about 1908 onwards, “real photo” view cards and event cards began to predominate. 

Amateur photographers could even produce “real photo” postcards from their own snapshots, using suitable commercially available card stock, and they could write their own captions on the negatives if they had the right camera!  Not infrequently one comes across amateur cards which have faded badly today because the original producer did not have the requisite expertise to use the image fixing agent correctly.

The New Zealand Post & Telegraph Department kept detailed records of the number of postcards posted in New Zealandand received from abroad in the early 1900s.  As an indication of how rapidly the postcard collecting craze grew, in 1896 approximately 1.22 million were posted in New Zealand and only 5,000 received from abroad.  These would have been almost entirely plain (i.e. non-pictorial) government-issued cards.  By 1902 the figures were still only 1.24 million and 63,000 respectively.  These figures would have included a small number of private pictorial cards.  Five years later, in 1907, the relevant figures were 6.1 million and 630,000 and almost all of this large increase would have been due to the craze for pictorial postcards.  The peak years were 1909 and 1910, when around 8 million postcards were posted in New Zealandand received from abroad.  In 1911 the figure was still around 6.83 million.   Thereafter it fell gradually to around 3.9 million in the years 1918-20 (by which time the postage rate for postcards had risen substantially).  

It needs to be made clear that the Post Office figures only represent cards posted unenclosed (the only ones they could count!).  Huge numbers were also sent inside envelopes – probably as many as sent unenclosed.  In addition, large numbers of cards were purchased and put straight into albums, unused.  Picture postcard collecting was a huge craze around the world in the years before World War One.  For example, in the year 1905, 734 million postcards (mostly pictorial) were posted in Britain, 770 million in the USA and 1,161 million in Germany.  In the same year just under 3 million were posted in New Zealand.  These figures help put the relative scarcity of early New Zealand postcards today in context.

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