If you've spent a little time with me, you know that I am a huge fan and modest collector of old French postcards. In France, these are abbreviated CPA, for Carte Postale Ancienne. One of my favorites is of Napoleon I on horseback, from 1910, which hangs in our bar. I bought it in Paris, postally used, sent with many messages to an address in Belgium. I have a collection of about a dozen postcards of Beaune, which I had enlarged and which are in the entry hall in the house there; sort of an introduction to the city and the house, all from the Golden Age of the CPA, roughly 1900-1920. Every image was hand-selected, as they show scenes of 100 years ago, but on the same streets that we walk daily. A few images show the city's past: for example, of the large statue standing in the middle of Place Carnot in the center of town, which was taken and melted down by the Germans in WWI and where a small but ornate merry-go-round now sits. Pere Noel and angel postcards (see photos here) graced my Christmas dinner table this year, as well as the dining room mirror, and were included in the shoot by Romantic Homes Magazine for the 2010 Christmas issue.
One might be amazed by the amount of CPA available in France, unless you also know that the French never ever throw anything away. Ever. Through the generations, they carefully stored all of those postcards. It's a sure bet that you will find CPA at any and all vides-grenier and brocante and sometimes at a foire des antiquaires, not to mention on Ebay. Depending on what you are after, you can find them unused (non voyage), with a cancelled postage stamp (oblitere), or with a message (ecrit). The value and the price of the cards can depend on these factors, as well as the rarity and condition of the cards. I happen to love ones that have been postally used (so I can date the card), with lovely handwriting, embossing and gold touches. I have a few that are from 1904 and earlier, and I am still fascinated by them! I have a few that are more rare, like the pair of Father Christmas' shown above; they are German, which is more rare than a French Pere Noel, but they also have a few creases, so that decreased their value. Of those two, the Green Coat is older and more rare, it is exactly 100 years old.
The global golden age of the CPA was roughly 1900-1920, beginning at a time when newspapers did not include any photographs but the Industrial Revolution had greatly advanced the capabilities for printing. It became a novel way for people to send images of their daily life or town; sometimes with realism, sometimes with humor, sometimes with gravity. The range of CPA is tremendous across the world at this time. A turning point in France was in 1904, when CPA were produced with "divided" backs: one half for the address, one half for the message. This was a novelty! Prior to that, the address alone could be written on the back: no message, though a note was often written on the front side of the card; the stamp also had to go on the front of the card, not the back. This small change, though, meant that the cards were used as inexpensive correspondance instead of just sending a photo.
I am having a hard time nailing down figures, but there are estimates of millions of CPA sent during the golden age of the media. Consider it a novelty-becoming-staple of life, such as email, 100 years ago. The decline of the CPA started around the first World War, as resources were conserved, photos and video began to appear in newspapers, and people globally spent less.
Vintage post cards can be found in English also on Ebay; in any country and in any language it is a wonderful time capsule, or snapshot of an era.