Dating Tea Room Postcards

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A private mailing card from the era of 1898 to 1901.
Undivided Back Era: Wistaria Tea Garden and Grey Room at Burt's, Youngstown, Ohio, 1907, postcard front. Postally used in 1907, this early card provides a space to write a message on the front, because it was made with an undivided back, which did not allow for messages.
Divided Back Era: Hotel Jefferson Tea Room Saint Louis, Missouri, postcard back, postally used in 1914.
Real Photo Postcard: Sandwich Home Industries Tea Room, Sandwich, New Hampshire, RPPC, postcard front.
Real Photo Postcard:Sandwich Home Industries Tea Room, Sandwich, New Hampshire, RPPC, postcard back.
Linen Era: M and O Tea Room and Wishing Well, Gatlinburg, Tennessee, Blanche Moffett, proprietor, postcard front, postmarked 1949.
Chrome Era: Day’s Ice Cream Garden Tea Room, Ocean Grove, New Jersey, postcard front, chrome era.
Chrome Era, Divided Back: Day’s Ice Cream Garden Tea Room Ocean Grove New Jersey, postcard back, chrome era.
Fernwood Cottage Tea Room, Winthrop, Maine, exterior, RPPC postcard front, 1920s. The photo has been dated by the approximate era of the vehicle.
Chunking Tea Room, Dry-Mills, Maine, exterior, RPPC postcard front, 1950s. The building is old, but the photo has been dated by the style of Coca Cola signage and the approximate era of the vehicle.
Sweet Heart Tea Room, Shelburne, Massachusetts, interior, postcard front; probably late 1910s, despite the 1920 postmark date on the reverse.
Sweet Heart Tea Room, Shelburne, Massachusetts, interior, postcard back. It is postmarked October 11, 1920, The message reads, "3 o'clock at this tea room — nice lunch— chicken and waffles — Lovely ride — just wish you were here — Mary —" and it is addressed to "Mrs. L. E. Ryder, 98 Lafayette Pk., E. Lynn, Mass."


You probably got here by clicking a "See Also" link at one of my pages on Vintage Tea Room Postcards. This is the rabbit hole. You have begun to fall in. You can turn back now ... or prepare to enter a maze of twisty little passageways, all alike, or, perhaps, a little maze of twisting passageways, all different, as the case may be.

Okay. That was the warning sign. And now ... onward!

On this site you will find many, many interior and exterior views of quaint, old-fashioned tea rooms, as well as the backs of cards, some with messages and some simply indicating the name of the printer or additional information about the tea room. A few of them are photographic prints, but most take the form of postcards.

Dating postcards can be a little tricky. There are four basic ways to date a card, and before i turn you loose with the list of the tea room images archived here, i would like to introduce you to some postcard dating techniques:.


Dating Postcards by Era of Manufacture

Pioneer Era (1893-1898): These are the earliest known postcards. They do not contain images.
Private Mailing Card Era (1898-1901): Pursuant to an act of Congress passed earlier in the year, the date of July 1st, 1898, inaugurated the era during which postcards could be sent through the mail for one cent whether or not they contained a message. At the same time, the Post Office voluntarily abandoned its monopoly on the printing of post cards, requiring only that he words "Private Mailing Card - Authorized by the Act of Congress on May 19th, 1898" must be printed on the back of any cards that the Post Office itself did not produce.
Undivided Back Era (1901-1907): On December 24th, 1901, the law changed again, and now post cards were not required to say "Private Mailing Card" (although the term was not forbidden) and now the words "Post Card" were sufficient. These cards have the words "Post Card" on the back, but only the address was allowed on the back, hence any message had to be written in the front-side image area or outside the image, in the border area. Toward the end of this era, many publishers designed their cards with a special border area on the front for text, next to the image.
Real Photo Postcards or RPPC (1900 to present day): These are direct photographic prints made in a darkroom on a fairly heavy grade of photo paper. The back often will be marked with the brand-name of the paper. Most Real Photo cards are black-and-white, according to the availability of film in the early 20th century, although a colour photo could be developed on the same kind of heavy paper. Like any photograph, RPPCs are subject to fading in the sun and paper curl due to humidity or lack thereof. They should be digitized and stored flat, away from light. Because they are hand-made in a darkroom, RPPCs were ideal for sales to small businesses that could not afford to pay for thousands of printed cards. During the height of the RPPC era, from 1900 to about 1940, local or wandering photographers would take business exterior and interior views "on spec" and try to sell the proprietor on buying a hundred or so cards. Very often on an RPPC, the name of the location was written in the negative and appears as white lettering on the print. Because they continued to be made in small batches for so long, and could be reprinted at will, the fact that a tea room postcard is an RPPC does not provide a solid clue to the actual date of the photograph.
Divided Back Era (1907-1915): With the postcard craze in full swing, and collectors wanting un-defaced images, the USPO relented and allowed messages to be written on the left-hand side of the postcard back, as long as the address was written on the right-hand side. Some postcard fans ignored this rule and wrote straight across the back, and then put the card into an envelope to mail, in order to preserve it from cancellation mark smudges on the front side, which would ruin the image. Many view cards of this era were black and white photos that had been half-toned and overlaid with pastel colours of ink to give them the look of colour photography. The use of a loupe will help you distinguish an RPPC from a half-tone print.
Chromolitho Era (1905-1918): Chromolithography is a lamentedly lost technique for producing colour prints using fine-grained stones upon which the artist draws in grease pencil to create resists for colour ink lay. A good chromolitho or chromo, as they were called, might be comprised of as many as twelve colours of ink, in the form of tiny grains or dots, to craft the illusion of continuous tone blending. Rarely employed for view cards, chromolithography was used by artists to create topical cards. Topics included season's greetings, birthday wishes, and series of 6 or 12 cards on subject matter such as patriotism, cute animals, good luck, divination, and the like. For chromolitho cards about tea leaf reading, see the page on Fortune Telling Postcards by Fred C. Lounsbury
White Border Era (1915-1930): With colour printing of black-and-white photos becoming more common, a particular grade of smooth white index stock was selected, and most companies employed a white border around the edges of the image, for ease of trimming and to keep the presses cleaner. In other words, RPPCs and over-printed black-and-white or tinted images that had previously run as full bleeds, from edge to edge, now had white borders. As previously, these black and white photos were half-toned and overlaid with pastel colours of ink to give them the look of colour photography.
Linen Era (1930-1945): In 1930 a different kind of index stock was introduced, called Linen Finish or Linen, embossed with a pattern that resembled woven cloth. These postcards began as black-and-white photos but were artfully hand-retouched on four colour plates (yellow, magenta, cyan, and black) which blended tother via tiny half-tone dots until the finished art-print was a work of radiant, harmonious colour. The outer borders were ivory in tone, to better set off the fabulous colouring jobs.
Photo-Chrome Era (1939 to present day): Chrome-Coat or Chrome index stock paper is used for printing colour photographs without artful retouching. The mid-century modern colours of 1940-1980 postcards printed on shiny paper are often garish. 'Nuff said.

Dating Postcards by Copyright, Postal Code, Publisher, or Series Number

Postcard collectors long ago began indexing and dating cards by the presence of copyright dates, postal codes on addresses, publisher names and addresses, or series numbers.

I could go into a lot of detail about such arcane matters, but on the presumption that you are here for the tea rooms, not for postcard collecting minutiae, i will just say that i have specialized in roadside and main street linens from Curt Teich since the 1960s, my mother built her own postcard site back in the 1990s which i have kept online since her death in 2005 (you can find it at Liselotte Erlanger Glozer's Postcards), and only good sense and courtesy prevent me from noting which RPPC tea room cards have AZO stamp boxes and which are DEFENDER or AGFA, and whether or not they have stars, triangles, or diamonds in the corners or above and below ... because all of that dating code data is available online already, and you are here for the tea rooms, right?

Dating View Cards by Automobile Models and Signage

For those who know their car makes and models, dating exterior views of tea rooms and other small businesses is a cinch. I know enough to get the decade right; beyond that, i shall say no more. However, when it comes to signage, i am a demon, and i can often date an image by word-usage, logo-types, or techniques of sign-painting.

Of course, as with autos, signs will only tell you the earliest date the image could have been photographed. Always remember that an old car or an old sign can be photographed years after having been created.

Dating Postcards by Back-of-Card Postmarks, Fontography, and Handwriting

The text on the back of a card — if it has any — will certainly provide a clue as to the decade, if not the year, of manufacture.

Sho-card lettering, hand-inked deigns, and eccentric type mark the early era, after which we see regular serif type, followed by a mix of serif and sans-serif, and, finally, the domination of sans-serif.

As for handwriting, that too changed over the decades, as methods of cursive writing were modified in the school systems. Of course, dating a person's handwriting by decade will only provide a clue as to when the writer was born, not when the card was written and mailed -- but although a "Grandma" signature in 1890s cursive will look different than a "Grandma" in 1940s cursive, postmarks can only give us a "date mailed," which is not the same as "date photographed." Despite this, a 1915 postmark on an otherwise undateable card at least gives us a clue as to the probable decade of manufacture.

However, speaking as a postcard fanatic, i can tell you that back in the day when very few people were collecting linens and i could buy them for a nickel or a dime apiece, i sent hundreds, if not thousands, of them through the mail to my hippie friends. So if you find a linen on eBay with a note signed "cat" that was postmarked between 1964 and 1984, that was me, and i messed up your postmark dating system for you. Sorry 'bout that!

Dating Postcards by Census, City Directory, Newspaper, and Magazine Research

When dating portraits of named people, researchers rely heavily on census reports, birth and death indexes, and other tools of the genealogist or biographer. When dating a view card, there are also a few handy ways to approach the problem.

Research Named Persons: If the name of the tea room proprietor is given, perform a genealogy, Social Security Death Index, Find-a-Grave, and or Federal Census search on the name, to establish a birth-death timeline.
Research Street Addresses: If a street address is given, go to a current online street view and see if the building is still standing. If it is, call the current occupant and ask them if they know anything about the history of the previous occupants. If the building is no longer standing, contact the local historical society and ask for information on when the building was demolished, as that will become your latest possible photography date.
Research City Directories, Newspapers, and Magazines: Using online city directories and advertisements or articles in newspapers and magazines, search for the tea room by name and by city name. Log every advertisement you can find online to establish an approximate start-stop era.

These three forms of research, especially when coupled with visual cues on the card, such as automobile models, women's fashions, and postcard era of manufacture, will often allow you to get very close to a date for your card's image. Of course, some searches will fail, but if you enjoy research, you will be surprised and pleased to learn how much is known -- or available for a researcher to discover -- about people who lived and did business more than 100 years ago.

Further Thoughts on Dating and Identification

I know of no proprietary software designed for postcard inventory, but there probably is some. I find that a simple Excel spreadsheet will do, with data rows for paper-finish type (e.g. RPPC, linen, chrome, deckle-edge, etc.), colour process (if any, e.g. hand-tinted, air brushed, offset lithography, etc.), publisher's name and/or logo and/or copyright notice (or n.p.), photographer's name (if any), series number (if any), date (or n.d.), title on front (if any), back design (e.g. undivided, divided, photo-paper (with name and marks noted), divided with text, etc.), back-text (if any), postmark place and date (if any), identified automobile models (by year) if any, women's fashion era (if any).

All of these distinctions have pretty firmly agreed upon definitions among postcard collectors. Folks who upload their cards to deltiological social media groups can direct you to informative web sites where the definitions and their relevance to dating are further explained.

Since, for historical purposes, you want the date of the photo, not the date of printing or postmarking, be aware that many view cards were reprinted for decades, often with variations in colouring, printing technique, paper finish, publisher name, and so forth, and that the postmark date can be off from the photo date by 50 or more years, not only due to reprinting but because crazy collectors sometimes mail common old cards just for kicks.

Finally, one random word of advice -- use the search-aggregator and large sales sites like,,, and others to search for key terms for local businesses, buildings, annual events, card publishers, and town names. They may have a similar or identical card online at any given time that may (or may not) contain more descriptive information than you can glean as a beginner.

If you enjoy detective work, you will LOVE assembling the data on old postcards, scanning each one, and finding a way to display your collections on the web -- and folks like me will thank you!

I am personally researching and uploading to the web my collection of view cards on the tea room movement of the early 20th century, and i rely thankfully on the research of local and state historical societies as well as on social media community groups devoted to the study and display of vintage postcards.

If you made it this far, your lamp is now on. You are in a debris room filled with stuff washed in from the surface. A low wide passage with cobbles becomes plugged with mud and debris here, but an awkward canyon leads upward and west. A note on the wall says "Magic word XYZZY". A three foot black rod with a rusty star on an end lies nearby.

Good luck and best wishes!

catherine yronwode
curator, historian, and docent
The Mystic Tea Room

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