Trade Advertising Postcards as Business Artefacts

David Finkelstein (University of Hull)


If someone were to ask what came to mind when they said the word ‘postcard’, those of a certain age might think of holidays and excursions, and of picture postcards circling lazily around small carousels outside tourist shops and visitor centres, waiting for you to pick out a card with picturesque views of local sights and famous buildings to send to a relative, or of tropical drinks you’d enjoyed the night before and were sure your work colleagues would love to see and feel envious about. You might scribble some quick note on the back in the section allotted for this purpose: ‘wish you were here’; ‘enjoying myself tremendously’; ‘thinking of you (or not)’. It would be posted, arriving maybe a week after you were back at your office desk or home. It was a way of marking your presence in a physical space. You had visited, you had seen what was on offer, and this card was a record of that fact. Now, of course, the selfie taken on your mobile phone and posted instantly to social media, or sent as part of a text message, has taken over such functions: the image is caught, sent and seen within seconds. It is dictated by your interests, not pre-set by others.

There was a time, however, when picture postcards were vital parts of a global cultural interaction. The world’s first postcards in the form we know them today (an image on the front, postal information on the back) were issued by the Austrian Post Office in October 1869. They were a resounding success, selling 2,926,102 cards across Austria-Hungary in the first three months of issue. The idea was picked up in Britain the following year, with the British Post Office beginning sales of their own version in October 1870. Other countries soon followed: Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Holland, Norway and Sweden introduced postcards in 1871; France, Russia, Algeria and Chile in 1872; Spain, Japan and the U.S. in 1873. The implementation of an International Postal Treaty in 1875 and the Universal Postal Union in 1878, establishing consistent international postal charges and postal card sizes, galvanised demand for picture postcards, particularly when improvements in printing technology lowered costs of producing coloured and photographic images from the 1890s onwards. 

The Golden Era of Picture Postcards 

Between 1890 and 1920, the golden era of the picture postcard, staggering numbers of cards were sent annually across the world. In 1906 alone, the Post Card Dealer reported that 770.5 million cards had been posted in the United States, 734.5 million in Great Britain, and a staggering 1.1 billion cards in Germany, where the trend was most popular and German firms dominated the global marketplace. In 1913, just prior to the start of the First World War, Germans posted 1,792,824,900 picture postcards, while British correspondents sent off 903,180,000.  Internationally successful businesses flourished as a result. Among them, London based firms such as Raphael Tuck and Sons and E. Wrench Limited, and Dundee based postcard pioneers James Valentine and Sons, became industrial centres of postcard production. France was dominated by the Louis Levy firm. Until 1913, German postcard production was presided over by firms based in Saxony, chief among them Dresden firms such as Stengel and Meisner & Buch, and Berlin firms Gustav Liersch, Photocrom and Rotophot. Vienna hosted Munk, who established a major international presence through exporting to and making printing arrangements with multiple countries. In Italy, there was Traldi and Alfieri & Lacroix; in Belgium, De Rycker & Mendel; and in Switzerland, Photoglob of Zurich. In the US, firms such as the American Souvenir Card Company, the Universal Postal Card Company and E.C. Kropp Company imported and adapted the German model of postcard production to great effect. 

These firm's factories and workshops produced millions of compact cardboard cards with images on one side and divided sections on the other, one portion for writing addresses of correspondents, the other for writing a short message. The formula had been perfected by the turn of the twentieth century, and picture postcards became part of local tourism, offering images of town centres, local beauty spots, important tourist sites and famous faces to send where one fancied. A number of studies and pieces published over the past fifty years on North American, British and European picture postcard history and collecting have noted the effect such picture postcards had in fixing places and spaces within local identity and commodity culture.

Picture Postcard Promotion 

Picture postcards also featured as part of general advertising culture and business promotion. Businesses would photograph premises and products for cards that could be mailed to customers or distributed to visitors and contacts for viewing at one’s convenience. Business postcard imagery helped visually mould thinking about what a firm represented, how it went about producing relevant commodities, and what the results symbolised within capitalist and cultural structures. Such photographic postcards also spoke to the period’s turn towards capturing reality in photography, though this apparent reliability and documentation of a moment in time nevertheless made the viewer still very much subject to the creator's art. Underlying such images were decisions about what to picture, how to picture it, how to compose and capture spaces, and what ways such representations helped nuance company messages. There is a great deal to be said about the role of such ephemera in documenting the global shift to modernity that took place around the turn of the twentieth century.

Japanese Picture Postcards and the Imperial Printing Bureau

Such issues can be seen in a recently uncovered set of black and white postcards issued in 1921 by the Imperial Printing Bureau. The collection features a mixture of people, places and objects, documenting an early twentieth-century Japanese industrial print workplace in ways not often addressed by contemporary studies of the picture postcard phenomenon. 

Japanese postcard history commentary is sparse, though some insights have appeared sporadically over the last 80 years in English and Japanese language outlets. Japanese picture post cards became fashionable in the late 1870s with the reform of the national and international postal systems. The Japanese post office issued its first postcards in 1873. By 1876, according to the London, Provincial, and Colonial Press, 3,691 branches were distributing 24 million letters and post-cards, alongside five million newspapers. Between 1890 and 1913, picture postcard sales and mailings soared, with postings increasing from 96,430,610 cards in 1890 to 1,504,860,312 in 1913. Several private Japanese enterprises became extremely successful as a result, including Ogawa and the Akasawa Fine Art Co. in Yokohama, and Yamakashoten in Tokyo. 

The Imperial Printing Bureau postcards, part of this postal bonanza, present something of a conundrum. Why depict such industrial print trade spaces? To whom were these cards directed? Who were they produced by and for what purpose? Why would the Bureau go to such lengths to document its shop floors, workstations and workers? Solving the mystery of their provenance takes one down a rabbit hole of interests relating to a sub-genre of postcard history not previously considered, exposing the intersection between representations of place, space and industry. Studying these promotional images also raises the question of what role such visual ephemera played in representing and promoting the industrial workplace of the twentieth century modernist era. 

Imperial Printing Bureau History

The Imperial Printing Bureau was founded in Tokyo in 1871. Its function initially was to bring order and consistency to the issuing of Japanese government banknotes. Previous attempts at printing Japanese paper money had been halting, shoddy and prone to counterfeiting. The Meiji government responded by bringing in external consultants and hiring foreign talent to help build and organise its printing spaces, press technology and workflows. Among these were Edoardo Chiossone (1833-1898), a Genoese bred art professor and engraver, who while working in the Frankfurt office of the graphic industry leaders Dondorf and Naumann in 1870, had designed and engraved the famous Japanese bank note that would come to be known as the ‘German made banknote’, (Doitsu sei no osatsu), put into circulation in 1873. On the strength of this commission, Chiossone took up an invitation to advise the Japanese government on latest printing and engraving techniques, and in 1875 settled in Tokyo to set up and manage the engraving division of the Imperial Printing Bureau as a foreign government adviser (Oyatoi Gaikokujin). Chiossone would spend the next 23 years in Japan designing and overseeing the engraving of over 500 plates for banknotes, stamps, government bonds and other securities issued by the modern Japanese state, as well as supporting print work on government publications. He would also gain renown as a portraitist of Emperor Meiji, producing a sketched portrait that would go on to be photographed and distributed in official documents, as postcards and as official images hung in schools, government offices and public spaces [see Figure 1].

Figure 1. Chiossone Portrait of Emperor Meiji

Similar foreign advice was used in organising the construction of new premises for the Imperial Printing Bureau between 1874 and 1876. The Meiji government hired the Glasgow born engineer Thomas James Waters (1842-1898), to draw up initial plans for the printing offices and machinery plants. These were later supplemented and completed in final building stages by another Oyatoi engineer, Charles Alfred Chastel de Boinville (1850-1897).

The Bureau started off with a focus on printing banknotes, but by the turn of the century it had expanded its remit to include printing official papers and documents produced for the Tokyo-based government. It was set up to be self-sufficient, with separate rooms dedicated to processing and producing the paper, ink and print needed, office space for engravers, draughtsmen and compositors to produce images and text required, and machinery to complete production of commissioned work. 

Imperial Printing Bureau Postcards

In 1921 the Tokyo Printing Bureau issued a commemorative volume celebrating its 50 years as official printer of revenue stamps, paper money and government documents.  The history featured several photographs of the Bureau’s grounds and buildings. These were recycled as part of a set of promotional postcards issued contemporaneously, documenting the integration of the latest Western print technology within Japanese settings. The images were rather poignant in retrospect, offering a specific vision of modern technological application that would be destroyed in the Great Kantō earthquake and subsequent firestorm that devastated Tokyo and Yokohama in September 1923. The Bureau’s buildings and machinery were destroyed or severely damaged in the conflagration, and it took several years to rebuild at a new site.

Figure 2. Imperial Printing Bureau Grounds (left); Figure 3. Imperial Printing Bureau Grounds

The postcards document the Bureau’s manufacturing spaces, print machines and workers industriously labouring at relevant tasks in the printing cycle. They also provided visual contexts for floorplan details reproduced in the firm’s history [See Figures 2 and 3]. Images included shots of building exteriors, images of male and female workers undertaking relevant industrial tasks, such as typesetting complex material, running printing machines, sorting paper, bundling finished postcards, and individual shots of complex ink, papermaking and printing machinery. The images were accompanied by scripts in Japanese and English describing what was represented in the postcard, such as ‘The Typographic Printing Room’, ‘Power plate printing room’, the ‘Mitsumata preparation room’.

Figure 4. Driveway Entrance (left); Figure 5. Printing Office Entrance

Figure 4. Printing Department (left); Figure 5. Typographic Department

The firm’s official history had featured several images of building exteriors, including photographs of the driveway entrance to its main printing office and the entrance to its typographical department [see Figures 4 and 5]. These images were reshot at closer, cropped angles, and reproduced in the contemporaneous set of picture postcards [see Figures 6 and 7]. The exterior views served to contextualise the printing bureau buildings within local landscapes. The main office entrance had been built in baroque style, with three archways framed by a giant gable decorated with an imperial chrysanthemum emblem.  The typographical department featured an arched entrance built within a large two-story brick structure, punctuated by large sash windows enabling light to enter workshop spaces. The grounds and buildings featured local foliage and cherry blossom trees, completing the siting of modern building facades within Japanese herbacious spaces. In contrast, similar postcard images of national printing bureaus issued roughly contemporaneously in the US and France, such as those seen in Figures 8-12, often offered wider individual and montage views of printing office exteriors and interiors. The aim seemingly was to impress viewers with the immensity and modernity of the buildings and the workspaces within, presenting them as markers of solidity, weight, technological advance and importance to the work being conducted within. These were massive spaces constructed in industrial factory form. 

Figure 8. Printing Office Exteriors (left); Figure 9. Printing Office Interiors (center); Figure 10. Kansas State Printing Office

Figure 11. Government Printing Office, Washington (left); Figure 12. Paper Machine, Paper Mill

While Imperial Printing Bureau exterior images were less ostentatious, their reproductions of internal spaces showed adaptations of industrialised factory approaches to mechanical tasks. They offered visual commentary on the use of modern technology to produce work of national significance. Japanese workers were presented in large interior spaces configured like stage sets, arranged in set spaces and undertaking set tasks.  Management offices were not featured in these images. Instead, the postcards offered posed examples of men and women productively engaged in machine-based tasks leading to finished products, and captions were succinct, explicating the utilitarian functions represented in the postcards [see Figures 13-17]. Juxtaposing this documentation of technological shifts was a significant framing of such work within traditional contexts. Male workers were photographed wearing traditional tunics and cotton trousers as industrial garments suitable for shift work, with an equal number of female workers photographed in kimonos and hair pinned up in traditional form. All sported slip-on footwear adapted for the Japanese climate and working conditions.

Figure 13. Hand Making Room (left); Figure 14. Ink Grinding Room (center); Figure 15. Power Plate Printing Room

Figure 16. Imperial Printing Bureau Workers (left); Figure 17. Machine Room postcards, Linotype Operator

Such images had much in common with similar postcard reproduction of print spaces in other parts of the world during the same period [see Figures 18-25].  French, German, US and Japanese press and typesetting rooms might have offered workers uniformed in ways that reflected different national modes of dress. Nevertheless, the representation of workers and machines remained the same.

Figure 18. Composing Machine Room (left); Figure 19. Linotype Machine Room (center); Figure 20. Monotype Composing room

Figure 21. Linotype Composing Room (left); Figure 22. Press Room (center); Figure 23. Press Room

Figure 24. Press Room (left); Figure25. Press Room

Equally important regarding the Imperial Printing Bureau postcards are their links between the cultural and social uniqueness of the Japanese workspace and the firm’s absorption of new technology. Tradition is shown intertwined with new ways of working, as the images frequently remind us through the juxtaposition of modern machinery and buildings with indigenous clothing and landscapes. In contrast, a rare contemporary representation of the Osaka Mainichi Shimbun commercial newspaper print setup offers an alternative vision of print modernity [see Figure 26]. The 1920 picture postcard of Osaka operations presents a tableau montage of different stages in the newspaper’s production: images of workers in nondescript industrial overalls and garments churn out the paper in crowded spaces, and the finished product is rushed out the door by young, Western suited couriers eager to distribute the news of the day.  The photographic images show Japanese print capitalism in a full embrace and appropriation of a modernity clearly shaped by Western influences. At the same time, the postcard interweaves bamboo shoots into the photo montage, thus fusing West machine and factorisation with tradition Japanese aesthetic.

Figure 26. Osaka Mainichi Shimbun Newspaper Operations


These images are powerful starting points for considering intersections between print advertising, print culture and visual culture.  Such postcards were used as powerful advertisements for documenting official print industries marching to the relentless beat of modernity. The Imperial Printing Bureau postcards open a window into the self-promotion of an agency upholding Japanese work traditions while simultaneously embracing new technology. It showed an organisation engaged in balancing between traditional work cultures and technological change. Pride and patriotism make their presence felt in the use of a democratic technology that embraces a modern identity but is also adjusted to Japanese cultural frameworks. Here, we also see a national institution positioning itself within consumer culture through the use of postcards as a means of advertising its activities. Such postcard examples of print and allied trade workplaces served to mark specific points in time and document important collisions between visual print culture and global industries.

[Reformatted and republished 8 February 2023]


My grateful thanks to Professor Aiko Watanabe, Waseda University, for invaluable help in sourcing contemporary documents and providing translations of key material used in this piece. Thanks also go to Dr Peter Robinson for similar documentary and academic support, and for helpful commentary on and critique of the piece in key stages of its drafting.

Frank Staff, The Picture Postcard and Its Origins, 2nd ed., Lutterworth Press, 1976, p. 47.

George and Dorothy Miller, Picture Postcards in the United States, 1893-1918, New York: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1976, p. 22.

John Fraser, ‘Propaganda on the Picture Postcard,’ Oxford Art Journal, 3.2, Oct 1980 (39-47), p. 39. 

See for example Daniel D. Arreola, Postcards from the Rio Bravo Border: Picturing the Place, Placing the Picture, 1900s-1950s, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2013; Joachim Bürgschwentner, “War Relief, Patriotism and Art: The State-Run Production of Picture Postcards in Austria 1914–1918,” Austrian Studies, 21 (2013), pp. 99-120; A.W. Coysh, The Dictionary of Picture Postcards in Britain, 1894 –1939. Suffolk: Baron Publishing, 1984; Philip J. Hafield, Canada in the Frame: Copyright, Collections and the Image of Canada, 1895-1924, London: UCL Press, 2018; Hall Morgan and Andreas Brown, Prairie Fires and Half Moons, the American Photographic Postcard: 1900-1920, Boston: David R. Godfine, 1981; Deborah B. Ryan, Picture Postcards in the United State, 1893-1918, New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1981; Frank Staff, The Picture Postcard and its Origins, London: Lutterworth, 1966, 1979; Frank Staff, Picture Postcards and Travel: A collector’s guide, London: Lutterworth Press, 1979; Martin Willoughby, A History of Postcards. London: Studio Editions, 1992.

For example, see John A. Jakle and Keith A. Sculle, “The American Hotel in Postcard Advertising: An Image Gallery,” Material Culture, 37.2 (Fall 2005), pp. 1-25; W.H. Helfand and J.K. Crellin, “The Pharmacy in Comic Postcards,” Pharmacy in History, 23.3 (1981), pp 107-113; John Crellin and William Helfand, “Picture Postcards: A Resource for the Social History of Pharmacy,” Pharmacy in History, 25.3 (1983), pp. 116-130; Bernadette A. Lear, “Wishing They Were There: Old Postcards and Library History,” Libraries and the Cultural Record, 43.1 (2008), pp. 77-101.

Sekko Hibata, Nihon ehagaki shichô(The History of Japanese Picture Postcards), Tokyo: Nihon Yûken Kurabu, 1936; Ryûkichi Komori, Ehagaki; Meiji taishô Shôwa (The picture postcard: From Meiji to Showa). Tokyo: Kokushokankôkai, 1978; Neil Pedlar, “Japanese Picture Postcards,” in Neil Pedlar, The Imported Pioneers: Westerners who Helped Build Modern Japan, New York, St Martin’s Press, 1990,pp. 208-212; Kenji Satô, “Postcards in Japan: A Historical Sociology of a Forgotten Culture,” International Journal of Japanese Sociology, 11 (2002), pp. 35-55. 

The London, Provincial and Colonial Press News, Feb 1878, p. 19.

John Fraser, ‘Propaganda on the Picture Postcard,’ Oxford Art Journal, 3.2, Oct 1980 (39-47), p. 39.

Neil Pedlar, ‘Japanese Picture Postcards,’ in Pedlar, The Imported Pioneers: Westerners who helped build modern Japan, New York: St Martin’s Press, 1990, p. 210.

Donatella Failla, ‘A Bridge of Art and Culture Connecting Italy and Japan: The “Edoardo Chiossone” Museum of Genoa’, in Gaoheng Zhang, Mario Mignone, eds. Exchanges and Parallels between Italy and East Asia, Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2019, (pp. 222-244), p. 223.

Susumu Mizuta, ‘Thomas Waters and the Paper Money Factory Project of Meiji Japan,’ Journal of Asian Architecture and Building Engineering, 17.2 (2018), pp. 277-284.