Boston Public Library
Exhibitions

Greetings from Copley Square: A Chronology in Postcards

Trinity Church, Copley Square, Boston, Mass. [front]
Copley Square, Boston, Massachusetts.

Since its creation in the mid-nineteenth century, Boston’s Copley Square has served as centerpiece for many of the city’s most important educational, religious, and arts institutions and some of its most significant and beautiful architectural landmarks. This series of postcards – which illustrates the five major eras of postcard design between 1900 and 1950 – shows the tremendous cultural, technological, and aesthetic changes to Copley Square during that period.

When the Boston Public Library moved to its current location on the square in 1895, it joined an already illustrious group of neighbors: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT); the Museum of Fine Arts and, later, the Copley Plaza Hotel; Trinity Church; the New Old South Church; and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, to name only a few. While some institutions have moved from the neighborhood, many of the square’s anchoring institutions remain. The layout of the square itself has changed markedly from these postcards: until 1966, the center of Copley Square was diagonally bisected by Huntington Avenue and carried both streetcar lines and general traffic.

This series of postcards spanning over a half century in the life of Copley Square illustrates not only the evolution of the postcard but of this important cityscape as a center of arts, science, and commerce.

 

  • Undivided Back Era (1901-1907)
     
    Although variations of the postcard first appeared in the United States in the 1860s, the modern postcard came into being in 1898 when the U.S. Postal Service permitted private firms to produce “private mailing cards.” Postcards from this early period are termed “undivided back” cards because they do not have a vertical printed line on the card’s reverse. Any writing other than the recipients address o the card’s back was forbidden by law; brief personal messages were limited to the front side, either under or on the image itself. Publishers embellished early cards with fabric or glitter for extra appeal but this was a short-lived practice; debris from these decorations clogged cancellation machines.

    Copley Square, Boston, Mass. [front] Copley Square, Boston, Mass. [front]

     

  • Divided Back Era (1907-1915)

    Postcards with divided backs were first permitted in the United States in 1907. The fronts could now be used exclusively for design, while the cards’ backs were divided on the left from the address on the right. The image on the front extended to the edge of the card, with no border. The majority of U.S. postcards were printed in Europe during this period, primarily in Germany, which was well-known for its outstanding quality and printing methods. In this “Golden Age” of printed postcards, production of cards doubled every six months. The U.S. Postal Service estimated that over 677 million postcards were mailed in 1908 alone.

    Copley Sq., Showing Copley Plaza & Public Library, Boston, Mass. [front] Panoramic View of Copley Sq., from Public Library, Showing Trinity Church, Boston, Mass. [front]

     

  • White Border Era (1915-1930)
    The advent of World War I and high import taxes ended the supply of postcards from Germany, and publishers in the United States began printing most postcards to meet demand. Often of inferior quality to their European counterparts, postcards produced during this period typically featured a white border surrounding the image, which reduced the image size and saved ink costs.

    Copley Square, Showing Public Library and the Copley Plaza, Boston, Mass. [front] Copley Square, Showing Trinity Church, Westminster and Copley-Plaza Hotels, Boston, Mass. [front]

     

  • Linen Card Era (1930-1945)

    New technological advances enabled publishers to print cards on a textured rag paper stock with much brighter, more vibrant colors. This technique gave cards the look of being printed on linen cloth. Initially, many postcards retained the white border but later designs were often printed to the edge. Inexpensive to produce, these cards were very popular for advertising purposes. The BPL holds nearly 25,000 office proofs of linen postcards published by the Boston firm Tichnor Brothers Inc., dating from the late 1940s to the 1960s.

    New Home Office Building, New England Mutual Life Insurance Company at Copley Square, Boston, Mass. [front] Copley Square, Junction of Boylston Street and Huntington Avenue [front]

     

  • Photochrome Era (1939-present)

    Vividly-colored, glossy “Chrome” photograph postcards first appeared in 1939 as part of a popular advertising campaign by the Union Oil Company. Although production briefly slowed during World War II, photochrome postcards soon dominated the postcard market and replaced both linen and black and white version by 1945. They remain the most commonly produced postcard type today.

    The Sheraton Plaza Hotel in Copley Square with Boston Public Library at Right [front] Copley Square, Boston, Massachusetts [front]