There is an interesting article on Wikipedia relating to Real Photo Postcards, it is informative and covers the history of the markets from when the author believes Kodak brought the first folding camera to the market and offered a service printing photographs on postcard backs.
The reality is that nearly all postcard images are photographs and the term Real Photo is a little misleading as it relates to the printing technique used to produce the postcard. The author suggests that there are many reproduction Real Photo Postcards that have been printed though does not go so far as to say they are intended to mislead. In itself that is a little misleading as many of the reproduction Real Photo Postcards we have traded clearly state that they are copies or reproduction and it is usually not too difficult to spot the difference by depth and quality of image.
Many of the reproduction real photo postcards are a copy from an early postcard rather than the use of the original glass plate or negative, many having been broken, destroyed by bombing, deterioration or lost. Quite rightly the author points out that many of these reproduction postcards have been printed and if you are uncertain if the postcard is a real photograph or a print use a strong magnifying glass and if the image is made up of dots it is a print.
Market forces, quality of image and subject have made the Real Photo Postcard the more desirable, they also appear to be tougher, suffer less damage and do not suffer soiling problems through years of neglect or handling as does the printed variety. The main problem with Real Photo postcards, especially those produced by local photographers, is the quality of the finished product.
When photographing every day scenes they had the time to take care and produce some exceptional shots and took time to prepare and develop the image. It is the disaster or incident that tends to suffer from poor quality of workmanship and the image is either over exposed or fades with age.
Where we trade suffers from landslides and the occasional earthquake, one about every two hundred years, shipwrecks and rail crashes. You can see from many of these images that the photographer, amateur and professional, was probably on scene when the incident was taking place. Having taken several quick snaps the photographer probably ran like hell to save himself from becoming a part of the incident. Having secured his camera he would probably also run like hell back to the studio to corner the market in the most recent local disaster.
It was probably at the point the photographer was developing the photographs to sell to the newspapers and preparing postcards for a quick sale that the photographer’s quality control fell to pieces and today those images are fading. It is a great pity they did not return to the studio several days later and take the time to do the job properly. The problem with disasters is that they are soon forgotten and the commercial value of producing further postcards was not there.
The author of the Wikipedia article in his attempt to advise how to avoid purchasing printed postcards in the belief they are a real photo postcard fails to warn about the early glazed German postcards that are of photographic quality but printed. They can be easily mistaken for photographs and only when they are damaged and the glaze is peeling from the image do you realise that they are printed.
Soon after or during the First World War Valentine began producing a glazed postcard that was a much improved version of the German original with a finer glaze. Milton also produced a Gelatined postcard that has all the qualities of a real photo postcard with glaze and depth of image and can so easily be mistaken at first and second glance. Many publishers mark their postcards with these production types.
With the difference in price between a printed postcard and a real photo being measures in tens of pounds rather than pennies you should make sure you know what can fool you.