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People collect picture postcards of full moons, flags, ships, beautiful women, school, post office, or church buildings, animals, comics, glamorous women, centennial celebrations and expositions; really whatever pleases the collector. These are known as topicals in the world of postcard collectibles.

An interest over time can narrow quite specifically. One collector may search out postcard images of cows standing in water and another pictures of people reading. Some collectors look for small town views and others for city views or scenic views. Still others search for small town views with trolley cars or American flags.

Whatever the theme preference, it is easy to build a large collection quickly by attending flea markets, antique and collectibles shows, and tag sales, and by bidding in online auctions like eBay. It's not so easy at first to identify purchases by quality. Most often, the novice collector accumulates a large number of fairly worthless postcards with a few very lucky finds thrown in.

But there is a better way that will, in the end, lead to a far more valuable collection.

An easy method for the novice collector to be sure of building a quality inventory is to check the publisher's name on the back of the card, usually printed along the left margin or down the divider. As in any field, there have always been postcard publishers whose production values were superior enough to stand out in the rest of the herd.

The first two names new collectors learn in the category of high quality postcard publishers are Tuck and Valentine & Sons, and you can rarely go wrong in buying cards by these leaders in the field.

But there are other great publishers whose names go unrecognized, partly because so much attention has been given to the leading few.

If you are interested in buying song lyric cards, don't pass up a Bamforth or a Charles Rose. Campbell Art Company published the charming children drawn by artist Rosie O'Neill and International Art Publishing published Ellen Clapsaddle. Local views by Albertype of Brooklyn on the East Coast, Edward H. Mitchell of San Francisco on the West Coast, E.C. Kropp in the Midwest, and S. Langsdorf in the South are almost sure to be beauties.

Other good publishers for local views are A.C. Bosselman, M. Rieder, Fred Lounsbury, and Manhattan P.C. Company. For comics look for Ullman Mfg. Company, Paul C. Koeber, and American Post Card Company. Exposition cards: Joseph Koehler and Rotograph. Artist-signed: Illustrated Post Card Company, F.A. Owen, John Winsch, and Ullman Mfg. Company. Greetings: Reinthal & Newman, Charles Rose, Stecher Litho, and Gottschalk, Dreyfus & Davis.

By looking for publishers who were particularly good in the theme of your choice, you can learn what constituted the finest in postcard production. Very quickly, you will know how to spot good quality work on your own, no matter the publisher, and will soon be spotting a publisher's work without having to turn over the card at all. Collecting by publisher makes sense for anyone, but particular for the collector who is just learning the way.

There are some publishers whose work was so superb you may find yourself buying cards without regard to the theme at all. A word of good advice: Forgetting theme for a moment, buy anything you can get your hands on by Rotograph, Edward H. Mitchell, Ullman Mfg., and Detroit Publishing Company.

Go out and find your great postcard collection. It's easy.