Finding Visual Inspiration With the Vintage Postcards of Old Tokyo

Have you ever traveled and sent a postcard home to your family? “Wish you were here” is emblazoned across a beautiful photo of the Grand Canyon or in front of the Eiffel Tower. Postcards have been a way to share a piece of travel for many years. The first “non-postal” postcard, meaning a privately made postcard where postage had to be affixed, was introduced in Austria in 1869. By 1870, picture postcards were all over.

The vintage postcards of Japan are being digitally preserved on a site called Old Tokyo. These postcards are an art form of their own, showcasing the history and style of the Japanese people from years ago. Japan has long had a rich culture. The vintage postcards illustrate fashions, buildings and festivals of the time. The site has even included more in-depth discussion of the history shown in each postcard.

Preserving History

Antique stores are often filled with old photos and postcards. You can usually find a box or two to flip through. Some even have old messages written on the back. Sometimes the colors have faded, but the imagery from so long ago is still there.

Old Tokyo has been preserving the integrity of the Japanese vintage postcards. Many still show their color well. The postcards display pictures and art of the historic districts, landscapes, festivals and more. Looking through their archive gives us a glimpse into the past.

Vintage Postcards | Old Tokyo | postcards | art

“Kita-kannon”-yama float, Gion Matsuri, Kyoto, c. 1930.

Vintage Postcards | Old Tokyo | postcards | art | Japan

Exterior of Japan Pavilion, New York World’s Fair, 1939.

Vintage Postcards | Old Tokyo | postcards | art | Japan

Maiko with “Nipponophone”, c. 1910.


Vintage Postcards | Old Tokyo | postcards | art | Japan

Hibiya Park, c. 1910.

Vintage Postcards | Old Tokyo | postcards | art | Japan

Mizaru, Kikazaru & Iwazaru (See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil), c. 1910.

Vintage Postcards | Old Tokyo | postcards | art | Japan

The Game of “Go”, c. 1910.

“The charm of Tokyo to the visitor is the huge experiment it presents in the meeting of East and West. The air is electric with change and new ideas.” – Zoe Kincaid, “Tokyo Vignettes” (1933)

Inspiration for Art

Looking back at history is a great way to find inspiration for art. Pick an art style or era. You can imitate the color palettes or design lines of the time. The Japanese buildings have distinct shapes. The kimonos can have bold patterns. Pull those elements into your art. 

You can also go the mixed media route and use prints of the postcards (or ones you find yourself in an antique store) for collage. Collage them into a journal as a background then paint over sections. You can create a travel journal or sketchbook. Grab a postcard everywhere you go and incorporate it into the page. Draw around it. Paint over some sections and add text. There are tons of possibilities!

Vintage Postcards | Old Tokyo | postcards | art | Japan

Year of the Rooster

Vintage Postcards | Old Tokyo | postcards | art | Japan

Deco commemorative postcard, Meiji Industrial Exhibition, 1907.

Vintage Postcards | Old Tokyo | postcards | art | Japan

Tōrō and rising moon, embossed postcard, c. 1910.

You can find many more vintage postcards and history to explore on the Old Tokyo website so make sure to head over to visit!

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