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Original Article by Bill Judnick
Copyright 1996, All Rights Reserved;
Article Revisions by Bill Judnick
Copyright 1999-2013, All Rights Reserved
QSL cards & QSL postcards are exchanged by ham radio operators & CB operators all over the world. They acknowledge and verify conversations that typically take place over long distances. Many operators proudly display these cards as records of their achievements. Some, for example, try to get at least one card from every county in the United States. Others, try for a card from as many countries as possible.
An occasional estate sale, an operator down on his or her luck, or an operator no longer interested in the hobby can sometimes bring a large quantity of these interesting cards into a dealer's stock. Deltiologists never see most QSL cards, however.
Virtually all QSL cards are postcard size--most regular and some continental. Until the early 1970's, the majority of QSL cards were explicitly marked "Postcard" or "Post Card", and they were used as such. When postal fees for sending these cards started increasing, more and more hams started sending their cards to regional bureaus in one outer wrapper. The bureaus, in turn, would sort them and mail large packages for all their operators to other regional bureaus, who in turn would distribute them to the collectors in their region. This practice is the nearly universal today, because postage expense is minimized.
The basic content of a QSL card is the name and location/address of the sender, his or her call sign, technical details concerning the equipment used, and notes on the quality of the transmission. Very brief personal messages are common.
The basic content is sometimes supplemented by artwork (much of which is originally designed or commissioned for these uses) or, less frequently, by "real photos". Some of this artwork is imaginative and exceptionally high quality, as shown in these modern cards from the Netherlands (left) and the United Kingdom (right):
Occasionally a QSL card or QSL postcard is best termed a QSL viewcard. This terminology is appropriate when the viewer's initial impression is mostly from the view, such as the following example from a Hamilton Ohio operator:
Phonetic abbreviations are used frequently in the text of QSL cards, so most can be guessed: PSE for please, XMTR for transmitter, etc. The most useful abbreviation for the deltiologist to know is QTH--while not obvious, it signifies the home town or position (if afloat or on the road, for example) of the sender. Other less-than-obvious abbreviations include: 73 for best regards; 88 for love & kisses; QRA for station name (if any); QSO for conversation or communication; and RST for Reliability, Strength & Tone.
In addition, many abbreviations occurred in the Morse code radio conversations themselves but are seldom seen on the cards themselves. For example: QAV, Are you calling me? QHM Will start to listen at high frequency tuning towards the middle. QHM Will start to listen at the middle of the band tuning toward the high frequency. QLM Will start to listen at the low frequency of the band tuning toward the middle. QML Will start to listen at the middle of the band tuning toward the low end. QRG Will you indicate my exact frequency in kcs? QRI Is my note good? QRK what is the readability of my signals (1 to 5 scale); QRM are you being interfered with?; QRN are you troubled by atmospherics?; QRQ, shall I send faster; QRS shall I send more slowly; QRT shall I stop sending; QRU have you anything for me? QRV Are you ready? QRX Wait unti8l I have finished with... QRZ Who is calling me? QSB Does the strength of my signals vary? QSV Shall I send a series of VVV? QSY Shall I send on ... kcs?
These cards are issued in small quantities. In the 1930's, quantities as low as 100 - 300 could be ordered, as indicated by this sample for a Fort Wayne Indiana operator:
In later years, a typical printing order would be for 500 or 1,000 cards. [To this day, printers price work to penalize lesser orders.] Most operators choose the lower number, but "contesters" (those anticipating entering contests for the most contacts) do order at the higher level. A typical advertisement from a Lisbon Ohio printer for Citizens Band (CB) cards in the 1960's is shown below in a grayscale scan:
What is most unusual is a thank you postcard from a printer to a ham conveying thanks for a recent order. Here is one of the few we have seen:
Sample cards, not quoting rates but advising on options--can also be found. The example below for another CB card offers a choice of three possible cartoons at the left:
Once delivered to the ham radio operators or CB operators, the cards are then scattered across the face of the earth, to contacts and friends. For this reason, local collectors see them infrequently; after all, they were never sold in the local drugstore!
A typical period of use for a card of given design is one to two years. (Because of the inexorable rise of postage rates, this period of time is lengthening gradually.) When a ham orders, he or she often chooses a new design. There are two important exceptions to this rule: contesters who may use many in a short period of time, or have an urgent need for cards; and those who are members of organizations whose designs are standardized.
In my opinion, QSL's are currently underpriced. As more collectors realize how few were printed and how remarkable it is for one to "come back home", their prices could rise considerably. The majority of QSL cards are bought by dealers in the 10-cents to 50-cents each range. The dealers sell most of them to postcard collectors in the $1.00 to $2.00 price range. Here is a rough idea of how specific prices are determined today.
Base retail price for QSL cards in good condition is $1.50, from a large city. [The currency is US dollars throughout this article.] If the city is one of the four or five largest in the state, it qualifies as "large". Very small towns, having a current population of one thousand or less, start from $2.00. For towns with in-between populations, the price starts at $1.75. To this price one considers various plus and minus factors, as indicated parenthetically in the two paragraphs below.
Minus factors: Condition problems that are noticeable and which detract from the card in an aesthetic way (minus 25˘ each). Pinholes are not considered a defect unless a small tear runs to an edge. No postcard back or no postcard usage (minus 25˘). All text and large letters (minus 25˘). Cards in which the QTH has been changed by hand on the face side, usually due to a move (minus 25˘ for town change, no deduction for address change in the same town). Browning paper is not a fault if it is even and consistent with the item's age.
Plus factors for art: Basic premiums for small artwork: plus 25˘ ordinary; or plus 50˘ if special quality; or plus 75˘ if amusing or patriotic or fraternal; or plus $1.00 if probably original. 1940's small artwork doubles those basic artwork premiums. 1930's small artwork triples those basic artwork premiums. 1920's small artwork quadruples those basic artwork premiums. Large artwork increments up to double the small artwork increments appropriate to the era. Here is an example of patriotic artwork somewhere between the "small", and the "large"--call it medium--on a very early QSL card:
Other plus factors: Large local view or views in color (plus $1.00); small local view in color (plus 50˘). Large local view or views in black & white (plus 50˘); small local view in black & white (plus 25˘). Mailing postmark with legible exact date from the QTH (plus 25˘). Pre-World War II vintage (plus $1.00 1930's, plus $2.50 1920's). Non-town source, such as a ship or international organization (plus $1.00). Near mint condition or better, not written on (price doubles after all other considerations are taken). Real photo incorporated (Price as real photo card from that area). Very unusual subject matter shown (Price as a topical card). Valuable stamp (consult a catalog such as Scott and add double the price of the used stamp). Valuable cancel (consult a cover dealer for an appropriate increment).
The W7RM card above, in a grayscale scan, is an example of an all-text-and-large-letter card whose price ordinarily gravitates to $1.00. But it is from a ship, the SS Citrus Packer (plus $1.00), going from Boston to Philadelphia, so it would be $2. Because of a small tear at the left, and because of light toning to the face (minus 25˘ each), however, its correct retail price is $1.50.
Now for a more complex example--the "8CGT" shown above. It is very early Fort Hamilton Radio Association QSL card with YMCA logo, mailed 1926, pinholes at upper corners (1 causing edge ding), some cancel ink on front, paper browning with age, 3 corner creases (1 is faint). Start price is $1.75 because Hamilton is a medium size town in Ohio. We add $2.50 premium for its age, making $4.00. The fraternal art adds $0.75x4=$3.00, making $7.25. The mailing postmark at Hamilton adds a quarter: $7.50. Two corner creases that are apparent, cancel ink, and pinhole ding tally up 4 faults at 25-c each, bringing it down to $6.50. Notice the browning paper was even and not at all surprising for its age, so no deduction there.
Short-wave QSL cards often resemble ordinary ham QSL cards, but are scarce enough to warrant a premium of about one dollar. Some of these short-wave cards use the words "short-wave" and are easy to spot. For the others, you need to inspect the frequency information, if given.
The example short-wave QSL card shown above is from Izmir Turkey--note the handwritten 28.495 in the MHz box. Frequencies between 3 and 30 MHz (megahertz) qualify as short-wave; the lesser-used units of measure would be the equivalent 3,000 - 30,000 KHz (kilohertz). Wavelengths between 10 and 100 meters is yet another way short-wave may be expressed on these cards. Early cards use the abbreviation mc or Mc or mc/s or Mc/s instead of MHz.
SPECIAL PRICING CONSIDERATIONS
Three special types of QSL postcards, not often encountered, have special pricing considerations: the mobile QSL cards, "eyeball" QSL cards, and shortwave listening club QSL cards. Mobile cards are sent by hams who help other hams who would like to receive messages from rare counties. They will alert their buddies before going, drive to those counties, and proceed to operate contacting them. Many mobile cards often contain two or more adjacent counties from a substantial road trip. The example below shows the adjacent counties of Ida & Crawford in Iowa, visited by a mobile ham in 1969.
When sending such cards, mobile hams add the suffix /M to their call sign to designate their temporary mobile status. These cards often resemble plain index cards, and thus do not have much eye appeal. Their price is usually just a dollar; although a string of tough counties should fetch a bit more if in acceptable condition. The best mobile QSL item we have seen follows:
The ham stands by his car on the Monroe County/Craig County line in West Virginia/Virginia with his call sign WA4RDV displayed on his car--proving he worked both counties for his friends. Value: $5.00, priced as a modern real photo not made in commercial quantities.
We are told that some hams have "eyeball" QSL cards which are business sized. In our experience they are uncommon but are hard to date and necessarily have less information on them. A value between $1.00 and $2.00 would therefore be appropriate.
In some countries, such as Great Britain and other European countries, short wave listening clubs were formed for people who were not licensed hams but who nonetheless listened in to ham transmissions. By doing so they learned Morse code, how radios worked, and became familiar with operating procedures and courtesies--information that members often used to later become hams themselves. These cards typically end in a dash followed by 4 digits or by 4 digits without a dash. For example, from Scotland came the following (an item which we have since sold):
"BSWL3,111" exceptionally attractive Wick (Highland, Caithness) QSL postcard with hobby-related graphics, used 1948 by operator D. Robertson, small faint bottom corner crease.
BSWL in that case stood for British Short Wave Listener. Note how no letters conclude the call sign. Depending on condition, it is reasonable to add $1.00 to $2.00 to the value of such cards.
I saved the best for last! The KLN-5208 CB (Citizens Band) card above, in a grayscale scan, is an example of a QSL card bearing large and probably original artwork (plus $2.00). It is from the modern era with no postcard back (minus 25˘). Because Akron is one of Ohio's largest cities, it would ordinarily be priced at $2.75. But the sharp-eyed reader may already have noticed there is unusual subject matter depicted--the lady has prostheses fitted to her arms. Quite simply, it is one of the best QSL cards I have ever seen! Anyone selling you this card for less than $5.00 is doing you a favor.
CB, by the way, has been around since 1958, and had its heyday in the 1970's. CB is considered a more accessible hobby than ham radio operation, because little technical knowledge was necessary and no examination was required.
Most QSL cards & postcards illustrating the article above have long since been sold. However, QSL cards and their more modern POMA variants are specialties of ours. So you can click those hyperlinks to view current priced lots accompanied by numerous full-color illustrations. We also have many cards offered individually in the US state listings, which can found and accessed by clicking here (indexed at the bottom of the page returned).
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