All Things Wireless & Letterpress

All Things Wireless & Letterpress

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

QSL Cards

I've always been a collector.  It started with collecting coins.

There was an ad on the back page of  comic books back in the early sixties featuring an 1804 silver dollar.  It read something to the effect : "If you find this coin, it's worth $25,000" !   The implication was that you might find this coin in change. Yeah, in 1959.  So every evening mom and dad would dump their change and my sister and I would pour  over each and every coin, hunting treasure.  The elusive 1804 silver dollar never surfaced, but we did find some neat older coins just the same.  I found a 1914 half dollar, once.  We found a lot of  Buffalo nickels, and I think we had an assortment of 1909 pennies. Maybe an Indian Head penny or two. I think a morgan head dime might have made an appearance.

Needless to say:  was I turned on to collecting coins.  Maybe too turned on.

When my parents noticed that I had taken to lifting old coins from the church collection plate as it passed by me, they realized that a change was needed in my collecting habits.  When we got home from church that day, dad sat me down by the kitchen counter by where our incoming mail was stacked.  He pulled out an envelope and directed my attention to the green one cent 1954 regular postal issue postage stamp affixed to it (the one with Washington's portrait).

"You see this stamp Gary??  People COLLECT these things! It's called 'Stamp Collecting' !!"

 That's all it took.  From that second on, I embarked on a life of rummaging, through the mail, through old letters, through my grandparent's attic and every other attic in the neighborhood.  I began checking out library books about Philately in the first grade,  such that by the tender age of twelve, I had memorized both volumes of the 1967 Scotts Catalogs, plus the Minkus American catalog to boot.  I continue collecting to this day.  I attribute Philately to my interest in printing and Letterpress.

Part of my draw to Amateur Radio (I am WD4NKA) comes by way of Philately, or Stamp Collecting.  It  is the postal stationery associated with Amateur Radio that I find as a major area of interest. Another draw was the early Amateur Radio Press, which in the 1920s took the form of private press publications.  My very first Amateur Radio reading materials were a set of 1938 QST magazines given to me by an older ham.  The photos of the ham shacks appearing in these magazines showed the walls of these ham shacks and radio rooms literally covered with "QSL Cards".  Many of these radio shacks were in attics, so the cards covered not only the walls, but the ceiling as well.  I began finding these cards at the Hamfests our local radio club held in town.  1920s and 30s QSL cards were not hard to find in the 1970s. I soon amassed a collection of my own.  It was only a matter of time before I would have my own QSL card, following the pattern of these old QSL cards of the 1920s and 30s.

My first QSL cards (above) were letterpress printed - of course!  In time, when I began to set up and run a Letterpress Studio from my home, I would procure a 9 x 13 Kelsey front lever press, circa 1903.  Using what few fonts I had, I began copying the format of the older QSL cards, which worked out nicely for me because I was running a 1930s / 1940s era radio station.

I might mention the type used on the green card: the top titling is Litho Shaded, 36pt, the next line 12 pt Caslon 337 Old Style, my call being set in 48 pt Caslon Italic.  The next two lines 12 pt Caslon, then "Wedding Text", a font commonly used for Announcements. The remaining two lines are set in 10pt Caslon 337 Old Style.

My Station at the time featured a 6AG7 / 6L6G MOPA coupled to my regenerative superhet, a "Regenerodyne", housed in a National SRR cabinet. For those times I needed a very selective receiver, I used my BC-453 "Q-5er". My primary communication mode was cw, International Morse Code, using "Kafer", my trusty Vibroplex Champion Bug, and "Blitz", my 8-amp Royal Air Force key that actually saw service during the London Blitz. Ahh, but enough with my stuff, and on to the subject at hand.

So, just what did those old QSL cards of the 1920s and 30s look like?  How were they different than QSLs today?

Truth is, they were actually pretty similar to the cards of today, but with some differences.

Firstly, practically all hams in the 20s and 30s built their own rigs. There was very little in the way of commercially built equipment available to them. When those early hams made contacts, it was owing to the work of their hands, their skill at building and their knowledge of circuitry.  There was a great deal of pride and prestige involved. It was only natural that these amateur radio operators would become an especially tight, close knit fraternity.
These QSL cards are products of that Fraternity, a window into the hand-crafted technological world which was then the State of the Art.

The word "QSL" is part of the international Q-signals, a type of short-hand that means, literally, "confirmation of receipt of message".  These "Q" signals were used to speed along code transmissions and to simplify and clarify communications.  When a station sent "QSL?", they were asking "Did you copy everything?  Was I understood?", and the receiving station might send "FB OM QSL ON ALL" or something similar.  It means "Fine business Old Man, I copied everything and everything has been understood."

A QSL card serves as documentation of any contact for which it is sent.  The information written on the card will mirror much of the information entered in the Station Log.  Each QSL card indicates the date of the contact, the frequency, originally in kc (kilocycles) or mc (megacycles), later kHz and mHz (kilohertz and megahertz), the mode of transmission, the quality or condition of the signal received during the contact.  The old cards usually carried some sort of hand written description of the transmitter, and often a fairly detailed description of the receiver.  These descriptions became less involved as more and more store-bought equipment became increasingly commonplace in the Ham Shack.  

Through the latter 'teens, and through the twenties, cards largely described the transmitters in terms of exciter type and power to the antenna.  As tubes became more prevalent, replacing the old Spark Wireless transmitters, circuit types and final amp tubes, or what the British call "Valves" - a more accurate term - started to be indicated by types.  A Hartley self excited oscillator driving a pair of 810s in parallel, feeding 200 watts to an off-center fed dipole, for instance.  Receivers too, were described by their circuit architecture,  such as a Regenerative Detector and One Step audio into a short wire, or names of favourite designs, such as the "Bearcat 1-v-2", meaning one stage of RF amplification (or isolation, those RF front end amps were usually untuned!), "v" was the detector, 99.9 percent of the time regenerative, and "2" meaning stages of audio amplification.  Sometimes references to "Tuned AF", a form of audio filtering, might be mentioned.

Below are a examples of QSL card images I have collected as I studied their designs.  Many of these really are not only examples of radio history, but also great examples of job printing.  Some of these cards used what was then the latest border and letter fonts offered in the American Type Founders specimen books of that time.  Often the fonts chosen reflected the Art Nuveaux which was popular up into the 1930s.

 The following two cards are my own designs using my call, based upon models from the 1930s.  The nice thing is that since I have the very presses that printed these cards originally, the cards I print are neither replications or imitations.  These are the real deal as ever there was one.  And like me, most of the shops that printed these early cards were local small job shops.  Some were themselves, hams.  Most of them drew upon hand set type and borders.  Some had advantage of Ludlow or Linotype/ Intertype linecasters to help things along.  A few, later cards, began to be stereotyped for mass production late in the 1930s, when QSL cards, like the Ham Radio Press, became something that called for mass production.  Just as the QSL Card was evolving and finding it's place in the world, so were Amateur Radio Publications.  Along with these publications came advertisers, and widespread commercial ads.  

The rest is history.

As I wrap things up, I might add that if there is sufficient interest in vintage QSL cards, I can make these cards available.  Contact:

Letterpress meets Wireless here in the form of possibly the most widely sent post card in the world, serving a very important service of documentation - the QSL card.  Today, these cards are slick, four-colour graphic devices offset or digitally printed, if they are printed at all.  Many hams are opting for electronic QSLs, sent via eMail or other digital media.. As a Philatelist, I tend do things the "Old School" way.  There's a real touch and feel value in writing or typing out an actual paper QSL card.  There is an intangible 'something' about receiving a QSL card in the mail.  Something that connects me with my fellow hams of the 1920s. Something that requires my hands to handle, to write, to make.  Just like my homebrew rigs.  Just like the printing of these cards.  And it's here that Wireless meets Letterpress.

CUL, 73

de WD4NKA.

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