Thursday, July 26, 2012

Ephemera of the Airwaves: Vintage QSL Cards

I think I can safely say that the two greatest questions of our cellular age are “Can you hear me?” and “Where are you?”

It just so happens that those two questions have been around for quite some time. In fact, it’s been about a hundred years that while the rest of us were telephonically tethered, amateur radio operators around the globe have been asking each other those exact same questions. The answer came in the form of a QSL card.

The QSL card (Q-code for “confirming contact”) came into popular use in the early 1920s, around a decade after amateur wireless started to spread as a hobby. When sending out a signal, the only way to know how far away it was picked up, was to get verification from a recipient. A QSL card was sent by mail as confirmation that a signal had been received. In addition to date, place, and call letters, the sender supplies details about all the receiving equipment. Upon receipt of a card, the originator of the signal would then send one back.

There are thousands upon thousands of QSL cards out there. Their design range from large letters of whichever type style prevailed at the time, to radio and transmission imagery, to something representing the sender’s location or interest (usually amateur radio). Some of the cards look to be standard issue, but as you can imagine, given the DIY nature of ham radio, many operators designed their own cards.

One especially well know operator was cartoonist, Otto Eppers (1893-1955). The first thing you will read in any write-up on him is that as a teenager, he jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge as a stunt and survived. Eppers worked as an inker for numerous comic strips and also illustrated ads for radio supply companies.You can see lots of his work, including many QSL cards here.

Like all subcultures, ham operators have their own lingo, and love bragging about the celebrities in their ranks. They claim Walter Cronkite, Marlon Brando, and Robert Moog as fellow operators. And while there is no doubt about the geek quotient (GQ?) inherent in ham radio, operators get to clam the nerdiest nerd of all time as one of their own--Gerson Strassberg, inventor of the plastic pocket protector.

Okay, all you OMs and YLs, enough rag chewing. Over, 73!

Much thanks to Bob Green W8JYZ and  David Johnson G4DHF
 for permission to post cards from their fantastic collections.


  1. Wow, that was hot! I love them all, but I especially love the ones that have more of a hand-drawn feel.

    I liked the one with "Ruth" and "Al" written on the character's rear ends. I liked the one with a pin-up girl on the card. I also liked how that one was followed by one with the photo of a nerdy boy on it. The rainbow colors of the last one are cool, too.

  2. Happy to see that Robert Crumb seems to have been an influence on many of the card designs.

  3. hi om, I have a large collection of 1930s qsl cards which i would like to sell. pse contact me @ m.bennetgreen @

  4. like the idea of how the card design can be influenced...thanks for sharing as i care about when design plastic cards.

  5. Unique collection from 19th century showing your attention and care towards them...


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