Crisis on Infinite Earths was an event that DC did to celebrate their 50th Anniversary.
It was built upon the old JLA/JSA annual cross-overs.
When DC first brought out Superman in 1938, that signaled the start of the Golden Age.
Many of DC’s characters first appeared in the Golden Age between 1938 and 1952, including the Justice Society of America (the precursor to JLA).
At the start of the '50s, superhero comics fell out of favor and readers were flocking to horror, westerns, crime-fiction, romance and funny animal comics.
So DC discontinued all the super-hero comics except for the ones featuring Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman.
But then, not soon after, around 1955, a committee challenged the decency of comics for kids because a few select publishers were putting out some disturbing stuff.
So, the Comics Code was created in an attempt to make comics ‘safe’ for children.
This killed the horror genre for a while (it started coming back in the '70s when the code laxed a little and writers learned how to write such stories creatively), and toned down the crime and westerns.
Superheroes were seen as a ‘safe’ alternative, and so they made a return.
But when DC brought back the heroes (many of which had just been seen less than ten years prior), they chose to revamp all of them except for Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman and Green Arrow (the last two were still appearing regularly in Adventure Comics).
So, then came a new Flash, a new Green Lantern, a new Atom, a new Hawkman…
But DC misjudged the readership.
At the time, it was assumed that readers cycled every five years. Kids would start reading around 10 and then stop around 15 or so.
They didn’t expect the readers of 1960 to still remember the Golden Age characters that hadn’t appeared since 1952.
They started writing DC asking what happened to the JSA and the editors at DC were taken by surprise.
Due to overwhelming requests, the JSA made their return in a story in JLA and were explained as being on another Earth.
Since the JLA was now DC’s main heroes, they were given Earth-1 and the JSA were given Earth-2 (even though they came first).
They also explained that there were Earth-2 versions of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman to explain their adventures with the JSA.
In the '60s and '70s, everything went along just fine.
But by the '80s when newer readers were no longer aware of the reasons why Earth-2 came into being or why there were two Supermans , Wonder Womans, Hawkmen, etc., it was decided that DC would streamline things.
The JLA/JSA annual crossovers were still going and they had been doing ‘Crisis’ stories that introduced new Earths, usually featuring characters long-forgotten from the Golden Age or characters gained from other publishers, setting them up on their own worlds.
Crisis on Infinite Earths set out to combine all the Earths together into one and remove any duplicates.
When the dust settled, there was one Earth. One Superman. One Batman. And Wonder Woman had been de-created (to prepare for her relaunch).
The time before this is referred to as Pre-Crisis.
However, that was just the start. DC was still in a flux for a while, because during Crisis, they acquired two of Marvel’s biggest creators at the time: John Byrne and Frank Miller.
John Byrne requested a clean slate because he wanted to start from the beginning with Superman. This led to Man of Steel, a six-issue mini-series that changed a lot of Superman’s history beyond what Crisis had already done.
Now, he had never been Superboy, Supergirl (who’s death was a key moment in Crisis that impacted several heroes) had never existed and his adopted Earth parents had never died.
Meanwhile, Frank Miller took a similar approach with Batman and did a four-issue story, called ‘Year One’ that made some changes to his origin and retconned Catwoman into being a prostitute.
These two stories would begin to contradict things just recently seen in comics (such as Superman’s appearance in Booster Gold just a few months before Man of Steel #1), so it was slowly adopted that Man of Steel #1 was the start of Post-Crisis as it coincided with Legends, DC’s event of 1986 that had many of the heroes meet for the first time in the new continuity and gave us the new Justice League.
In short, Pre-Crisis refers to anything and everything up to Crisis on Infinite Earths #12 and Post-Crisis refers to everything from Man of Steel #1 forward. Up to a point.
What that point is, is debatable.
The common ending point for Post-Crisis has been the launch of New52.
But some see that as too long of a period, as the DCU in the years after Legends was much different from the DCU in the last years prior to New52.
I personally put the end of Post-Crisis around 1992-1994, with the Death of Superman, Knightfall (Batman gets crippled), Breakdowns (the Justice League disbands and the creators that had been on the book since Legends left), and Wonder Woman briefly going on hiatus (as Perez, who had been on her title since Legends also, left her book).
While all these changes did lead to a massive face-lift for DC Comics, the real change came in 1994 with Zero Hour.
Some characters, such as Legion and Hawkman, had major changes done to them and Batman had some details of his origin changed, as Hal Jordan (the Green Lantern of Pre-Crisis) went crazy and destroyed and recreated the DC Universe.
At the end of each DC title in the last months prior to the event, there was a blank panel that signified that the universe suddenly ceased to exist.
That’s where I end my Post-Crisis history.
But that one’s mine. The ending point for Post-Crisis is subject to personal preference, but never extending beyond the launch of New52 in 2011.
Sorry if this was too long.