Postcards were first printed in the mid-1800s, and over the next century hundreds of Billions of them would be sent all over the world. Between June 1907 and June 1908 alone, Americans traded 667 million. As author Lydia Pyne arguesthe astonishing ubiquity of postcards has made it the “first social network in the world”.
Convenient and inexpensive, postcards were used for propaganda (organizations created emblazoned ones with political messages), advertising (hotels, restaurants and many other types of businesses all printed their own) and of course trips (tourists picked them up both to send to take away and to take home as souvenirs). People sent postcards from exotic destinations and little-known places, and the cards bore not only photos of tourist hotspots like the Egyptian pyramids and Niagara Falls, but also small-town high schools and intersections at single fire.
The cards themselves and the postage they required were inexpensive. A one-penny price for postcard stamps was set in 1898 and lasted until the middle of the 20th century. (Today, a postage stamp costs 40 cents, still less than the 58 cents it costs to send a letter.)
With an image on the front and room on the back for just the recipient’s address and a few lines from the sender, the postcards conveyed short, succinct messages – a hello, a holiday greeting, a promise to write more late. Postcards were a simple way for people to keep tabs on each other – an aesthetically pleasing ping as to someone’s current whereabouts.
Postcards peaked in popularity around the First World War. The rise of phones, portable cameras and easy film development, then email, smartphones and social media, has steadily reduced their prevalence. Today, they are harder to find and much more rarely traded.
But there is still a case to be made for sending postcards.
The receipt of any postal mail – the sight of handwriting sandwiched in what is otherwise a soulless pile of junk – is always a delight. At a time when much of our communication is ephemeral and abstract, something personal and tangible – something the receiver can touch, the sender has also manipulated – creates a connection that the exchange of kilobytes can never match.
How charming would be a complete revival of the art of epistolary writing. But we’ve all made adaptations to the modern, high-speed communication economy; few have the attention span to write a long missive, and many will balk when faced with writing an entire page.
With a postcard, brevity is built into the medium. You don’t need to have a lot of time. You don’t have to get creative. You don’t have to give a detailed life update. All you have to do is add the text equivalent of a hand gesture. The gesture of sending the postcard is practically the entire message itself.
And what a beautiful message this gesture conveys.
All travel photos — whether they’re postcards sent in the mail or photos shared on social media — carry a bit of the show-off-y “Look where I am!” pretending about them. People usually don’t care – they usually welcome the chance to see what you did and are happy that you had a good time. But the potential envy/FOMO effect of travel updates is better balanced with the pleasure of receiving them when they’re offered only to someone’s eyes, rather than willy-nilly spreading them out to a mass. online subscribers.
Unlike sharing travel photos on social media after a trip has ended, which alone demonstrates the aforementioned performative quality, sending a postcard shows that you were thinking warmly of a friend or member of the family in particular, and that you were doing it on the trip itself. While you were away, not only did your thoughts turn to someone at home, but you then took the time to select and purchase a postcard, write a note, purchase a stamp, and drop the card at a post office or mailbox. Added to the display of personal pleasure offered by the sender is an encouraging, connective, metaphorical and sometimes literal message to the receiver: “I wish you were here”.
Yes, postcards deserve praise for being easy to send and fun to receive. But the best thing about them is that they don’t include any space for a return address. At a time when you may feel enduring guilt over your queue of unanswered emails and text messages, the postcard is a most welcome and refreshing type of message: one with no expectation of a response. .