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Remembering the Postcard

 Remembering the Postcard.

The simple postcard may be edged out by emails and Instagram, but it has been a staple medium of personal communication for the traveller.


Worldwide, postcard collectors are outnumbered only by stamp collectors, making it an enormously popular hobby.

But today, in this age of social media and instant gratification, will the quaint, stamped and illustrated note be superseded by the very “deletable” email or Instagram post, with its horrific vernacular and lazy vulgarity?

Some, including this writer, would argue that the email only serves to remind us that the act of sending a postcard requires a concerted personal effort, reflecting the consideration the sender holds for the recipient. An email will never replace that unique tactile connection only a postcard can deliver.

Since the birth of the modern postcard in the mid 19th century, literally billions of these quaint paper communiqués have been sent around the world. Not only have they documented travels and adventures, but they were also used extensively by the armed forces to send notes of reassurance and encouragement to loved ones back home.

Quite apart from the personal – and often touching – messages, an extensive postcard collection is something of a microcosm of world history and culture. The study of postcards even has a name: deltiology.


The Story of the Postcard

Historically, printed message cards began appearing in the early 1860s when John P. Charlton of Philadelphia initiated a patent. The Germans were also in on this trend and the “Poor Man’s Telegram” was born.

The illustrated souvenir card received its most significant boost in 1889, when Eiffel Tower cards were mailed in their thousands by awestruck visitors to the Paris Exposition that same year. As a consequence, World’s Fair postcards from the era are now among the items most highly prized by collectors.

Deltiologists refer to the 1890s as the “Pioneer Era” of postcards, when shapes, forms and sizes were beginning to take shape.

After the turn of the century, the term “Post Card” was officially coined and many families displayed postcard albums alongside the family album at home in this so-called “Golden Age”.

Public taste, economic constraints, government regulation and technological limitations all guided the evolution of the postcard through the first half of the 20th century.

The “divided back”, “white border” and “linen” eras came and went, leaving us with its most enduring form: the shiny “photochrome”.

Ironically, with the advent of the internet, postcard collectors are now able to seek each other out and swap, trade and exchange to their heart’s content. Collectors and traders are now using this competing medium to further the ancient art of paper communication.

Clearly, the internet has had a pronounced effect on traditional “snail mail” much like colour TV and home video initially had a pronounced effect on the cinema.

Meanwhile, other paper-based products like newspapers and magazines are under pressure too, as impatient and info-hungry professionals gobble their news via the computer pipe.

So what about the postcard? Will it be relegated to museums, libraries and art galleries as a 20th century curiosity? Or will it rebound as people rediscover the simple pleasure of hand-crafted communication via the letterbox? Only time will tell...