Pulp Magic

NOVEMBER 30, 2015

The Golden Age of Postcards

Before Facebook and Twitter there were postcards. Lots and lots of postcards. It’s hard to imagine now but just after the turn of the century, the world was experiencing something like postcard mania.

In 1908, the U.S. postal Service delivered more than 600 million postcards and by 1913 that number was just under a billion. People sent postcards the way we post updates on Facebook or take selfies when we travel. Postcards were used to say “hello” or “wish you were here” or, nothing at all – just a picture that captured the moment. They remained popular until the end of the 20th century because, in their infinite variety, they expressed a human need to connect with other humans.

These messages from the long ago are mostly now curated by deltiologists, or postcard collectors. According to American Way magazine, postcard collectors constitute the world’s third largest segment of amateur collectors. They speak a language all their own about “Pioneer” cards that were the earliest forms with images printed directly on card stock. These were followed by real photo, or “RP” postcards, popular during the golden age between 1898 and 1913 alongside the emergence of Kodak photography.

Between the wars, “linen” and “fabric” cards were ascendant followed by “chromolithic” cards in vibrant colors and “rack cards” that were free for the taking at restaurants and motels across the country.

The mid-century cards are my favorites with their iconic “Greetings from …“

The internet and the effortless ease of e-mail seemed to put an end to paper postcards, but in a twist that seems more and more common when it comes to old forms of communication, digital is making analog cool again.

There is now a website called Postcrossing.com that connects people through postcards. The project was conceived by a student in Portugal who loved receiving handwritten mail, especially postcards. He figured there were others like him and he set out to find them. Today, more than a quarter million people around the world have joined the site to send postcards to each other. New members are given the address of an existing member and yet another member is given theirs. They’ve exchanged more than 32 million postcards since 2005.

Sure, it’s a lot easier to send a selfie… and there’ll always be a place for the immediacy of texts. But American Way magazine predicts the postcard is making a comeback because “composing a handwritten message is more thoughtful than hitting “send.” It’s exciting to think that writing a postcard won’t be relegated to a lost art because of both technology and our desire to connect personally.

That’s a lot like how life unfolds.