From the Former Chairman’s Desk: A Penny for your Thoughts
Jeremy McCarter, Executive Producer of Make-Believe Association, recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal: “Postcards are good at their job-maybe too good. Designed to be quick and easy way to communicate, they don’t require a lot of thought which means you never think about them. You spin the carousel in the gift shop, looking for a picture you like. You scribble a message on the back: maybe funny, maybe sweet, but always brief. You stick on a stamp, all 40 cents worth, and drop it in the mail. If you are pressed for time (maybe your tour guide is slipping out of sight, maybe the beach is filling up), you might finish the entire process in less than five minutes. Chances are, at no point did you pause to consider how much history is packed into that unprepossessing sliver of cardstock.”
Book author, Lydia Pyne would like to correct that oversight. Her book, “Postcards-The Rise and Fall of the World’s First Social Network”, does just that according to the WSJ columnist McCarter. Pyne traces the history of these “little rectangles” made of paper in her book. She traces the lively history of the cards and dates the beginning around 1840 when a novelist in London mailed himself a “satirical picture with a message on the back”. A generation later, about 1865, some Austrian bureaucrat concluded it would be simpler and quicker to mail pre- stamped letters that did not require an envelope. Suddenly, billions of these things were circling the globe, for everyone, to everyone, for every reason. There had never been such a cheap way for people to communicate across long distances, which “meant that for a solid hundred years, postcards had it good.” The golden age for postcards in America was 1890 to 1915. However, in the 1990s email presented an insurmountable challenge. Suddenly, that very first postcard mailed back in 1840- sold at auction for whopping 31,750 pounds.
Today, Instagram, which Pyne labels the present-day counterpart to the postcard, makes the formerly novel communication seem antiquated. To really understand postcards, she suggests you have to understand the mechanics of printing and the components that made postcards cheap to produce. In 1910 alone, the United States Post Office mailed about seven postcards for every adult and child in America. Social networks popup again and again. In fact one of Pyne’s key contentions is that postcards are the “stuff of the first worldwide social network”. Postcards which use to be novel because of their speed and mass production are distinguished now by the fact that you generally send them to just one person at a time. The best insights into the current state of postcards come from Pyne’s own experience.
She began mailing them from wherever she happened to be. “Younger recipients viewed them as charming novelties-many of them had never seen a postcard before. Older recipients tended to grow nostalgic, welcoming them as reminders of a bygone age. Some friends wrote her back after her postcard arrived- and some posted them on Instagram”. To Ms. Pyne, postcards are nothing less than the “perfect twentieth-century icons of mass consumerism and production”.