June 8, 2021
No doubt if someone who lived in the 1870’s were alive today, they would be in awe of the instantaneous nature of an email or a text message. People then had equivalent forms of communication but without it being instant. A letter was very much like email, used to expound on longer subjects. It was the postcard, however, which served the purpose of a quick communication and, literally, cost only a penny to send; the text message of its day.
It was on June 8, 1872 when the US Congress endorsed the penny postcard. What this meant is that the US postal service began printing blank postcards with the postage paid… all for a penny.
The idea originated in Prussia, but was initially met with skepticism. From the Infallible Wikipedia:
“A Prussian postal official, Dr. Heinrich von Stephan, first proposed an ‘open post-sheet’ made of stiff paper in 1865. He proposed that one side would be reserved for a recipient address, and the other for a brief message. His proposal was denied on grounds of being too radical and officials did not believe anyone would willingly give up their privacy. In October 1869, the post office of Austria-Hungary accepted a similar proposal (also without images), and 3 million cards were mailed within the first 3 months. With the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in July 1870, the government of the North German Confederation decided to take the advice of Austrian Dr. Emanuel Herrmann and issued postals for soldiers to inexpensively send home from the field.”
The rest of the world followed suit and post cards soon became standard. Novelty post cards featuring some sort of image on one side can be traced to 1870, but they cost 2 cents to mail plus the cost of purchasing the cards. The first souvenir ‘picture’ post card is believed to have been a scene from Vienna sent in 1870.
As more and more people became literate, sending letters and post cards served as a way to keep families and friends connected. 1890 to 1915 was considered the ‘Golden Age’ of postcards. Also from the Infallible Wikipedia:
“Cards showing images increased in number during the 1880s. Images of the newly built Eiffel Tower in 1889 and 1890 gave impetus to the postcard, leading to the so-called ‘golden age’ of the picture postcard. (snip) …the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 excited many attendees with its line of ‘Official Souvenir’ postals, which popularized the idea of picture postcards. The stage was now set for private postcard industry to boom, which it did once the United States government changed the postage rate for private cards from two cents to one in May 1898.
(snip) Demand for postcards increased, government restrictions on production loosened, and technological advances (in photography, printing, and mass production) made the boom possible. In addition, the expansion of Rural Free Delivery allowed mail to be delivered to more American households than ever before. Billions of postcards were mailed during the golden age, including nearly a billion per year in United States from 1905 to 1915, and 7 billion worldwide in 1905. Many postcards from this era were in fact never posted but directly acquired by collectors themselves.”
Changes in tariffs put a damper on postcards as the cost of producing them became much more expensive – or, perhaps, they were being replaced with newer technology. Coincidentally the first US transcontinental telephone network was completed in 1915.
Postcards today are primarily the province of tourists, purchased in gift shops and sent to friends and family back home to let them know they are being ‘thought’ of by the sender.
I have a bit of a love hate relationship with postcards. Like many vacationers, I have purchased them in gift shops with the intention of writing a short greeting and mailing them off. My office supply collection contains more than a few which were purchased but never sent. I admire those who actually mail the cards they buy!
The postcard sender award goes, hands down, to a good friend of my son’s. I first met Jim when he was 12. A gregarious kid, he took an immediate like to my more reserved child. They were going to be best buddies regardless of what my son might think. Soon they were hanging out together, sharing common interests and intellects. Jim was a frequent visitor to our house and he loved to talk. His brain retained everything and he was a voracious reader, especially of historical topics.
Then the unthinkable happened. His father got a job. In another state. Clear across the county. Junior year of high school, Jim moved to Virginia.
But Jim was undaunted, determined to not let his best friend or adopted family forget about him.
The first postcard from Jim arrived shortly after he moved. And then another arrived. And another. It started to feel a bit like the Dursley’s mailbox with the letters arriving from Hogwarts for Harry Potter. (see clip below)
Unlike the Dursely’s, however, our entire family looked forward to those postcards. We enjoyed seeing what interesting places Jim visited and reading the witty and funny things he would write. Every card was concluded with his signature close of “Cheers, Jim.” This continued for years.
Jim went on to college, got his degree in history and has turned his love of the subject combined with his natural oratorical abilities into jobs. He worked as a costumed history tour guide for the National Parks during the summers he was in college; he eventually became a professor.
It’s been quite a while since one of those postcards arrived but we have saved every one. At first I was the one who kept them and then my son, recognizing that there was something very special about them, took over the job.
Perhaps historians of the future will look back on earlier times and see the value of the written word on paper. It imbues our records with a personal experience that electronic communications cannot match. Jim’s postcards prove that it doesn’t have to be a fancy five dollar card to be special. A few lines on a postcard are more than enough and just as meaningful. Cheers to you, Jim, and that unique place you hold in our hearts.
The two postcards pictured above are from my grandmother’s things. The top one is probably circa 1915 as is the one of her 7th grade class in Selah, Washington. She is the taller girl on the right next to the window of the building. Which is ironic since her adult height topped out at about 5’4″.
I have vintage postcards from the 1940’s onward… too many to share. The stack of postcards are ALL from Jim!