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Postcards: The Rise and Fall of the World’s First Social Network

March 21, 2023

Postcards: The Rise and Fall of the World’s First Social Network, by Lydia Pyne, is a 2021 history of how postcards have been made and sent, and it starts with the observation that “postcards are personal.” Many individuals and libraries have collections of old postcards with messages to and from people we don’t know, sent for occasions we no longer recognize. They feature pictures, cartoons, advertisements, holiday greetings, or political propaganda. Their heyday, according to Pyne, was the early twentieth century, when my parents sent and collected picture postcards.

Pyne dates the first postcard to Theodore Hook in 1840 and Dr. Emanuel Herrmann in 1869, saying that “just about every country created and re-created the postcard in the mid- to late nineteenth century.” Picture postcards included ones made with a Kodak 3A camera, advertised as a way to create one’s own “real picture” postcards; Pyne compares the sending of these “real picture” postcards to posting on Instagram today: “if Instagram is our twenty-first-century parallel to the world of postcards…then we would expect to see twentieth-century postcards of food, pets, slogans or quotes, friends, and of course, selfies. And by and large, this is what we see in real picture postcards taken to send to friends and family: A glamorous vacation. A Votes for Women banner hung in a town’s Main Street. Family portraits, both formal and candid. Pretty much anything and everything that has been stuffed into an Instagram feed was photographed, printed, and mailed as a postcard more than a century earlier.”

Throughout her long history of the postcard, Pyne includes color photographs of specific types, starting with the Curt Teich & Co. postcards at the beginning of the 20th century, with the iconic “Greetings From” script that is still imitated by postcard makers (and featured on the cover of my poetry volume, Postcard Poems).

In the section on “publicity and propaganda” postcards, Pyne reproduces images of scenes from the Mexican Revolution of 1914 and says that “before bumper stickers, the ‘like’ button, and viral hashtags, postcards were the most ubiquitous means of creating awareness about a social movement” and she singles out early twentieth-century suffrage campaigns as one of the most fierce and politically savvy examples of this use, with examples from 1907 to 1914.

Chapter Four is entitled “Having a wonderful time, wish you were here,” as the stereotypical postcard greeting read. Pyne declares that postcards “have played an important role in how one ‘ought’ to be a tourist” and adds that “sending postcards back home proved that they had participated in that bit of travel performance. Sending a postcard while a traveler was still en route to their destination, Pyne declares, is “the social equivalent of Instagramming your suitcase as you pack for a trip or posting a story with a map laid out on a table with tickets next to it, or a picture of clouds taken through an airplane window. In the performance of tourism through postcards and Instagram, you have to let people know that the trip has begun.”

A kind of free postcard used for advertising that I didn’t know about before reading this book is postcards from cruise ships, featuring a photo of the ship. Photographs of such postcards in the book include views of the Carpathia and Olympic (from the White Star Line, which included the Titanic). My favorite kinds of free postcards were the ones you could sometimes find in the desk drawer of a motel room, with a photo of the motel on the front.

Examples of postcards from Mexico and Sonora show how postcards often offer a scene from a foreign country to show how it “ought” to look or featuring something a tourist could see there, attesting to the “authenticity” of that scene. Some of these postcards, Pyne observes, “turned people into spectacle and relegated them to part of the backdrop.”

Some postcards show changing times and geography, like postcards of the cave with paintings at Lascaux, which has been closed to tourists since 1963, and of Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris, which burned in 2019. There’s an entire chapter on postcards from countries that no longer exist which features a discussion of Russian expansionist postcards, cards that helped create a picture of a Russian Empire or teach geography to school children in the Soviet Union (I remember one particular example with Ukraine labeled as “the breadbasket of the USSR”).

Visitors to the postcard collection at the New York Public Library, Pyne says, “always look up postcards of where they’re from.” A librarian is quoted as saying “we had a couple from Spain once who had come to New York and looked up postcards from where they lived. They found a postcard with a picture of their house on it….They said ‘we didn’t know that there was a postcard of our house!’”

Some people, like Charles Simic in his 2011 opinion piece in the Guardian, claim that no one sends postcards anymore. Others, like me, are still sending them. Pyne observes that “the Postal Museum in London has postcards for sale in the museum’s gift shop, a machine that prints postage (international postage, even), a table with tethered pens to fill out the purchased cards, and a conveniently located red mailbox to put them in once you have written and addressed them.” She also mentions “Postcards from Timbuktu” a service that will send postcards to destinations all over the world, complete with a website that tracks the postcard’s location as it makes its way to its final destination. Pyne’s conclusion is that “people still send postcards, and for many of the same reasons that they have for decades—postcards are personal, they tell stories, and they connect people across geographies.” She mentions the 2020 “Postcards to Voters” project as one that depends on the personal connection between sender and recipient and she also describes some of the many contemporary art installations that feature postcards in some form or other.

Many people collect postcards; Pyne says that “because postcards are fundamentally non-scarce objects, the hows and whys of postcard collections are as diverse and myriad as the subjects, printings, and genres of postcards themselves.”

My postcard collection is haphazard; not all of one kind and not all in one place. Somewhere in my house I still have a series of postcards my father sent when my kids were small—each one has some kind of mark or smudge, along with a story about what kind of animal defaced the card. The high point came with a card that was supposedly torn by a lion’s claws, delivered in a transparent Post Office wrapper with apologies that the card was damaged in transit. Do you have a postcard collection?

21 Comments leave one →
  1. March 21, 2023 6:51 am

    Aw, what a dear of a book! I love sending postcards — as you know! — and I collect them in the sense that I like to have a good stock of sendable postcards, and in the sense that I keep the postcards other people send me. They’re such a nice small concrete reminder of love.

    • March 21, 2023 11:45 am

      LOL – now I have to send postcards to both of you. ❤

    • March 22, 2023 2:18 pm

      Jenny, you and Care are among my most frequent postcard senders. I have a good stock of blank postcards (the box full shown in the photo with the book) and sometimes I write messages or poems on them and occasionally send them to people; perhaps I should think about it more frequently!

  2. March 21, 2023 4:00 pm

    Care is good about sending postcards! 🙂 I have some fun ones and I need to put them in a more prominent place so I don’t forget to send them to people!

  3. March 22, 2023 7:00 am

    This reminds me of Postcrossing, an organization that connects members worldwide through postcards (website: I was constantly surprised by what I received, and by the number of people who still send postcards. Take that, Charles Simic!

    • March 22, 2023 2:22 pm

      Postcrossing must be a fun way to connect and get postcards; whenever I have mentioned postcards in the last few years, people from all different walks of life have mentioned trying it.
      Ha, yes, in your face, Simic!

  4. March 22, 2023 12:35 pm

    What a fun book! For a while my sister was into traveling to odd places like Roswell and she would send me postcards and I got quite a pile so then she gifted me a postcard album that has little plastic sleeves to put the cards in. And then a coworker who travelled a lot found out I had this album and would send me postcards from various international locations. And then I have friends in the US (like Care!) who send me postcards and I send them too. So I have quite a pile of them. They are such fun little snacks to send and received.

    • March 22, 2023 2:23 pm

      If you like getting them, you could email me your address. I periodically get in the mood to send someone a “little snack”!

  5. March 22, 2023 1:49 pm

    This sounds really interesting!
    My dad used to travel for work when I was little and bring back postcards, and I used to like buying them as well, though I haven’t in a long time.
    I never thought of instagram as being like modern postcards

    • March 22, 2023 2:25 pm

      In the last few years, I’ve found it a little harder to find postcards at the usual kinds of places I used to buy them.
      It’s an interesting thesis, isn’t it? She makes a pretty good argument about the performative aspect of sending postcards.

  6. March 22, 2023 2:48 pm

    I have a collection of postcards to keep rather than send, though I used to send them a lot, so I appreciated this detailed review of what sounds like a delightful publication, thank you. I’m eclectic in my choices – some chic free cards, places we’ve visited on holiday, secondhand vintage cards, reproductions of artworks, cards sent to me that have sentimental attachments.

    • March 22, 2023 3:52 pm

      Your collection does sound eclectic, and I like your declaration that they are to keep now, although in the past you might have classified some of them differently. Most of mine are separated into “keep” or “send,” but the ones that don’t fall into either category easily are often the most interesting (one of my postcard poems is about this; about a postcard of a prison in Lexington, KY that my father gave me, unwritten-on, and I kept because it was “too good to send”).

  7. March 23, 2023 8:20 am

    I used to have a few postcards from MI, my home state, but I’m not sure what happened to them when we moved into the house. I hadn’t thought of postcards as being like a pre-internet version of social media, which makes me think not much has changed. People are still capturing the minutia of their lives and sharing it to create an emotion in the receiver — maybe warmth of friendship or even jealousy. I also hadn’t thought of postcards as being performative, but now that I think about it, receiving something in the mail that just says, “Wish you were here” must be performative. It isn’t doing much else.

    • March 23, 2023 8:36 am

      I like the “warmth of friendship” impulse, the way someone who is enjoying themselves on vacation thinks of the friends or family they left at home and wants to share some of their experience.

      • March 25, 2023 6:13 pm

        Awww, like one of those “they thought of me!” moments?

        • March 25, 2023 8:59 pm

          Yes–sometimes an experience feels a bit incomplete without a particular person there to share it.

  8. March 23, 2023 7:26 pm

    I just checked, alas, my library does not have this book. I make my own ‘postcards’ or mail art which I send all over the world. I’ve collected all of the postcards/mailart people have sent me from every continent but Antartica. It’s a four shoebox collection at this point and growing. Send me your address and I’ll send you one. 😉

    • March 23, 2023 9:12 pm

      Can you request the book? That’s what I did, at the Kenyon library, which was very accommodating.
      I would love to receive a postcard from you, and to reciprocate. I couldn’t find an email on your blog, but you can email me at nonnecromancer at gmail dot com and we can trade snail mail addresses.

  9. March 27, 2023 6:28 am

    My daughter usually sends a postcard to her friend when we travel, which isn’t often. I loved sending them and getting them. My aunt takes pictures around her farm and elsewhere in her small town to send us little notes as postcards she makes.

    • March 27, 2023 7:34 am

      Your daughter sending them means the tradition is still carrying on! I love that your aunt makes her own, too!
      If you love sending and getting, send me your address…

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