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A quaint, ephemeral relic of the 20th century or a microcosm of modern history? Rod Eime examines the signifcance of the humble postcard and ponders it's future in the digital age.

The simple postcard has long been a staple medium of personal communication for the traveller and adventurer wanting to send greetings home. Postcard collectors, knowing and unknowing, are only outnumbered by stamp collectors worldwide, making it an enormously popular hobby.

Uncle Sam Goes to War (WW1)Today, in this age of instant gratification, will the quaint, stamped and illustrated note be superseded by the very "deletable" e-mail, with its horrific vernacular and lazy vulgarity? Some, including the author, would argue that the e-mail 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. After all, an email will never replace that unique tactile connection only a postcard can deliver.

Paris Fair 1900Since the birth of the modern postcard in the mid 19th century, literally millions upon millions of these quaint paper communiqués have been sent around the world. Documenting not only travels and adventures, they were used extensively by the armed forces to send notes of reassurance and encouragement to loved ones back home.

Postcard Speak

As with stamps, coins and banknotes, distinct terminology and jargon developed to describe various aspects of deltiology. Here are some common terms to get you up to speed:

View Card:

Any card containing a representation of a town, city or scene. Cards with more than one picture are called "mulitviews".

Rackcards or Freecards:
Advertising giveaways common in cafes and hotel lobbies.

A card made to look like a painting with discernable brushstrokes.

Also called "continental".
Any card larger than the "standard" 6"x4". Early cards were a standard 3.5"x5.5".

A card with moving parts

Brown, hard-to-remove blemishes, usually mildew.

Die Cut:
A card cut to a unique shape, like Santa or a car.

A fabric style treatment often used to disguise cheap paper

Quite apart from the personal, often touching, messages, an extensive postcard collection is something of a microcosm of world history and culture. The study of postcards is even called Deltiology.

Historically, there exists some debate about just who was first. Printed message cards did begin appearing in the early 1860s when John P. Charlton of Philadelphia initiated a patent which was subsequently picked up by a Mr Lipman. About the same time, a German, Heinrich von Stephen and an Austrian, Emmanuel Hermann, both hit upon the idea for a pre-printed correspondence card. The "Poor Man's Telegram" was born and literally thousands were printed and used almost immediately.

Postcards, in a variety of pre-printed forms, with and without illustrations, were now becoming common, particularly in Europe and the USA. 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. The popularity of that single issue card secured the postcard in the form we now know today. Consequently, World's Fair postcards from the era are now amongst the most highly prized items by collectors.

Deltiologists refer to the 1890s as the "Pioneer Era" of postcards, when shapes, forms and sizes were beginning to take shape. The majority of cards issued during that time had one side devoted to the image and message, with the other to the address and stamp. Instructions such as "write address here" were also common.

After the turn of the century, the term "Post Card" was officially coined to describe privately printed cards for postal use and it was about this time that the collecting of postcards really began, with many families displaying postcard albums alongside the family album at home. This fertile era is often referred to as the "Golden Age".

TitanicPostcards were, by then, an accepted, even expected, means of documenting significant events and locations. Traders used them for advertising, governments used them for propaganda and travellers used them to send greetings home from abroad. Disasters such as the Titanic and World Trade Centre induced minor postcard frenzies. Two days after September 11, you couldn't buy a WTC postcard anywhere.World Trade Center

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 "photochrome", or shiny colour card, which first appeared in Union Oil Company service stations in 1939 and further expanded after World War II.

Ironically, with the advent of the Internet, postcard collectors are now able to seek each other out and swap, trade and exchange to their hearts' content. Once a drawn-out lengthy wait, collectors can now make contact and initiate a trade within minutes instead of weeks. Perhaps then, collectors and traders are using this potentially destructive medium to further their ancient art of paper communication?

Holiday Inn generic card c.1960There's no doubting the Internet is here to stay, but will it have the corrosive effect on traditional "snail mail" like colour TV and home video had on the cinema? Sure, the movie industry was forced to repackage itself, shedding old favourites like the drive-in and suburban picture hall. Other paper-based products like newspapers and magazines are feeling the pinch too as info-hungry, impatient professionals gobble their news via the computer pipe. 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.

Rod Eime loves to send and receive postcards. Visit his page.

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