Postcards are extremely important to me. Having never been able to successfully keep a diary or to remember to take and print photographs, many important memories are often forgotten and buried deep within my brain. I think this tends to be the case for most people, unless you’re one of those rare natural cataloguers, who have the decades of your life colour-coded and cross-referenced.
I watched a video recently about an American who seeks out old cameras for the used film inside them. He processes these rolls, getting a kick out of the fact that he's the first human to ever see the pictures locked inside. There’s something exceptionally intimate in viewing other people’s precious images of their lives, their family, their moments. Often these rolls were left because people couldn't afford to process them, revealing how drastically society has changed. Now, we take pictures of things we wish to share on social media, we look for ‘Instagram-able’ locations and picture-perfect couples and share hundreds, sometimes thousands of meaningless images. As he explained, for the generations before us who only had 9 pictures available in a roll of film, each one of their shots was precious – it was a moment they wished to remember.
These visual memories are the foundation of photography itself. Once the camera was developed in the early 19th century, they were used to capture people’s surroundings and loved ones – subjects they wished to immortalise. The resurgence in film photography has led some to reconsider their approach to photography and the way in which they record their lives and travels - I dearly hope that this will soon be said of the postcard.
The earliest-known postcard was sent in London in 1840, by Theodore Hook to himself, bearing the black penny stamp. Although meant as some sort of a practical joke on the postal service, Hook created a medium which is now studied widely in the form of deltiology.
From the 1880s, the ‘golden age’ of postcards featured images of the newly built Eiffel Tower, among other European landmarks. French postcards showcased illustrations of nude women, and illustrated images were the norm until the 1940s when the cheaper-to-produce chrome postcards, featuring colourful photographs, dominated the market.
This coincides with the new popularity of photographic film – people became concerned with cataloguing their memories. In an era of increased travel, especially further afield than had been possible in the previous century, postcards flew around the world, bringing loved one’s images of far-off places and the communication they had been desiring from the person far-away. I often think about the scenes of George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, as he fills his head, and his suitcase with postcards and travel posters of the distant tropical places he dreams of seeing. Postcards were the first visual form of the ‘wanderlust’ that Instagram thrives off today.
The messages of these cards vary hugely. The traditional well-wishing to the receiver, the description of the place visited and the messages of ‘see-you soon’ may be the convention while sending cards off – I know they certainly have been for me, are not the only forms. Many good antique shops will have piles of postcards you’re able to look through. There are also a few good books which feature some more unusual variations such as Postcard from the Past, Boring Postcards, Postcards from the Front, Postcards from the Boys and Posted in the Past.
I love postcards for three important reasons. Firstly, it preserves a historical form, not only in the medium of postcards and sending them as a physical communication on your travels, but also of the postal service itself. It reminds me of a time, when to communicate would take days rather than seconds, that people would break news through the written word rather than a text or a call, and where your perception of a place, or even an entire country, was in the hands of the photographer of the postcard rather than google images. It was a simpler time, filled with imagination, dreaming and an excitement for writing.
Secondly, I love postcards because of a simple request by my grandfather. For as long as my memory allows, I have sent him a postcard wherever I go. As children, part of our summer holidays in Spain involved choosing the card for Grandad, practising our handwriting before penning our sentence, and fighting over who got to lick the stamp. It made us aware of the memories we were making.
It also followed his tradition, as someone who has travelled in the aviation industry during his career, my mum and her siblings received postcards from Peru, Jordan and Hong Kong. They felt this first version of ‘wanderlust’, both through the physical card received, which had actually been in the place they were reading and dreaming about and had travelled to a sleepy corner of England, especially for them. In going through the same process, in sending our postcard to Grandad, it meant he was travelling with us, seeing what we were seeing, if only just a little sliver.
T and I have now travelled through North America and Europe, through a number of countries and cities, sending postcards back to our grandparents from every place. While this can sometimes feel like an added stress, forgetting to buy stamps or creating a backlog of countries to write up while you’re travelling through so quickly, it’s always worth it in the end. This way, our grandparents back at home, receive a trickle of postcards. They make comments on the efficiency of postal services (Italy is awful for future reference), follow our steps as we travel across continents, and bind or display these cards together as a step-by-step narrative of our trip, complete with photograph. It is something physical, delivered to them, by a loved one, from the other side of the world. There’s a certain beauty in that. It’s also warming to us, that somewhere in their houses is each one of those cards, catalogued together. We did that.
The final thing cementing postcards in my heart is the history they leave behind. I find it so sad that in the future, people’s ‘memory boxes’ of their parents and grandparents will be virtual, probably Instagram accounts, picturing them as teenagers, then 20-year olds, then parents, each box identical and with a certain number of likes and tagged locations. No longer will there be printed photographs, of varying sizes, writing scribbled on the back of each, your mum shouting not to get your fingerprints on the gloss from the other room.
There’ll be no figuring out if that was your aunt or your uncle, because their haircuts were so similar as children, because Instagram or Facebook will have kindly tagged each account for you. There will be no postcards, from children in their sprawling hand, or doodles from Dads, or gawdy touristy pictures on the front. These physical papers are so intimate and social. Memories are locked in that can’t be achieved in scrolling through. I get the same kick as the man with his boxes and boxes of other people’s film, looking at old photographs, and reading other people’s postcards. For just one snapshot, capture, memory or sentence, you can know a little sliver of a perfect stranger.
Maybe someday, someone will read ours.