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Quartz Obsession — Postcards — Card 1
Before the 280-character tweet, there was the tiny blank space on the back of a postcard. Since the mid-19th century, postcards have allowed us to dash off a thought—no matter how deep or trivial—and send it directly to someone’s doorstep.
We no longer send them by the billions, as we once did, but postcards have remained surprisingly durable. From their origins in postal law to their present-day status as kitschy gifts and valuable collectors’ items, they continue to offer us a direct way to send a message. Let’s put a stamp on it.
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Quartz Obsession — Postcards — Card 2
>7 billion: Postcards sent worldwide in 1905
35 cents: Postage for a US postcard in 2020
3,000: Coconut postcards—yes, an actual coconut—mailed from the Hawaiian island of Molokai each year
$12-$20: Typical price to send a coconut postcard
85,000: Twitter followers of Postcard from the Past (@PastPostcard)
148 x 105 mm (5.8 x 4.1 inches): Dimensions of a standard international postcard
0.4mm (.016 inches): Maximum thickness of a US postcard
250,000: Postcards owned by Robert Drew, in one of the largest private collections in the world
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Quartz Obsession — Postcards — Card 3
Sending a paper rectangle through the mail doesn’t seem like a big deal. Yet the advent of the postal card required an act of Congress. In 1861, the nation’s political body made it legal for citizens to mail privately-printed cards of less than one ounce to each other. Capitalizing on the new law, John P. Charlton and Hymen Lipman, printers in Philadelphia, moved to patent the first postal card in the country—a mostly blank card with a decorative border.
But the “golden age” of postcards didn’t dawn for decades to come. For one, only government-issued postcards could be called postcards; companies like Lipman’s had to label theirs “Private Mailing Card, Authorized by Act of Congress of May 19, 1898”—yes, in full. Private cards cost two cents to send, compared to just a penny for government cards. And cards had to have “undivided backs,” meaning you couldn’t write a message on the same side as the address.
These restrictions were eventually repealed in 1907, when the Universal Postal Union threw its weight behind divided backs. This allowed senders to put the address and the message on the same side, and the postcard exploded in popularity with a rapid succession of new styles, the evolution of casual communication (there’s no space for formalities!), and billions of cards sent around the globe.
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Quartz Obsession — Postcards — Card 4
“Flick, flick, flick, flick — oh, fantastic…”
“People tended to want to make their vacations sound really good.”
—Donna Braden, curator at the Henry Ford Museum, about the messages on twentieth century vacation postcards
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Quartz Obsession — Postcards — Card 5
The number of postcards Americans send each year has been declining consistently for decades. In 2019, the USPS delivered just 563 million personal and promotional cards, compared to 3.4 billion in 1950. With instant communication like email at our fingertips, and the ability to take our own high-quality photos when we travel, the appeal of sending a postcard has waned.
Of course, no one has totally forsaken the tactile for the digital world. Millennials have revitalized the greeting card industry. And the scant evidence on card sales suggests many people continue to purchase postcards as keepsakes. But for the millions of people who continue to send postcards, they offer something no other form of communication can. “It’s the actual physical feel of something,” Nancy Pope, head curator of the History Department at the National Postal Museum, told The Washington Post. “[T]hat trumps reading something electronically any day.”
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Quartz Obsession — Postcards — Card 6
1777: A French engraver creates a proto-postcard, but the idea falls flat because people don’t want servants reading their mail.
1840: Noted prankster Theodore Hook sends himself a hand-painted caricature of British postal workers on what many consider to be the first modern postcard. It sold for £31,750 at a 2002 auction in London, a record for a postcard.
1869: The first government-issue postcards, called Korrespondenz Karte, debut in Austria.
1874: The General Postal Union forms in Bern, Switzerland. Today, it’s known as the Universal Postal Union and is part of the United Nations, and sets the rules for international mail.
1893: The first souvenir postcards, depicting the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, go on sale at the fair.
1907: The “Golden Age” of postcards begins, thanks in large part to the rise of the “divided back.” It lasts until 1915, which ushers in the First World War and the rise of the telephone.
1960: The “Silver Age” of postcards begins, as the post-war working class vacations—and sends postcards home—in droves.
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Quartz Obsession — Postcards — Card 7
The opening sequence of the 1983 comedy National Lampoon’s Vacation, directed by Harold Ramis, features a series of classic vacationland postcards from around the US.
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Quartz Obsession — Postcards — Card 8
There are strict limits of the size and shape of a postcard. But even within these confines, designers have developed different styles. Here are some of the most important.
White border: To save ink, printers in the 1910s and ‘20s left a white border around the image (and a small caption to describe what you were seeing) on the front of the card.
Linen: Printers found a way to add a high rag content to their paper products, giving the illusion of printing on linen. Curt Teich & Co., which developed the world-famous “Greetings From” cards, used this method—and kept the white border for kicks.
Photochrom: Modern photochrom cards—hyper-saturated photographic reproductions—dominated the market after World War II and remained popular until the internet age.
Lenticular: These are made by printing at least two different images on a lenticular lens to create a 3D image that changes according to the viewer’s perspective on it.
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Quartz Obsession — Postcards — Card 10
In early twentieth century America, photographers created postcards of gruesome images from lynchings of black men and women. “They served to bond the white community together in supremacy,” James Allen told Fresh Air. “They also were news events that were highly covered by the press. So these images were small newspapers that people posted through the mail and sent to their relatives to say, this is what happened in our hometown.” Allen’s book, Without Sanctuary, documents the way these horrific images reinforced and normalized the routine terrorization of African Americans.
In 1908 the US amended the Comstock Act to ban material “tending to incite arson, murder, or assassination,” in an indirect attempt to limit the sale and trade of these postcards. It was largely unsuccessful, and photographers continued to produce them for sale, and as promotional materials for their work.
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Quartz Obsession — Postcards — Card 11
💌 Reply-paid postcards: Determined to get a reply? In Japan, you can send a return postcard, which has room for your message and space for your recipient to send a reply. They cost twice as much as a regular card, but that’s the price of connection.
🎄Christmas cards: The first commercial Noel-themed cards were commissioned by Sir Henry Cole in 1843. They depicted an intergenerational family toasting to the recipient—a far cry from the increasingly-elaborate seasons greetings families send today.
🎉 New Year’s postcards: Japan’s tradition of written New Year’s greetings (nengajo) dates back centuries. When the government adopted postcards in 1871, the tradition translated to the new form easily. But be careful: cards should arrive by Jan. 3 at the latest, so send them on time!
🔮 Postcard to your future self: Postcard cafés have recently cropped up from the Netherlands to China. You can write a card and store it with them, to be delivered to you at a selected date months or years in the future.
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Quartz Obsession — Postcards — Card 12
Most postcards are worth a few bucks at most—unless they were made by the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. On this episode of Pawn Stars, you can see a few of Basquiat’s original postcard designs yourself. In 1978, the artist gifted his thrift store co-worker Norman Scherer 18 signed copies of his postcards, according to the New York Times. One gallery valued the set at $12,000 per card.
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Quartz Obsession — Postcards — Card 13
Donna Braden is the curator of public life at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. Among her other duties, she has dedicated 40 years to “deltiology”—the technical term for postcard collection. In this episode of the Ologies podcast, Braden explains what these assorted slips of paper can show us about American culture in the 20th century.
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