Whatever happened to postcards?

Decision Fatigue. I experienced that almost daily a year ago when emptying the house my parents bought 51 years ago.

Decision Fatigue is a real thing – with research showing that as a day filled with decisions progresses, the quality of decisions made later in the day decreases and/or we postpone the decision. This so-called “decision avoidance” may sometimes have a silver lining.

That’s what I’m thinking as I look at the box of postcards from their house. As I sorted through “stuff”, you can guess what the daily onslaught of decision options were – keep, donate, trash – we didn’t bother with “sell”. I bet my first impulse was to trash the postcards. A few were written by me, to my parents. Most were actually blank. Was it decision fatigue or good sense that I kept them? There were many days when unable to make a decision, I brought things home. Now, a year later I am slowly sorting through all the stuff that was added to the clutter in my house. It’s clear to me that trashing the postcards a year ago would have been a failure of curiosity, and I would have been robbed of all they made me ponder and explore.

I begin by wondering how many people remember when postcards were part of normal life? 

Source : ZITS Comic Strip: April 29, 2018

Source: ZITS Comic Strip: April 29, 2018

There was a time when it was neither easy nor practical to call family or friends while traveling. “No news” would have been “good news”. In my mother’s case, receipt of the first postcard reduced her anxiety once I shared the license number of our rental car. She had this idea that if anything ever happened at home, she would call Interpol or some such authority and tell them to find us.

It was fun to receive a postcard. Sending a postcard was– in my memory – not so much fun. It could be like an albatross around your neck. The annoying burden of purchasing the cards, the stamps, carving out time to write them, finding a post box for mailing them. All this required that you remembered to bring addresses for all who “expected” a postcard – and there could be people in one’s life whose nose would be out of joint if they didn’t get a postcard. On shorter trips, the timing was critical. More than once we arrived home before the postcards did.

I recall sending them only to family and close friends. I was gobsmacked to see that my parents had received postcards from neighbours! In one case, neighbours from over 60 years ago! Either I never grasped the level of friendship they once had with these folks, or sending postcards to a neighbour was at one time “a thing”.

That some of the cards were blank did not surprise me. They may have been purchased and not used, but often people bought postcards as souvenirs. If you did not have a good camera, were a poor photographer, or could not get into a helicopter to get that perfect shot – on a sunny day – then postcards were a welcome addition to a souvenir / photo album.

There are two postcards I stare at every day. Each of my guys did a Europe trip when in high school. Each sent a postcard from Paris. We were camping in Paris when we decided to start a family, so I have always been touched by their postcards from that spot on the planet.  I trust that you, dear reader, don’t think I am crazy to still have those postcards on my bulletin board some thirty years later. (I must have inherited the "postcard-keeping" gene.)

I also found one of the most memorable postcards I ever received. It was from Hugh R. Geldart, a work colleague, who sent a hand drawn postcard from Amsterdam. It still boggles my mind that I got to work with such creative people.

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So, what did happen to postcards? Have we become lazy? Have we so much bought into the idea of “getting away from it all”, that we are self-centred on holidays? Are we socially isolated, not even knowing our neighbours, let alone sending them a postcard? Are postcards outdated in the age of Instagram and social media? If so, they have had a good run.

The world’s oldest postcard dates back to 1840 – so sayeth "deltiologists" – those who collect and study postcards. As it turns out, there is much to study and enjoy. Even when viewed only online, old postcards can capture many aspects of history – buildings, events, people. It's a history that included periods when the cards were used for sexual imagery, and sometimes even banned. I assume those postcards were never mailed, even though postage for postcards used to be cheaper than for regular cards and letters. “Naughty, bawdy” postcards even received government attention. In England, “in the early 1950s, the newly elected Conservative government were concerned at the apparent deterioration of morals in Britain and decided on a crackdown on these postcards.” [Source]

Today you are more likely to find postcards in tourist areas than your local corner store. Some are even “artisanal”, as in creative and not mass produced. In fact there is a subscription service that sends you artisanal postcards each month.

Ever wonder if the mail carrier reads the postcard? These days, I’d say doubtful, given the state of people’s handwriting. After years sitting at a keyboard, mine has become increasingly illegible. In any event, the digital “postcards” on Instagram are there for all the world to see, so "postcard" privacy may have always been a non-issue.

Interestingly, the “public” nature of postcards has been combined with the “private” in the Post Secret Art Project which since 2005 has weekly been publishing postcards on which anonymous senders reveal a secret. The project has been the focus of controversy with some edgy and bogus postings, along with occasional pathos. 

Of more interest - a bit of internet searching reveals that there are, today, postcard clubs, archives, museums, collectives – even a podcast. Google ‘postcard projects’ and be prepared to be bowled over by the number of projects people have taken on – for example, sending 1000 postcards to people. There are even postcards from the future.

From time to time, I suppose we all still receive some form of postcard – the “save the date” types, some from politicians or real estate agents.

On the day when I was dotting i’s and crossing t’s on this post, the postcard below arrived in the mail! Spooky coincidence… but a real treat.

Postcard from Japan, where foxes have mythic status in folklore.

Postcard from Japan, where foxes have mythic status in folklore.

Maybe I’ll have to start my own postcard project. Meanwhile, I’ve come to the point where I share a recipe linked to my blogpost. Since I have a postcard from Amsterdam, how about if I share a cake that uses Dutch-processed cocoa! Click here for the recipe – Chocolate Quinoa Cake.

Any postcard stories? Click on the word "Comments" below - or.... send me a postcard :-)