During the Golden Age of postcards between 1905 and 1915, about 750 million postcards were sent in Britain each year, a staggering 2 million a day. The seven deliveries of post a day meant it was perfectly possible to arrange and confirm an appointment in the evening by sending a postcard in the morning.
Between 1901 and 1907, postcard production doubled every six months. Commentators at the time talk of ‘postal carditis’ and ‘postcard mania’. What drove it? A number of things happened simultaneously. Firstly, technological advances in printing meant that for the first time high-quality colour images could be mass-produced cheaply to a standard size. Efficient postal services meant they were cheap to send (1 cent in the US; 1 penny in the UK). Finally, advances in public transport meant people had begun to travel much more regularly and adventurously and a postcard was the perfect way to prove it. In one day in 1906, 200,000 postcards were sent from Coney Island alone, and postcard collecting (deltiology – from the Greek deltion meaning ’little letter’) quickly became the world’s number one pastime.
The postcard is a great neglected literary form from about fifity words in length.
The parallels with email are striking. Advertising quickly saw the benefit of the postcard and most of the 19th century traffic was a version of spam, sent by people selling goods and services. By 1906, Kodak had even created technology that allowed people to print their own postcards, rather in the same way we send attachments, or use our mobile phones. The Kodak 3A folding pocket camera had postcard sized negatives, and a special door that opened which enabled people to scratch a caption or message directly on to the negative. ‘Real Photo’ postcards were used commercially, but also to document millions of ordinary lives, recording disasters such as fires and floods, as well as family life, portraits, buildings, landscapes, parades and picnics. They are a priceless resource for the social historian.
Like email, postcards had their detractors. American satirist John Walker Harrington, wrote of postcard mania in American Magazine in March 1906: ‘Unless such manifestations are checked, millions of persons of now normal lives and irreproachable habits will become victims of faddy degeneration of the brain.’
The first picture postcards date from the middle of the 19th century but the postcard era really began when government postal services in Europe and the US began issuing their own pre-paid postal cards in the 1870s. By the 1890s, the state monopolies gave way to public pressure and private printers started issuing their own picture post cards, with illustrations on the front and the words ‘Post Card’ moved to the back. By 1907 the first divided back postcards appeared, leaving more room for the message.
The First World War destroyed the German printing industry (75% of US postcards were printed in Germany). This and the advent of the telephone spelt an end to the golden age of the postcard. In the UK it continues to thrive. In 2005, the Royal Mail estimated 134 million postcards were sent in the UK during the summer months, an increase of 30 million on the 2002 figure.
The British postcard remains closely associated with the seaside and the top five postcard sending destinations are: 1.Brighton 2.Scarborough 3.Bournemouth 4.Blackpool 5.Skegness
Saucy cartoon postcards, epitomized by the work of ex-naval draughtsman Donald McGill, became widespread in the 1930s and, at their peak, sold 16 million a year.
The Conservative government of 1951-5, concerned at the supposed deterioration of morals in Britain, decided on a crackdown. Their main target was 79 year-old McGill. He was found guilty in Lincoln on 15th July 1954 under the Obscene Publications Act 1857 and fined £50 with £25 costs. McGill never received royalties on any of his 12,000 designs, of which an estimated 200 million copies were printed.
I'm thinking about you. What else can I say? The palm trees on the reverse are a delusion.