It’s just a guess, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the 60p first-class stamp has finally done for the postcard as a useful or desirable means of communication. Receiving one postal delivery a day instead of two didn’t help, but then postal authorities across the world ceased to treat postcards with respect a long time ago. Sometimes you were off on your next holiday before postcards from your previous holiday had reached their destinations. And when was the last time you sent a postcard when you were on holiday? Were you spending francs or pesetas at the time, and cashing in travellers’ cheques?
Postcards had their day, though. In 1903, more than a billion of them passed through the German postal system. In 1909, our own Post Office sold 833 million stamps for postcards, nearly 20 for every man, woman and child. They represented the very cutting edge of communication technology. ‘By 1903,’ write Klich and Weiss, ‘the international postal system guaranteed the friend in Germany that a card dropped in a Munich postbox would find its way quickly and safely to a house in suburban London.’ According to one publisher, the postcard was ‘part and parcel of the busy, rushing, time-saving age we live in.’
Naturally, some people did not approve. ‘For one thing, the short messages that fit on the cards could hardly convey the erudition of a traditional letter, a longtime sign of refinement.’ And the lack of envelope meant that anyone could read it: not just postal workers, but more worryingly, ‘the servants who brought the mail to its final recipient’. Some commentators suggested that sending an unsolicited postcard actually amounted to an invasion of privacy. And then there was the question of public morals.
For while few overtly pornographic cards passed through the post (without the protection of a brown envelope), designers and printers of postcards frequently approached the outer limits of what was acceptable. In 1901 the Italian printers’ association appealed to the government to stave off an ‘invasion’ of postcards that freely exposed ‘indecent’ figures and so imperilled ‘public morality’. You might as well try to resist the plague. In 1900, a Viennese Railway inspector wrote a piece of doggerel musing on how wonderful it would be to be all alone with one’s love on a desert island. No fashion, no politics, and best of all, no post office and no postcards! The poem was printed on a postcard.
A hundred years later, all this has become the subject of earnest academic study. Lynda Klich is Distinguished Lecturer in the Art and Art History Department at Hunter College, CUNY, while Benjamin Weiss is Leonard A Lauder Curator of Visual Culture at the Museum of Fine Art in Boston. (For which, read ‘Head of Postcards’.)
This lavish, highly serious and strangely compelling book is based on the collection of the very same Leonard A Lauder, an art collector and philanthropist who was formerly Chairman of the Estée Lauder Companies Inc., a position he reached through grit and hard work, and not being Estée’s son in any way at all. He has 120,000 postcards, of which there are just 400 in this book. But those 400 are from the golden age before the Great War, and a few years after, before the postcard was superseded as a symbol of speed and modernity by the telephone and radio. Klich and Weiss’s commentary can be a little heavy-going, but the postcards are magnificent. We would send many of these today if we could, and damn the expense.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 23 February 2013