The coming of the internet age is killing a lot of things – terrestrial TV, record shops, irony. Most are unmourned, replaced by something more accessible or simply better. But I contend that as yet there is no serious replacement for the analogue pleasure of the postcard.
I grew up in an age where international phone calls were expensive and difficult to organise. Email didn’t yet exist, but the golden age of letter-writing was over for everyone except teenage girls. So when friends and family travelled, as mine often did, you occasionally received a postcard.
Every inch of a postcard exudes old world romance. They are the very embodiment of middle-class adventure, from the exotic stamps in the corner, sometimes haphazardly applied so you knew that an actual person had licked them, to the unconventional address systems of non-Anglophone countries. The handwriting on the back from your friend or relative is at once strangely out of context and also deeply familiar, like walking into your favourite coffee shop and meeting your mother dressed as a polar bear.
The content of postcards is also deeply informative. Long before the days of Instagram preening, #blessed and #youdidnotsleepthere, we had a simple piece of paper with a photo on it. The choice of image says a lot about the sender. Are they in Fiji, trying to convey the magical colour of the water, or were they simply showing off? That print of Michelangelo’s David – is it a reflection of the sender’s deep immersion in European art, or is it an excuse to send a picture of a naked man through the post? You can learn a lot about people from the postcards they send.
The back of the postcard is also a perfect size for a written message. Enough room to outline what you’d been doing (or more if you wrote in a very tiny hand), but not enough that you could say anything meaningful or controversial. Indeed, that was kind of the point; to connect with your loved ones in a superficial way and remind them that you still existed. Sadly Facebook has that market cornered now.
Personality came through in the handwriting. Great big loopy writing and stock phrases from the person who clearly has a stack of cards to get through; uneven spacing from the person who hasn’t thought about what they’re going to say; and blow-by-blow accounts of travel purgatory from someone who has misunderstood how to make people jealous.
However the best thing by far about postcards is that they actually came from a real human, located in a place, unmediated by electrons. They are tangible records of a moment in time – scribbled on, stamped and in the case of one postcard I received from my dad, chewed. They’ve been moved from post box to mailroom to truck to aircraft, back to a truck and finally to your front door, accumulating personality along the way.
When they finally make it to your house you read them, smile, and then honour them by sticking them to your fridge with a magnet. Why? Because they’re a little slice of the person who sent them, and if they cared enough to write, you should care enough to keep them.
Postcards are strongly to be recommended, and I mourn their near obsolescence. I wish people still sent them.