Hey, Remember – Postcards


Postcards, what was once a required item to buy on vacation and mail back to friends and family back home, postcards are now struggling for survival

Once upon a time taking a trip and sending someone back home a postcard was such a popular thing. It was something almost required you would do while on a vacation. But over time less and less postcards are making their way to mailboxes. Are postcards dying out?

I live in a relatively small quiet town. There’s not a lot of action going on. Just recently I happened upon an old postcard of the downtown Main Street. It was from the 1940’s and despite more than seventy years having passed from that artistic rendering that main street looked somewhat the same. It was interesting to see what stores existed in certain spots and marvel at the vintage cars parked on the street The layout of the street was completely the same as I know today, but the details were all pure 1940’s.

Not only was I somewhat surprised at seeing the Main Street of my town be emblazoned on a postcard – that’s odd in itself. I don’t think this is a big tourist spot on the map. It’s certainly not worth having many giftshops to sell mugs and t-shirts of the town name for visitors to take home with them. But it also made me think about how popular postcards once were and how they seem to be disappearing today.

Everyone goes on vacation or takes a trip or just visits a random touristy place. Inevitably, that place is going to have a gift shop. You’re going to find a range of items emblazoned with that tourist locale on them. You’ll find t-shirts, key chains, magnets, shot glasses, salt and pepper shakers and of course postcards. There’s always a postcard rack somewhere in the vicinity.

A long time ago postcards were a standard item to buy on vacation and send to friends and family back home. You could find postcards everywhere! With a single stamp you could show what miraculous place you’re at and make the receiver jealous with that old reliable ‘Wish you were here’ greeting.

vintage postcard of Times Square in New York CityThere was a point I could count on getting several postcards during the course of the year. Usually they would arrive during the summer months. That’s the usual time friends and family would take their vacation trips.You know the usual routine. Your friend or family member would go away, pick up a postcard and mail it to you. It would arrive with a picturesque photo of wherever they went off to. Sunsets, buildings, kitzy silly roadshow attractions.

On the back would be a short handwritten greeting. It would typically be very vague with no real personal details included, since everyone could just look at it and read it. I always thought mailman must love postcards. Finally it gives them a chance to read something and get to gawk at the photo between sorting and delivering boring white envelopes.

Over the past decade – maybe even longer – I’ve noticed a steep decline in the postcards I received. In fact it’s been years since I’ve gotten one. I know people who have gone away on trips, but those 5×7 cards don’t look like one of those things people feel they have to buy while they’re away anymore. Postcards took off in the early part of the twentieth century. It was basically the quickest, easiest and cheapest way folks could communicate a short greeting to each other.

Today there’s not a real demand for postcards anymore. People tweet out their locations at any given moment of the day. They’ll send an update to their Facebook profile as soon as something happens – picture included. You don’t have to waste a stamp by just sending that thin piece of cardboard to one single address anymore. Now you can tell everyone you know ‘Wish you were here!’ with a few swipes of your finger.

And as a reward for your hard earned typing you’ll get instant ‘likes’ from all your friends. No need to worry about having a pen. And let’s not even get into ones personal penmanship! That’s dying faster than postcards!

I’m just as guilty of this as everyone else. The last postcard I bought and mailed was a few years ago. I have bought some postcards just because I liked the picture on them and saved to display with no hope of them ever getting a stamp stuck on them.

Yet somehow every postcard I ever got throughout my life I continue to save. They’re all piled up in a box. I’m not sure if there’s a general length of time people should save a postcard. I would say forever, but then some might accuse me of being a hoarder or something.

Fortunately, I’m not alone with this belief. There’s a whole collectors sect for old vintage postcards. The hobby is called deitology. And yeah looking at postcards over a hundred years old is fascinating to see. I can see how it could enrapture people. It’s history, art and personal moments all combined onto that one 5×7 card.

vintage postcard message sent in the mail
A marshmallow roast occurred circa 1910

Those old handwritten messages can be pretty enlightening to read. It reminds me that aside from what we read in history books normal human life was taking place on this planet. Daily life was taking place long before I arrived and the human race didn’t just pop out of the sea somewhere in the 1970s.

Those old postcards are paper artifacts. Physical proof that everyday life was happening and individuals were going to the beach and taking trips to apple orchards decades before any of us were even a blip on the map. That postcard could be the only evidence that individual and that event ever took place!

These innocuous events might be somewhat inconsequential in the grand scheme of things and you might never see this person and this moment in time mentioned in a history book, but they are a pretty cool documentation of the more routine parts of life And why shouldn’t postcards be saved! It’s not like they take up a lot of room. Just think about all the other crap you’ve been saving. Would a stack of postcards really take up that much room! It’s one desk drawer. One folder. One shoebox. Big deal.

The postcard companies must be a little concerned about the decline of sales. I read one report saying the U.S. Postal Service processed 70 million postcards in 2014, down from 1.2 billion in 2010. I have no idea what the numbers are, but postcard sending must have been off the charts in the 1950’s and 60’s. So there’s definitely a decrease happening with those laminated picture messages making their way to mailboxes.

kitschy odd roadside attraction postcard 1960s

Ahhh, those 50’s/60’s postcards! Those are the ones I get the biggest kick out of seeing. Some are just so bizarre and cheesy looking. There’s an immediate coolness factor to them.

Typically they’re not very polished looking photos. The attraction usually looks pretty rough and cheap and it rarely looks as if they tried to make it look any nicer for its postcard picture. I guess they didn’t really worry very much about making the place look as inviting and beautiful as possible. Just having your own postcard to sell was probably enough of a marketing move back then, it didn’t matter how the place look in it.

A lot of the photos look like they were the ‘point, shoot, done’ photography technique and the attraction doesn’t look like anyone really prepared or cleaned the place up much for the photo. It appears it didn’t really phase them that today they were going to take their official postcard for the place! Eh whatever. Any shot will do. The lax attitude kind of gives those postcards a relaxed charm. They’re certainly more interesting to look at then the countless obnoxious, awkward selfies that will define the millennial generation.

unusual roadside attraction postcard

There were so many cheesy little roadside attractions back then. Families were loading up their cars, driving around the country, taking advantage of all the new fancy highways. Inevitably nutty places cropped up along the highways for people to stop and visit.

Perusing through postcards of these long extinct roadside attractions I can’t help but feel nostalgic – even if I wasn’t around to see this stuff. They all just look so innocent and fun. But hey at the time it was exciting enough to be there and wanting to brag to your friends at home where you just pulled up with the family in tow! Honey, you better grab a postcard!

It’s kind of a shame. Postcards are much more personal than that brief tweet. They’re handwritten mementos that are tangiable. You can hold them in your hand. The receiver can pin it up on their bulletin board or hang them on their fridge – if you picked out a nice enough picture for them to want to display. And heck even if the picture is terrible there’s a handwritten message from someone you know! How often do we get those anymore?

Unusual vintage Holiday Inn postcard
“Hey, look where we got to sleep last night!
Jealous much?”

Granted postcards wouldn’t contain elaborate writing and allow room for you to pour your heart out to someone in detail. They’re not something you need to re-read countless times to appreciate the nuances of the language in it – maybe some but not most. I’ve heard of Love Letters but never a Love Postcard. That’s why they have a picture on the other side of it so you can look at that an it makes up for the quick informational message.

Plus, it would be something of a kick to receive a postcard that came directely from Mount Rushmore, Las Vegas, Cooperstown New York, Paris, Seattle, San Francisco or any farout point on the globe right to your mailbox. You can see the postmark and yep it was sent right from that location! Cool! And all it cost was a stamp – well, and the price of the postcard.

The last few years I’ve noticed that those postcard racks have gotten less and less prominent in tourism gift shops. It probably happened long before I consciously noticed. The selections of postcards are definitely dwindling. Yes, I still see a sole rack of postcards in the gift shops I walk into when on vacation. They’re usually right next to the magnet board. But the selections available have had to decreased from thirty, forty years ago.I always wondered about the photographers and artists who would photograph and paint and create those early postcards.

The images were photos or paintings taken or created by folks then rolled off the presses out to the vacationing public. I don’t think those who were behind capturing the images got much credit. I don’t think they got their names on the postcards anywhere. Was it a full time job for them or just a side gig? There can’t be much of a demand for that kind of work anymore. The remaining postcard companies probably just send an intern out to the attraction and have them fire off acouple hundred pics from their phone and just choose the best one.

New Jersey Turnpike vintage postcard

On a final note, I used to like to look at the postcards that were sold locally around me and what they would feature. It’s kind of the opposite feeling for anyone who lives in an area with a big tourist attraction and has a constant flow of visiting tourists. They probably get a bit jaded by all the cameras out, the pointing, the crowds, people carrying on. All the excitement tourists have is lost on them. What’s the big deal, they see that building or whatever every day! So I would think they must get tired of seeing all the souvenir knick knacks that are being sold around them.

Since I don’t live near a big touristy hot spot I would get curious as to what exactly would be worthy around me to be featured on a postcard. The New Jersey Turnpike….on a postcard? Really? I always found it fascinating that someone would actually want to brag that they’ve landed in picturesque New Jersey and are getting to travel the world famous New Jersey Turnpike. Yeah, ok maybe it looked nicer and was cheaper to travel back in the day, but still it’s just the NJ Turnpike. It’s not like you’re traveling the Yellow Brick Road.

When I’m stuck on it nowadays the last thing on my mind is to let everyone know I’m crawling along it waiting to pay the hiked up toll at my exit. Today people would probably take it as an offense if I sent them that postcard and scrawled on it ‘Wish you were here’.

vintage postcard Las Vegas 1960s

1 thought on “Hey, Remember – Postcards

  1. With every generation something dies which is replaced by something faster or better. It is nice that you acknowledge you are just as part of the problem as well as the respondent. Every postcard you fail to send, that is one less postcard sent. Before the advent of the email and the internet, letter writing was the best impersonal mode of communication after the telephone. I used to write and receive so many letters from friends back in the 80s, all the way up until the late 90s. Then nothing. The only letters I get now are bills or flyers.

    Facebook and Twitter have almost killed off the need to send postcards and I am sure pretty much almost all under 20 year olds have never sent one. What would be the point, they would argue, when almost everything about their lives is posted online in fear that if they are not plugged in they would lose a sense of themselves, or at the very best, a loss to be in the Zeitgeist.

    Every generation looks on to the one that follows it with a sense of loss. Postcards will most likely be remembered as a "thing" similar to the other things like the telegram or black and white TVs.

    It was fun while it lasted. Now…what mood am I in right now for my Facebook page ?

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