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The Future of the Postcard

A postcard is a tweet with a stamp. I reached this conclusion recently, after becoming perhaps the last person in North America to board the social media–networking bandwagon. I signed up for Twitter and tweeted for a minute. I joined Facebook and watched my friend cohort expand. I write the word friend without the sneer of inverted commas (“friend”) because I feel there is something inherently optimistic in the notion that the Web ether is crowded with people one knows or may wish to, if only it were easier to be in touch. But the truth is, I don’t like communicating through social-media networks, if indeed communication is the point. It may mark me as old-fashioned, but I hold out for archaisms like phone calls and face time and the handwritten note. And a postcard is to a proper letter as a tweet is to an e-mail. It is the jotted notion, the short form, a shout-out with few strings attached.

My own postcard habit started early, probably around the time my mercurial father announced at the breakfast table a plan to move the family from New York to L.A. That this ambition was not anchored in anything like reality (we knew no one there; he had no set job prospects) was little deterrent to him or, for that matter, to the eight-year-old I was.

We never made it to California, of course. Not understanding as I later would the fickle ways of the parental mind, I immediately began planning our trip. I wrote away for maps and brochures. I ordered trip planners that, when they arrived by mail, often came with a postcard. I still have one of those cards, a matte polychrome rectangle ornamented with graphics that predate the era of the politically correct. The card offers Greetings from Utah. Fat stripes adorn the bold, stolid letters of the state name—the ample bucket of U, the upright T, the tepee of A, the H like a big, handsome gate—and serve as a foundation for images of a salt shaker, a bag of copper, a goofy Native American with a feathered headdress, and a beehive with a thought bubble enclosing this weird invitation: C’mon get it. Get what? Encoded on the card’s face is a key to the civic attractions of a state that, in those days, could boast of more sheep than people and whose big tourist draws were the spooky Canyonlands and the Bonneville Salt Flats. Conspicuously, there are no Mormons at all.

That particular card is of a type that originated in what aficionados term a golden age in postcard history, a time when the front of a card contained a single image and the back was reserved for text. (Card faces were left blank in the earliest versions.) But what made it wonderful to me then, and still does, is the block of statistical information it contains. “Copper, lead, and silver are mined” in Utah, it informs the reader. “The sego lily is Utah’s state flower.” These random fragments joined by ellipses read to me as found poetry. They somehow evoke a state I had never set foot in until recently. They conjure up the place in a manner that technology has rendered obsolete. There’s an app for that kind of data nowadays.

Yet somehow, the more that apps reduce the world to cunningly manageable integers of data, the more appealing the old forms of communication become. The staggering volume of postcards one sees on eBay and in flea markets and in every gift shop on the planet provides a clear sense of how common the urge once was and how durable it remains.

I send postcards whenever I travel. I hunt down vintage black-and-white views in the grotty flea market at the Porte de Vanves, in Paris; garish 60’s girly cards that seem to be a specialty in Berlin; hokey Dutch cards depicting wooden shoes or windmills or wheels of Gouda. I pick up unusual cards in unexpected places, like the fish-eye panoramas sold at the Basilica di San Marco, in Milan, of a little monastery where Mozart hung his hat for two months in 1770; or the print of a particular dreadlocked holy man in Varanasi, India, who is such a relentless camera hound that his image is probably stuck to dorm-room corkboards and refrigerators around the world.

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