On the Death of the Postcard
A love letter (typed on a computer and published on the internet) to hand-written travel correspondence.
On a recent summer vacation in Portland, Maine, I shared a photo of hermit crabs on Instagram, tweeted about my lobster roll lunch, and updated my Facebook status with a picture of the blueberries I picked.
I didn’t write a single postcard. This is still odd for me; up until just a few years ago, I used to set aside time on every trip to find a quiet spot and pen half a dozen postcards and letters to my friends and family.
I’m not the only one forgoing physical postcards. According to the United States Postal Service, the number of mailed single piece cards, which includes postcards, was down 11.8 percent in 2014 compared to the previous year. It’s part of a larger, more drastic decline for physical correspondence. In 2005, there were 45.9 billion pieces of what the USPS classifies as single-piece first class mail–letters, postcards, bills, etc. Last year, that number was less than half, 21.5 billion pieces.
The postcard is a relatively modern phenomenon. The first known picture postcard was mailed in England in 1840. Eight years later, postcards were sent in the States. In 1871, the first souvenir card was posted from Vienna. However, it wasn’t until 1893 that the souvenir card–commemorating the World’s Columbian Expo in Chicago–was first mailed.
In a way, this looming obsolescence represents the death of a small, but treasured, part of me. I come from a family of travelers and postcard writers. My parents took me on my first trip to Cognac, France when I was a few months old, and from there, our explorations expanded across Europe, the Caribbean, Central and South America, the South Pacific and beyond.
As soon I could write, I was writing postcards with my mother. Sometimes the process was arduous–like when we were on remote islands in Fiji or in the heart of Venezuela’s rainforest. Still, we tracked down the cards and a place from which to mail them.
We went through this process so we could share our experiences, impart a few interesting tidbits and–maybe most importantly–somehow reassure the recipients that even though were were in some exotic place doing some amazing stuff, we were still thinking about them and wishing they were there with us. Later, seeing that card on someone’s mantel or on their fridge was a validation of their appreciation.
Just a few days ago, my basement flooded, damaging four decades worth of correspondence (including hundreds, if not thousands of postcards) stored down there. Going through the boxes to discard waterlogged papers, I uncovered postcards from around the world–Mexico, Paris, the Greek island of Corfu, London, Vanuatu, New Zealand, Honduras, Japan, Cameroon and elsewhere. Sent to me by family and friends, they were rich with funny anecdotes of unbelievable mishaps, hair-raising details of crazy experiences, unfettered insights into their emotional state and little moments that reminded the writer of me.
It was sad to have to throw so many of them away, but it was a reminder that travel is the ultimate transient experience in life. Each postcard was a tiny, memorialization of the traveler’s time exploring the world and themselves. Oftentimes when I’m posting to social media, I write for a wide audience and hide parts of myself that I would only share with my dearest friends and relatives–the very people to whom I used to send postcards.