When I was a kid, I loved to buy postcards from places along the route of my family’s dreaded annual road trip. This was 1980s America, so most of the postcards—unless they were vintage-inspired or found at thrift stores—had no charm and reeked of boosterism. They offered little visual delight, but the ones that didn’t make it back home to friends via the U.S. Postal Service served as great bookmarks, some of which I still use to this day.
Video may have killed the radio star, but e-mail definitely killed letter writing worldwide. Just look at the financial trouble the U.S. Postal Service is currently experiencing—their customer base is, in essence, dying off with each generation that graduates to paying bills and sending letters electronically. Yet somehow postcards, like vinyl, are experiencing a renaissance.
After perusing the monograph from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston’s current exhibition “The Postcard Age,” compiled from Leonard Lauder’s magnificent collection of 19th- and 20th-century postcards, I was inspired to try an experiment. I walked along Hollywood Boulevard, in the heart of chintzy downtown Hollywood, and browsed through scores of shops, up and down the street, selling mass-produced postcards. It was like they had never gone out of style. There were so many to choose from, and so many unusual ones too—some old, some new. Most of them were uninspired, gaudy, and poorly manufactured. Yet, in the age of texting, tablets, and smartphones equipped with Facetime and Skype, there is something charming about their very existence.
After my Hollywood experiment, I phoned my friend and colleague Jim Heimann to discuss the art of postcards. Heimann is a writer, a historian specializing in 20th-century pop culture, and the longtime executive editor of Taschen Books. (I currently work as an editor at Taschen.) He began his career in design and illustration in the late 1960s and, to this day, he maintains one of the most impressive collections of printed Americana I’ve ever seen: matchbooks, postcards, menus, you name it—Heimann has scoured flea markets for five decades amassing this stuff.
When I mentioned my Hollywood Boulevard sojourn, he laughed. “No collectors are interested in contemporary postcards for the reason you just explained. It’s been that way since the ’60s. And now that you mention it, why even deal with a postcard? Everybody has a camera or video camera on their smartphone to record their vacations.”
The modern postcard era begins around 1889 through 1893. In 1889, the Eiffel Tower is unveiled—a great time to make postcards. In 1893, Chicago’s World’s Fair opens, the White City. Although they’re made for mailing practical communications, were postcards so successful because of their visual appeal?
The primary thing about postcards was to refresh your memory about the places that you had been to, but also to send photographs to people to let them know where you had been. If they went on a world tour, to Europe, or the next county, they could send a note saying, “Wish you were here.”
Certainly the visual aesthetic was primary, but they were really for notations and you kept them, which a lot of people did. They would put them in notebooks and it would be the chronicle of their tour. Photography wasn’t that accessible at the time so it was much easier to get a postcard, and people would collect them.
So it was like bragging rights in a simpler time?
For sure, but a lot of times people would pick up a postcard and send it to someone to let them know they had arrived safely somewhere. If you look at the back of a lot of these postcards, you’ll see things written like, “Dear Henry, Arrived safely in California. It’s wonderful here. Will write more.” Or, “My new address is …”
Sometimes the image on the front didn’t make any difference, or it did make a difference. California was all orange groves and they wanted to show people—so, yeah, there was a little bit of bragging rights there, but sometimes people would just pick them up without regard to what was on the front, because really it was about communication.
The Hungarian Empire was the first in a series of countries or regions to approve sending postcards through the mail. But I have to imagine it was just a novelty at the time—that you could send this freestanding note without an envelope, and it was far cheaper than sending a letter.
Sending postcards was very common. They also saved on telephone bills, and it was just a handy way to communicate with people. Back in the day, in the States, it was only a penny. Of course you have to put that in respect to the rest of the economy. If you’re making 10 cents or 25 cents an hour, a penny postcard is affordable but not terribly cheap. Nowadays what is a penny?
A useless currency.
Exactly. The penny postcard was certainly cheaper than a letter, and it was also a very concise way to send out information. The other thing you have to understand, too, with postcards is that the quality of printing really accelerated at the end of the 19th century. That’s one thing where, because of the quality of the postcard, they got to be really interesting. That’s why you get a lot of these marked cards. Also the postal service went on to become an international conglomerate where you could mail something from Morocco and it would end up in Chicago. That was something that hadn’t happened before, until all these little postal organizations formed a way to do that so you could have this worldwide way to communicate. It would go from one place to the next and somehow end up at its destination. In 1902 there were one million postcards sent from German post offices alone.
What is it about a postcard that compels you to collect it?
My interest in collecting postcards is twofold. One is aesthetics. The images, especially from the 1930s, were so evocative of that era and the printing process, and they were just really beautiful cards. A lot of them featured architectural elements or World’s Fairs, so that aspect is really appealing. The other thing that drove my collecting was the information you could find on these postcards, from the images of the places that are no longer here. So when I was working on the book on drive-in restaurants, I was looking for postcards because some of these drive-ins never had any publicity or ads; their only imagery would be on a postcard.
Of all the stuff you collect, do you have more postcards than anything else?
Oh no. I think it’s the menus. I have 5,000 menus. I don’t know if I have 5,000 postcards, but I have a lot. With any kind of collecting, everybody has a specific thing they focus on. In the postcard area, for me it was all about collecting stuff that was related to Southern California.
What are the standouts to you in this book?
There are a lot of standouts. The Russian Constructivist selections are pretty amazing, and some of the advertising cards. I’m less inclined to like the women stuff. There’s a market for that stuff, too. It depends on the style and so on, but any of the cards that were beautifully designed. European advertising posters were often used as postcards. The Germans were great at doing really bold, clean graphics, and a lot of those found their way onto postcards. That stuff is really expensive.
So these are not the kinds of cards you would stumble upon at the swap meets?
Periodically. If you find a big book of postcards, there might be some of these valuable ones stuffed in there, but they’re going to jack the price up on all this material because they know those are more art cards. At postcard shows you’ll find lots of good stuff, but it’s going to be very pricey, and there are some European dealers that show up at the local postcard shows. There’s always a guy at the local L.A. one who comes from Amsterdam, and he brings all these European cards. European cards are very different than American cards.
What are some differences?
I would say the artwork—not so much with the real photo cards, when they’re just taking pictures of towns. But when you get into the advertising realm, there’s a much different graphic design style. It’s subtle and sophisticated, as opposed to the American cards that just kind of pop at you and are very in-your-face. There’s a little bit more of a lyrical feel to the European postcards, and of course it parallels all these art movements—Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Arts and Crafts. All of those are reflected a little more in the European cards than they are in the American cards. Then it kind of switches over in the ’30s—I think the American cards become more interesting.
Some of what stood out to me were the transportation cards—the beginning of commercial airliners, even the train lines that used to be common terms, like the 20th-Century Limited, which ran from New York to Chicago and back.
Right. These days, how often do you see advertising for airlines? They don’t have to because that is the only form of travel that people do. It’s a captive audience. Why would you spend millions on a campaign to get someone on your airline? There is competition, but most people just go on one of the travel sites and find the cheapest flight. You’re not going to be convinced because Virgin is cool and United isn’t. That [kind of advertising] really dipped once jet travel took off. And often a lot of the postcards for trains were reproductions of posters that hung at train stations and travel bureaus. They also made calendars out of them. The postcard was really a kind of fourth tier for advertising. It was just something that was handy. You could write your postcard while on the train and when it stopped, you could drop it at the station’s post office.
Now we have social networks and you can post it on Facebook or Twitter in five minutes.
Instagram. If you look at somebody like Hallmark, they’re slowly cutting printing plants because people aren’t buying greeting cards anymore. Vast swaths of the population aren’t sending any, either. In a perverse way, sending something by mail becomes a premium because no one takes the time to do it, so when you do get something from someone in the mail, it all of a sudden has a much higher value than an e-mail. People rarely send a postcard these days, and like you said it’s more for kitsch value than anything. And from the collecting side of it, the collector’s market has subsided in the last 40 years because it’s just not interesting. There’s no real artwork involved. It’s not clever. There’s nothing to compare to today.
The author of this book has pretty good taste in his postcards and he’s kind of grouped them according to categories and chapters. They’re beautiful, just perfect little gems.
“The Postcard Age” is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, through April 14, 2013.
J.C. Gabel is the founder of STOP SMILING magazine, the editorial director of The Chicagoan, and the editor and publisher of Hat & Beard Press. Born and raised in Chicago, he works as an editor at Taschen and lives in Los Angeles.
Jim Heimann is the executive editor of Taschen and the author of dozens of books. He was born and raised in Los Angeles, and he had an extension built on to his house to store and catalog his endless ephemeral finds.