The first postcards were produced in the middle of the nineteenth century, and throughout the next century, hundreds of billions of them were mailed all over the world.
There were 667 million traded by Americans between June 1907 and June 1908. The astounding pervasiveness of postcards, according to author Lydia Pyne, made them the “world’s first social network.”
Postcards were used for advertising (hotels, restaurants, and many other types of enterprises all printed their own), propaganda (organizations would design ones imprinted with political statements), and of course travel (tourists picked them up both to mail out and to take home as souvenirs).
Postcards were mailed from faraway places and obscure locations equally, and they included images of small-town high schools and one-stoplight crossroads in addition to popular tourist attractions like the Egyptian pyramids and Niagara Falls.
The cost of the cards themselves and the shipping they needed was low. The cost of postcard stamps was fixed at one penny in 1898 and remained the same until the middle of the 20th century.
Postcards sent brief and succinct messages — a hello, a holiday greeting, or a promise to write more later.
They included a picture on the front and space on the reverse for simply the recipient’s address and a few lines from the writer.
Postcards served as an easy and visually beautiful ping to let people know where each other were at any given time.
Around World War I, the popularity of postcards skyrocketed. Their use gradually decreased with the introduction of smartphones, email, and social media, followed by portable cameras, quick film development, and eventually phones. These days, they are far more difficult to find and infrequently traded.
A postcard has minimalism built right into the format. There isn’t a lot of time required. You don’t need to be imaginative. You are not required to offer a detailed account of your life. All that has to be done is to provide the textual equivalent of a hand wave. Practically the entire message is contained in the act of mailing the postcard.