Why we still drop a card

The internet whisks images and texts around the globe nearly instantaneously. But after 150 years the common postcard still holds its own unique appeal.

Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters/File
Some 100,000 postcards with messages against climate change, sent by young people from all over the world, are displayed on Europe's longest glacier, the Aletschgletscher, near Jungfraujoch, Switzerland, in 2018.

Sliding a postcard into a mailbox to plod through the postal system would seem to be an antique idea when visual apps like Instagram, Snapchat, and Marco Polo can show others what you’re seeing instantaneously.

But the 150th anniversary of the first postal system to adopt these simple pieces of cardboard (Austria, 1869) seems to have sparked a revival. Or maybe it just highlights that when new technologies appear they don’t always drive out old ones.

Postcards tell most of their story visually with the briefest of messages on the opposite side. The tiny space for writing relieves the sender of the burden of long storytelling. “I’m thinking of you” is the hidden and powerful narrative. 

While digital photos sometimes can be nothing short of spectacular, postcards send another message: They’re actual things. “This was once held in my hand. It’s a bit of stuff that was with me and I chose for you.” They bear the “fingerprint” of the sender: a rare handwritten message, whether in elegant swirls or messy scrawl.

How many people bother to print out and display a Facebook image? Postcards end up in privileged places on corkboards, desktops, and refrigerator doors.

A website called Postcrossing, created in 2005 by a young Portuguese man, Paulo Magalhães, has made it easy to exchange postcards with people all over the world. After registering their address, people pick the address of someone else on the site and send a card. Though they send a postcard to that person, they receive one from someone else. The result: a surprise smile found amid a day’s junk mail.

“It’s like [you] have friends from all over the world. Although you don’t know each other, everyone who sent you a postcard has a special place in your heart. It’s [an] amazing feeling!” writes Julia in Ukraine in a testimonial on the website. “It has made me realize that there is so much kindness around the world, and I am thankful for this. I have come across many nice people. It makes me very happy!!” adds Martha in Mexico.

The site now claims more than 785,000 members in 209 countries who together have sent nearly 55 million cards. Some individuals have collected thousands from places both iconic (New York, Paris, or London) and remote (the Pitcairn Islands or Macau).

Postcards display almost any kind of image, from world-famous landmarks to local oddities, the artwork of Renaissance masters to obscure favorites. The brief messages offer news of families, hobbies, work, or pets, whatever makes the person who they are. 

Postcards can send people’s thoughts traveling thousands of miles without the need to get on a plane. To loved ones they say “wish you were here” – whether the words actually appear or not.

It’s a message gratefully received any day of the week.

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