If you’re not familiar with postcards—and that’s not as ridiculous a thought as it may sound!—then it’s likely you’ve wondered about their purpose.
The very idea of the postcard has been in existence since the birth of the postal service. They’ve been created and recreated every time a country has decided it needed a way to get correspondence to citizens within and outside its borders. Affordability of mail has also always been a concern.
And that’s exactly where postcards come into play.
A Brief History of the Postcard
In the United States, the earliest example of a postcard was a piece of advertising that was sent in 1848. In the United Kingdom, it was writer Theodore Hook that sent himself a caricature of postal workers in 1840.
Austria-Hungary issued its first postcards in 1869, based on an idea proposed by a Dr. Emanuel Herrmann. They caught on very quickly. Britain followed with its own official postcards in 1870 that they based on Hungary’s model. The main benefit in every case was the cost: sending a postcard was inevitably cheaper than a regular letter—sometimes half the price!
That’s why they caught on so quickly. In the early days, postcards didn’t have pictures on them—there were lines or a blank space for the address, and then sometimes someplace to write a note. They didn’t start having pictures on them until the 1890s, and that’s about when collectability (and popularity) soared.
Postcards Are Small Pieces of History
Vintage postcards represent a wealth of information about the past.
We can learn about fashions and events, locations and people. There are postcards for just about everything: cat breeds, political comics, current (for the period) events, even towns and their attractions.
Anyone that isn’t familiar with Ontario Place, for example, could learn a bit about what it looked like and why it existed from souvenir postcards. Metro Toronto Zoo also had postcards showing the monorail, which was shut down in 1994. If you didn’t grow up with it, you didn’t know it existed beyond overgrown tracks and ruins. Collecting these postcards helps preserve that history for future generations, when it could otherwise be lost.
There was even a time when postcards represented a cheap way of advertising your business or product to the masses, and I have found examples from the early 20th century showing off things as simple as laundry soap. During the 1990s it was so common to get advertising postcards that much of that mail went in the trash!
For many of us, postcards represent a way to reach out and touch the past, and to remember what came before us.
How Are Postcards Used in 2024?
Once again, postcards are becoming a viable way of advertising as mass printing costs go down and people look for new ways to tell people about their products. It’s easy to be overlooked on social media and the internet, plus, online advertising can be expensive.
Sometimes prohibitively so.
Canada Post makes deals with businesses all the time to get their advertising materials out in the mail (a business account for Canada Post is free and grants several useful discounts). We don’t get quite as much junk mail as we used to, after all.
People still collect postcards, they can still be purchased to mail out or just hold on to. Some people use vintage postcards in their crafts—hello, friends!—and several local museums keep them on hand as part of their collection. A postcard of a long-gone historic site is still an important record that the place existed.
Why Do People Collect Postcards?
One of the best things about collecting postcards is that it isn’t an expensive hobby to get into. Once you figure out what sorts of pieces you’re after—maybe they tie into your interest in local history, maybe you like postcards of cats!—all you have to do is look for them. They can be found at fleamarkets, antique stores, online stores, eBay, even auctions. I have been buying postcards online for years, for example, and I’ve paid as little as $2.00 for 15 pieces.
My last batch of 100-year-old ephemera and greeting cards was purchased as part of a lot where the main attraction was an antique lockbox, for example. You just never know.
The prices go up as you seek out more specific cards, rarer pieces, older ones—but it’s up to you how deep you go and how much you want to spend.
Some collect them because it’s an easy way to get our hands on unique pieces of art without breaking the bank, some do it just because they like them. There are as many reasons to collect as there are subjects, and if you aren’t into the old stock, many modern artists put their work on postcards, too.
I hope I’ve helped clear up any confusion about what postcards are used for, and if you have any other questions about postcards, why not contact me? I’m always happy to help.