‘Wish you were here’: 145 years since the first postcard

On this day, 145 years ago, the British public were first introduced to the postcard. As eagerly anticipated as the latest technology upgrades are today, 75 million were sent in the first year alone. 

However, they were a far cry from the ‘Wish You Were Here’ holiday scenes which primarily make up today’s postcards. Instead they were rather dull: the address was written on one side with the reverse left blank for the message. No other writing was allowed on the address side in case it obscured the address and led to the item being incorrectly delivered. Moreover, the postcard was introduced to benefit businesses as a time saving device rather than to share tales of holiday adventures. Mr Lundy of the North British Colour Company in Leith argued that a postcard:

“would save a vast amount of trouble…to the Post Office & also a large amount of valuable time which is daily wasted by large firms like ourselves who have many envelopes to open covering information which really is of no consequence as to whom it may be read by.”[1]

Original postcard design - no exactly the most thrilling thing to receive in the post

Original postcard design – no exactly the most thrilling thing to receive in the post!

By 1890 both publishers and the public were eager to make better use of the postcard. They suggested the introduction of a divided back, in other words, confining the address, if wished, to just a half of a side freeing up the rest of a card for a drawing or a longer message. Eventually the Post Office agreed on the condition that any extra designs or remarks did not “Lead to any practical embarrassment of the Officers of the Post Office” and so in 1894, the picture postcard was born.

Sample postcards produced when discussing the introduction of the divided back postcard and halfpenny postage rate

Sample postcards produced when discussing the introduction of the divided back postcard and halfpenny postage rate

Soon cartoons and photographs adorned the fronts of postcards which were now very much the piece of social mail that we know today. With the turn of the new century in 1900 the craze for sending and collecting postcards went into overdrive. From country landscapes to cheeky seaside scenes, from political cartoons to photographs of major events the picture postcard was used the country over to share news, opinions and events, broadening people’s knowledge of the country and the world.

Postcard printed with a comedic scene of a man crashing his car.  Reverse is stamped and bears a message addressed to Miss K. Jenkins. Postmark on reverse is 1905, but on the front the postmark is 1985.

Postcard printed with a comedic scene of a man crashing his car.
Reverse is stamped and bears a message addressed to Miss K. Jenkins. Postmark on reverse is 1905, but on the front the postmark is 1985.

Whilst a picture might paint a thousand words, the messages on postcards were still an important aspect. As an open form of communication postcards can be fascinating objects. Looking back at postcards written decades ago the messages they carry can often seem cryptic if you were not the sender or receiver.  For example, one postcard in our collection sent to Miss M. Bright just says ‘How many ghosts did you meet last night. Will this do for your collection’ My imagination immediately conjures up a scene whereby Miss Bright is an Edwardian ghostbuster! The impact of the postcard as a more open form of communication is still felt today, whether we realise it or not, in the many texts and tweets we send around the world.

A very

A very spooky postcard…

But people also developed a myriad of ways to convey messages privately on postcards that the interested eye of the postman wouldn’t see.  This could be through the message itself, written perhaps in mirror writing or in a coded alphabet, or sometimes in an adaptation to the postcard itself. For example many people starting ‘tilting’ the stamp, leading to many variations known as The Language of Stamps. As with the Language of Fans the position of the stamp could convey a plethora of meanings, from ’I love you’ to ‘I don’t want to see you again’, it was adapted many times over.

Postcards showing the 'Language of Stamps'

Postcards showing the ‘Language of Stamps’

I hope this brief outline of the origins of postcards 145 years ago will inspire you to keep sending postcards to friends and family across the world and perhaps next time you send one, you’ll tilt your stamp or use your own secret message.

– Emma Harper, Curator

[1] The Royal Mail Archive, BPMA, POST 30/319A

4 responses to “‘Wish you were here’: 145 years since the first postcard

  1. A lovely article about a lovely hobby! Unfortunately, the smart technology of our times takes very quickly the place of sending postcards or letters, but, fortunately, still exists people like you who keep this hobby alive. Congratulations for your hard work! Best wishes! Catalin

  2. A lovely article about a lovely hobby! Unfortunately, the smart technology of our times takes very quickly the place of sending postcards or letters. Fortunately, still exist people like you who keep this hobby alive. Congratulations for your hard work! Catalin

  3. So interesting! Can you refer me to a similar resource for the history of postcards in America? Jan Ostrom, Eureka CALIF. Thank you.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s