Opinion: The postcard is not dead

May 29, 2013 in Comment, General

© Rupert Besley for procartoonists.org

Procartoonists member Rupert Besley takes a look at a much-loved old form for cartooning: the postcard

In 1899 a Norwegian cruise ship doing the coastline despatched 20,000 postcards in the course of one trip*. The unfortunate crewman charged with postmarking each stamp suffered blisters to the hand.

In 1903 the British alone sent 600 million postcards – and that excludes the number sold but then not mailed, collected in albums or stuffed in drawers. 1902-15 is generally hailed as the Golden Age of the Postcard.

Everyone was at it and the postman could call up to five times a day. A cautious estimate puts the number of postcards produced and sold worldwide in the years 1895-1920 as at least 200 to 300 billion (most of them now in my loft).

Those days are gone. There are quicker, easier, cheaper ways of keeping in touch. Email and the txt mssge have done for the postcard, as have Royal Mail and the Post Office, intent, it would seem, on killing off all forms of postal communication. Kicked in the teeth but not yet dead, the postcard won’t let go that easily. Miraculous revivals have happened before.

The first postcard craze came on the back of improved cheap printing, increased travel and the passing of laws that gave holidays to workers. By the 1920s the novelty had passed. Card sales slumped and publishers went out of business.

Then, in the 1970s, came a second Golden Age, thanks to better colour printing and a new wave of foreign travel. Holidaymakers liked to show they had gone one better than their neighbours on choice of destination.

Again, it would not last for ever. Not many people beyond the collector Martin Parr were keen in the 1990s to seek out tired images of dull places where parked cars had not moved or fashion changed for 30 years.

The history of postcards and cartoons © Rupert Besley for procartoonists.org

© Rupert Besley for procartoonists.org

In 1998 the company J Arthur Dixon finally closed, the postcard side of its business being acquired by John Hinde. Within a few years Hinde’s, too, gave up on postcards, turning instead to novelty gifts from the Far East.

Judge’s hit the rocks (receivership) in 1984, but continued in new hands on a more limited operation. Bamforth’s hit similar hard times. And yet … Royal Mail recently recorded more than 106 million postcards still passing through their system in a year, 10 million up on 2001. The humble pc may yet outlive the PC.

The postcard outscores new technology on several points. Gift or souvenir, it’s something physical and collectible, a permanent reminder. Stuck on shelves, perched on ledges, pinned on noticeboards, cards have staying-power.

They don’t even need posting to have an effect. Hans Fallada’s famous cat-and-mouse chase novel, translated as Alone in Berlin, is based on fact: from 1940, mysterious scrawled postcards appeared in the halls and stairwells of buildings, attacking the Nazi regime.

Rattled by the effects of this propaganda, the Gestapo took three years to find the perpetrators – not the major conspiracy it suspected but a modest, barely literate couple who had suffered family loss to the Nazi war machine. Gripping but grim. Postcards have that power.

Rupert Besley on Postcards and cartoons @_procartoonists.org

© Rupert Besley for procartoonists.org

Usually it’s a lighter message they send. In the 1950s my great-aunts lived together on virtually no income in a house unchanged since it was fitted out by their grandfather in the 1870s. On the walls hung dismal dark prints of battle scenes and death, from Nelson at Trafalgar to The Return from Inkerman.

But into the frame corners and front of each picture my aunts had inserted cheerful postcards guaranteed to raise a smile. Which brings me to cartoons (At last! – Ed). 

Thanks to Rupert from the scene setting and look out for part two of his postcards feature next week.

*Figures from An Entangled Object by B. Rogan, University of Oslo

1 response to Opinion: The postcard is not dead

  1. Interesting stuff, Rupert. From time to time I get messages/suggestions from the readers of the various niche interest mags I work for – mechanics, cars, sailing etc., telling me that my cartoons would make good postcards, but in every instance, the publishers have rejected the idea on the grounds of cost.

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