Dispatch from the golden age of postcards

sunflower postcard

I’ve been looking at a lot of old postcards lately. I found my dad’s collection up in the attic: several thousand postcards, going back to the beginning of the 20th century. Turns out that it was once very common to write things on the front, as we encourage people to do for Postal Poetry. Originally, the U.S. Post Office didn’t allow anything besides the address on the back, so the front was the only place where one could add a personal message. Depending on the quality of the sender’s penmanship, sometimes the effect is almost reminiscent of a classic East Asian painting, with calligraphy encroaching on the subject. This practice continued for a while after the advent of postcards with divided backs in 1907. “The Golden Age of American postcards […] lasted until about 1915, when World War I blocked the import of the fine German-printed cards,” according to the Wikipedia.

Here’s a card my Great Great Aunt Mildred Albertson, a Methodist missionary, sent from Japanese-occupied Korea (though it depicts Kobe, Japan) in October 1907.

1908 postcard from Kobe, Japan

The message says, in part, “Every thing seems so different here from home. I feel like a baby in every sense of the word. Have a teacher, and am studying the language. Have not heard from any of home folks yet.”

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11 Comments


  1. Writing DOES look better when it’s illegible or out of place. Several years back, I and a couple of friends had a good time seeing what else we could scribble on, stamp, and send through the mail, sans packaging. Bananas, in hindsight, were a bad idea — they never reached their destination. An old tennis shoe had better luck. My personal favorite, aesthetically speaking, was a golden delicious apple, mailed off successfully to Nacogdoches, TX. I still write on apples from time to time, though less than I should. Maybe now I’ll pick up the habit again.

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  2. Oh, I love GGA Mildred’s postcard. Makes me want to poke around in the family attics.

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  3. Did you ever try to send any wasp nest through the post?

    Does this mean, I wonder, that the composition of the images on postcards were influenced by the need to have a portion of “writable” space?

    What a fantastic resource that box must be.

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  4. marja-leena – Yes, but all but a few hundred of them are unexciting as pictures, and many also lack messages – they weren’t all sent through the post. Still, there are some gems, and we plan to feature a few as found poems in the coming weeks and months at Postal Poetry, and maybe also borrow some of the images for future contests.

    Nathan – Yes, intelligibility is a bit over-rated – or so the aficionadoes of Chinese and Japanese calligraphy have always felt. I must admit, though, i spent more than an hour fussing over fonts for my “card” above before I was able to convince myself that a less-than-totally-legible cursive font was the best fit.

    If you manage to get a piece of fruit to our post office box at postal poetry – complete with a poem, of course – I’m sure my co-editor would be willing to take a snapshot of it to post on the site.
    Postal Poetry
    11410 NE 124th St. #459
    Kirkland WA 98034-4305

    Theriomorph – Hey, knowing a little bit about your family history, I’ll bet that would turn up some great finds!

    evve – Took me a second to figure out what you meant by wasp nests. No, but back in their beekeeping days, my parents used to get live honeybees by mail. Boy did that ever make the folks at the post office nervous!

    Most of the several dozen pre-1907 postcards in my dad’s collection do seem to have wide margins for writing in, or just lots of sky, yes.

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  5. I’m hitting my parents’ attic this Thanksgiving. Thanks for the inspiration.

    Nathan’s comment helps me understand my attraction to much modern advertising containing scribbling in odd places. [Hey, I did three *ing’s in a row.]

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  6. Thanks for that vintage image: it is my new desktop image!

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  7. Nathan:
    My sister had an accounting teacher at Mt Clemens High School that made a dramatic point each year by writing a ten dollar check to “Cash” on a watermelon and presenting it to one of the students.

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  8. Theriomorph – Hey, knowing a little bit about your family history, I’ll bet that would turn up some great finds!

    Bats. No wait, that’s belfries. In fact, I do remember a post card from my grandmother about squirrels running around in the ceiling of the VT farm and driving her crazy. (All is explained.)

    : )

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  9. Love those soft photographic tints on your aunt’s card too, I always liked those. I’ve seen old cards here which had the stamp on the front as well.

    Nathan’s writing on an apple reminds me of the custom at my infant school of the teacher looking after the break snacks kids brought in, and the names having to be biroed on the apples’ skins. It always bothered me!

    Did you sit that ragdoll sunflower on that deckchair, or did you find it there?

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  10. Yes, I like the mix of images with words in these functional little items. They do evoke other, more intentionally artistic things…

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