One Penny Post

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

 In photography’s infancy first came the carte-de-visite.  A fashionable gentleman would make a social call and leave his picture card on a silver tray in the parlor.  Then in the 1850s, after Napoleon iii posed for his formal portrait, they became all the rage.  During the Civil War, photographers documented families for posterity. The small albumen prints gained tremendous momentum as soldiers marched off to battle.  Millions were sold.  They were sent in great numbers at the height of European colonialism.

Carte-de-visites were the first fashion photography
The first postcard was mailed in the USA at that time.  Postcard collecting was spurred by the Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago.  Prior to 1898, only the US Post Office could manufacture postcards. The most prolific and inventive years of postcard design were from 1902-18.  This period is commonly referred to as “the Golden Age”.  In 1908 more than 677 million postcards were mailed.

Penny Postcard

When I was a kid you could mail a postcard for a penny—1¢. Now granted that was a long time ago but you have to admit you got a lot of service for $.01.  The printing of the stamp costs more than that.  There was a time when the postcard cost only a penny too.   Unfortunately along with the penny postcard, the art of writing a letter or postcard has also disappeared.

Communist Artform

Before email and targeted mailing lists, FACEBOOK, blogging, I used to send postcards to friends and potential clients from the far reaches of the globe.  It was a little piece of photographic art for about fifty cents.  I tracked down vintage black/white photographs, hokey scenics from remote giftshops, rescued an illimitable supply of visual puns, even mailed back bad photography if that was all I could find.  A labor of love.  It takes effort to find and buy and write and mail one and in that act a kind of alchemy occurs.  In some places my search for stamps was tantamount to a quest for the Holy Grail.  I often spent more time than was justifiable since I had to find a post office, stand in line and communicate what I was trying to do (and where) without the benefit of language.  Because I was functionally illiterate, I developed a sixth sense.  Question: o;hia fkj*f asd and df#gv?  My answer: USA?

    Postkarte (German), Tarjeta postal (Spanish), Vykort (Swedish), Pohlednice (Czech), Pocztówki (Polish), Briefkaart (Dutch)

In some environments the process of posting is its own challenge.  One time, at the last minute, my hotel had run out of stamps.  I bribed the concierge to track some down and mail my small stack after I had checked out.  Back home I held my breath.  There is something inherently optimistic about trusting that a stamp substitute will commandeer your expectations through the international mails.  They all arrived safely—weeks later—but they got there.

On different assignments I mailed postcards from behind the Iron Curtain, out of Africa, blockaded islands and Third World territories.  Slow telegrams.  When I schlepped my portfolio around, from time to time I would see my postcards tacked to art director’s walls.

In my book travel+PHOTOGRAPHY: Off the Charts I talk about my often limited schedule and, if I am in an unfamiliar city, how I will track down a shop where I can buy postcards.  I use them to guide me to the salient monuments and landmarks in the area so I can quickly shoot images with the card as reference.  Postcard venues have been vetted by the locals and represent the places most tourists want to see.  I collect the better ones and then mail the others off.

However in photography the phrase “looks like a postcard” has both good and bad connotations: Good in the sense that the place is idyllic and worthy of note, Bad because it is average, touristy, mediocre.


Deltiology is the study of and collecting postcards.  They are one of the top three collectibles in the world along with coins and stamps.  Retail is conducted, hidden in antique malls, mildewed church basements and obscure local auctions.  They satisfy our need to preserve these remnants from the scrap heap.  Like baseball, sports cards, there are conventions and fairs that buy/sell/trade.  On any Sunday you will find collectors pawing through boxes and boxes of moldy, old cardboard with hundreds of other geeks searching for that perfect “find”, rescuing an overlooked treasure from obscurity.  On the rare occasion that happens, then the bargaining begins.

The staggering volume of ephemera one sees on eBay and in flea markets and in every gift shop on the planet provides a clear sense of how common the urge once was and how durable it remains.  Illegible handwritten messages decorate and add to the value.  Postmarks are sought by some collectors and those inscribed by famous people even more so.


Irrespective of the handwritten text on the back, postcards tell stories: past, present and future; about journeys, their senders and their origins.  Even the stamps have a story to tell.  Postcards are ephemeral pieces of visual culture.  They are commonly perceived as the most quotidian form of communication.  They are a low cost, non-threatening, disposable medium.  The fast food, drive-thru of advertising.  Hotels give them away.  Souvenir shops sell them for cheap.  Yet they are priceless for the memories they invoke.


Postcards provide proof of travel, often proof of the exotic.  They make foreign locations seem attainable.  They verify real adventure and inflame the pedestrian ones.  The typical postcard suggests perfection but perfection does not exist.  So the postcard is often a “little white lie”.  Travelers send postcards to shock people at home, tempt them, make friends envious.  Oneupsmanship.  Postcards are the poetry of the casual traveler.  Efficient.

To mail back a postcard is to put your brand on a new “possession”, your imprint—marking your territory.  We collect new places and prove it with a postcard.  Locals do not use postcards.  It is purely a tourist thing, like pith helmets and photo vests.

In today’s world of high powered WiFi, email and FedEx, postcards are a throwback.  They are like downmarket Rand Mcnally in this new world of Google Maps.  They conjure up a place in a manner that technology has rendered obsolete.  Nobody writes anymore.  A postcard is to a letter as a tweet is to an email.  Besides they are not an accurate view of anywhere.  They straighten out the curves and wrinkles of any destination.

To collectors the most sought after types are called Real Photo Postcards, RPPCs.  No subject has been safe from being featured.  Nudity, racism, crime, dead bodies, politics, advertising.  The “most popular” scenic pre 1910 was Niagara Falls.  Large sized postcards are called Continental.  Those cancelled in the US prior to 1 July 1898 are called Pioneer.  A fad placing the postage stamp on the same side as the image was termed timbre cote vu.  The phrase informed authorities that the stamp was on the view side.

My collection now numbers in the thousands.  I only keep photographs—RPPCs.  One of my first was push pinned to a cork bulletin board over my desk from a cross country trip as a Boy Scout.  A polychrome rectangle ornamented with graphics and a caption on back reminding me of where I had been.  Fat, uppercase letters adorn the picture side and offer up GREETINGS from NEW MEXICO.  Part of a photo is outlined by each letter of the state name.  A cactus in the “E”, adobe surrounded by the “M”, the “X” held the state flag.  Conspicuously there are no Indians.  It was a different time.

Wish you were here.


Anonymous,  May 11, 2012 at 9:31 AM  

You are obviously a sociologist! And what a terrific unobtrusive way to study social patterns and to give us a window on history. Our descendants surely will not get this by viewing our electronic birthday cards.
Mike Radelet
Boulder Colorado

Cemal Ekin November 12, 2013 at 2:10 PM  

Walker Evans would have approved! I used to visit an old neighbor when I was a kid, her father served as postmaster in Baghdad. She had hundreds of postcards from the Ottoman era, two suitcases filled with them. Like a dope, I did not take any despite the fact that she offered as many as I wanted. Youth!

Anonymous,  November 13, 2013 at 12:34 PM  

And with your work in "Final Exposure," you know that not everyone can e-mail, Facebook, or use smoke signals. A quick postcard to a prison inmate can become that inmate's summer vacation -- surreptitiously enjoying the picture and letting his mind, at least, escape for a bit from the dungeon.
--Mike Radelet

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blog (blŏg, bläg) n. 1. short for Weblog 2. online personal journal with reflections, comments, and often hyperlinks provided by the writer 3. diary that is posted on the Internet 4. an experiment to verbalize my observations about the status of photography. It will be eclectic & deal with philosophy & practice of this universal art form. It will strive for periodic commentary about issues many photographers face, like ownership and the economy. It will also talk about pictures and what makes good ones and how to get them. No hardware. No software. No recycled clichés. No whining.