After hearing the news that Britain’s oldest postcard publisher is ceasing business at the end of 2018, we’re feeling nostalgic.
The power of postcards goes far beyond a somewhat snail-paced way of keeping in touch when on holiday, both historically and today.
We explore how postcards have made an impact on the world and continue to, even in the immediacy of the digital age.
The background of the postcard
The postcard publisher that’s closing its doors is J Salmon of Kent, a family-run business that, along with its competitors, has been producing the little rectangular cards since the 1890s. J Salmon’s biggest rival, John Hinde, stopped producing postcards four years ago, but at its peak in the 1960s sold 50-60 million postcards a year.
The appeal of postcards has always been that they’re a personal, hand-written message from a loved one far away – the fact it’s hard to travel miles to get to the recipient makes it special. There’s no denying that sending postcards is a dying art, but because of this, collecting postcards – or deltiology – is becoming more popular. The appeal to collectors is that a postcard is a tangible memento that won’t get lost in the digital ether.
How social has taken over
The small minority who do still send postcards enjoy using the art of writing and portraying feelings in a way that social media holiday posts can’t. But one of the biggest drawbacks of sending a postcard is that often you arrive home before the postcard did. Social media has taken over as our primary form of contacting friends and family while on holiday, as ultimately we crave immediacy. We’ve all been guilty of hovering on the post to see who likes or reacts to it first.
As well as posting pictures and holiday updates on Facebook and Instagram, WhatsApp, Skype and Facetime provide free ways of keeping in touch with those back home in an instant. You can be on holiday, video chatting as the kids jump in the pool behind you, or even post a live video of you bombing into the pool when you arrive.
What all of these social updates have in common is that they’re about the giver and not the receiver. They’re a form of self-promotion – ‘Look at me I’m somewhere exotic’, or ‘Don’t I have an amazing tan?’ The key difference is that a postcard is a way of letting someone specific know you’re thinking about and missing them, with your heartfelt words.
Often social posts will just have a single line descriptor or a generic accompanying hashtag. Even if you tag your best mate in the post, you lose the personal element as all your other online friends can see the message. In the same way, photos on social aren’t targeted to an individual, but staged to capture the best angle and smile, as we know they’ll be posted online to a large audience.
Similarities with the online world
While postcards and social media are very different in their speed and reach, it’s uncanny how similar the formats actually are – perhaps Facebook even took some pointers from J Salmon. Firstly, they’re both highly image-focused forms of communication. Where a postcard might lead with its landscape holiday scene, now we snap the picture our self and share it on Instagram. And modern-day Facebook memes share a lot in common with comedy seaside postcard sketches.
Looking wider across the internet, the small size of postcards forces you to be concise in your writing in the same way that producing copy for online and mobile does. Due to the interactive nature of social media, this has of course been taken a step further, with more to-the-point one-liners.
Modern day applications of the postcard
Here are a few reasons why the art of the postcard isn’t dead.
Personalised photo postcards
Companies like Funky Pigeon have taken the concept of the postcard and brought it into the modern age. You can order postcards online from anywhere in the world, write a special message to someone, add your best holiday snap and send it direct to their door in no time. Okay, so it’s not instant like social, but postcard devotees will love the chance to get creative and keep it personal, sending a different card to each of their loved ones.
A direct marketing tool
One of the few times you’ll receive a postcard now is when a company is trying to sell you something, and have purchased your address on a mailing list. And while you may only glance at the postcard quickly, the message is instantly seen and, as it’s short, will often be read in full. At the very least, direct mail postcards will widen brand recognition, and potentially increase interest in the company or service.
This harks back to original postcards, which were invented as a low-cost and convenient form of business mail that the busy recipient wouldn’t have to open. They, likewise, had a stamp printed on the postcard and included in the price.
A teaching resource
In the modern age, some teachers are using postcards as an educational reward tool to encourage pupils to write more. In return for writing the teacher a well-formulated letter, they write back a postcard with positive feedback on it. This teaches that writing can be meaningful, fun, and personal. The small size of the postcard means the teacher’s feedback only need take a few minutes, but is tailored to that child and can be kept as inspiration.
The power of the written word used in postcards rings true in the digital world, as the choice of words is important in an online world awash with content.
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