Postcards - The Original Social Media

This article was originally published in the Grand Haven Tribune in November 2014 written by Mereidth Meyer, Collections Manager

Before the advent of email, cell phone pictures, and text messaging, the best way to share the experience of a vacation or trip with others was to send them a postcard. It is a picture perfect view that captures the atmosphere of a place with a quickly scrawled note to remind loved ones they are not forgotten. It's no wonder that despite technology we still exchange postcards.

The development of postcards as we know them, even the spelling, evolved over the course of a century. Precursors of the postcard were envelopes printed with pictures of comic figures, Valentines, and music called postal cards, postals, post cards, and eventually today's accepted spelling – postcard. It was not without some barriers, though, that the use of postcards became accepted. The Post Office regulations required an envelope for all correspondence, and there were concerns about the propriety of messages on cards that anyone could read. The convenience and affordability eventually outweighed any apprehensions as travel became more popular. The completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 made nationwide tourism possible, and postcards became a way for cities to advertise and entice travelers to visit.

In May of 1873, the U.S. Post Office issued America's first penny postal card after recognizing its potential popularity. The simple penny post was sold at U.S. Post Offices throughout the country for the next 78 years.

The first cards made available as souvenirs were on sale at the 1893 Columbia Exposition in Chicago. Postage for these first souvenir cards was two cents, one cent more than the government printed postal cards. Eventually public pressure led to an Act of Congress in 1898 that ended the Post Office 'monopoly' and granted permission to sell cards to the general public that could be mailed for one cent as well.

By 1895, the advancement in the printing trade allowed the economical manufacture of view cards that had a picture on one side and limited space for a message and address on the opposite side. In 1907, the divided back card was introduced, and is what we today consider a typical postcard. With the advent of this design, soon every town and tourist stop had postcards of their local scenes. Liberties were taken, often being tinted with bright colors or painting clouds or flags where they didn't exist to make the scene more appealing. Real photo postcards replaced tinted ones and many cards were saved as personal reminders of the trip and weren't even mailed. Deltiology, or the collecting of postcards, is now the third largest collectable hobby in the world, surpassed only by coin and stamp collecting.

The Tri-Cities Historical Museum has an incredible and diverse collection of over 500 postcards that have been generously donated. These images were sent to friends and family in order to convey the atmosphere and sense of the Tri-Cities, and thankfully have been preserved so that we can understand the changing flavor of our community over the course of the last100 years.

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