The surprising origin of the postcard & how sending a card is participating in history!

Bird cards on a windowsill

The postcard has been around for over 150 years.

And whether you’re sending one from your travels in far away lands, for someone’s special birthday or just sharing some awesome memories with the person you made them with, the postcard can do no wrong.

It connects two people in a gorgeously nostalgic way.

With the perfect design on the front and a heartfelt note on the back, you can never go wrong with sending someone a card.

This humble medium has seen many changes – and even some resistance!

The postcard’s predecessor.

The history of the postcard looks a little different in every country though, on the whole, the development shared a lot of traits.

The German Customs Union was founded in 1834 to improve economic conditions in the smaller states of the German Confederation (1813-1866).

By standardising weights and currencies it became possible to better compare services that were offered.

As part of the standardisation, postal orders were introduced. A postal order is a type of money order, similar to a cheque.

They’re typically used for sending money through the mail – it’s purchased at the post office and is payable at another post office to the named recipient.

These ‘open’ cards were no longer placed in envelopes and are generally regarded as the predecessor of postcards.

A postal order didn’t have much space on it – address, return address, date and signature – and they were primarily intended as notifications of business transactions and order confirmations.

This type of ‘open shipment’ was cheap, costing only four pfennings.

Heinrich von Stephan was the general post director for the German Empire who reorganized the German postal service and was integral to the Universal Postal Union being founded.

When he began as a postal worker, Germany was dividied into 17 independent states, each having its separate policies and fees.

Early in his career he began work to establish a uniform postage rate throughout Germany, which would make mailing easier.

He introduced the postcard as early as 1865.

But it wasn’t until after Chancellor Otto von Bismarck promoted him in 1870 that it came into widespread use. It was in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 that it became popular as a method of communication between units in the field.

Resistance and inevitable success.

The benefits stated by postal director Stephan were evident, but that didn’t stop some initial resistance to adopting it.

The Swiss Post was among those initially unconvinced since the sending of postcards in the form of an open sheet would amount to just one-third of the postage, meaning significant economic losses.

Austria-Hungary was the first to introduce the postcard as a correspondence card in 1869.

Soon after, other areas followed suit.

And thanks to the extension of the railway network, even people living far away could be reached – often by the following day – which supported the increasing popularity of the postcard.

Cards were typically also delivered on public holidays, which was a huge bonus.

After the Universal Postal Union was founded, postcards were able to range beyond the domestic areas and were commonly sent throughout Europe – and from 1878 onwards even worldwide!

Cards with pictures increased in number during the 1880s

And the postcard saw a brief golden age from about 1890 to 1915.

The newly built Eiffel Tower (1989) inspired many cards, as did the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 with its line of “Official Souvenir” postals that popularised the idea of picture postcards in America.

World War I disrupted the production of fine German cards and after the war, the demand for cards started declining as the telephone became more popular.

The look of the postcard.

The typical postcard had one side reserved for the address of the recipient and the other for writing a short message.

This was already referred to as a postcard in Germany in 1872.

Soon it became popular to decorate one side of the postcard with patterns and illustrations like painted landscapes. With the advent of the daguerreotype and later advancements in photography, photorealistic images also found their place on the front of the postcard.

Since one side was still completely reserved for the recipient’s address, adding imagery to the postcard decreased the amount of space there was for a message.

This didn’t detract form the popularity of the postcard in the least.

Instead, people simply wrote shorter messages and would write around the image and squeeze in their messages in the margins.

It wasn’t until 1905 that a dividing line was introduced on the addressee side and the space divided between the address and the short message (rather than in the space between illustrations).

An essential means of communication.

In the course of industrialisation and the rural exodus that accompanied it, the postcard answered the increased need for communication.

The low cost of sending a postcard made it possible to keep in touch with relatives and friends that were far away.

Even today when we rely on instant messaging, we still send postcards back home when we’re on holiday.

The postcard fills an important social function.

And it’s something we’ll always cherish.

Because there’s nothing like that feeling of finding something unexpected among all the bills and ads you usually get.

It’s that feeling of familiarity and tradition – as well as being a part of a continuum that has been around a lot longer than you have!

By sending postcards, you’re not only sharing the analogous charm of a postcard, but you’re also connecting with someone in a meaningful and unique way.

When you want to become a part of living history.

Sending a card, when we’re swamped with all kinds of digital messages, is really something unique these days.

It’s a really easy way to make other people feel good.

It doesn’t take a lot of effort and the recipients are usually super appreciative. I’ve also found that it’s a really handy way of keeping in touch with people with who I don’t have active contact anymore, but with who it’s nice to trade postcards every now and again.

For some pointers on how to get started with sending cards, I recommend you read this article:

Why you should be writing postcards: 8 forgotten reasons why they’ll always be better than email (and how to start today)

I know these days it’s easier to find selfie sticks for sale than postcards, but I really think that reading something physical beats digital any day.

Actually taking the time to write and send a card is like rebelling against the culture of likes that we’re drowning in.

It’s also much more personal to send a card because by adding that third element – the image on the card – you’re widening the conversation you’re having with the recipient.

I know it may seem like a bit of work to actually get started, but once you do, I guarantee you’ll inspire some excitement and most likely get a card back as well!

You can find awesome cards in my shop (such as below)! Click here to see all my cards.