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Handwritten is a place and space for pen and paper. We showcase things in handwriting, but also on handwriting. And so, you'll see dated letters and distant postcards alongside recent studies and typed stories. 

Postcard Project

Postcards: A Prototype of Text Messaging by Hand

Brett Rawson

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The introduction of the penny black adhesive postage stamp in 1840, coupled with the requirement of prepayment by senders, allowed England to implement a relatively trustworthy, inexpensive system for shipment of letters. Other nations quickly followed suit, such as the United States in 1847 and France in 1849.   

Germany inaugurated picture postcards in 1893 and soon began mass-producing them for export. Within a decade, the picture postcard — the mailed equivalent of text messaging — had been adopted nearly worldwide.   

At first, the picture postcard was a deficient vehicle for writing messages because its undivided back was reserved for the recipient’s address. A small percentage of cards were designed to reserve a white space for a message on the picture side. More often, the message had to be worked into or around the picture on the front. Some senders took on the challenge of incorporating their words and micro-drawings so transparently into the image that they came across as integral to it. Being forced to write messages on the image side resulted in highly terse messages, or in obliteration of the image.   

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By around 1905, most European countries had adopted the divided back, with the left side reserved for writing a message and the right side designated for the recipient’s address. The United States approved this left/right division in 1907, allowing senders a message space and the option of keeping the picture side free of extraneous comments and markings.  

Some people refused to accept the intent behind picture postcards and tried to cram a full-fledged letter into a tiny message space. This worked effectively for those with handwriting that needed a magnifying glass assist. 

The contents of a message can often indicate a time or space of distance. For example, some included updates — My horse Flicka has hoof and mouth, but we hope she will recover — while others served as announcements — Larry died. A few people came to the funeral at the cemetery. Sorry we couldn’t let you know in time, not that you could’ve come. Some postcards, without the reply, remain forever mysterious — Did you have the visitor you expected? — while some articulate the loneliness of this form of communication — My heart sinks every time I realize you won’t return to this village.

Postcards were not just sent to those faraway, however. Many were also sent to those living nearby: 

I really enjoyed meeting you. 

Next time, I’ll stay sober.

I prefer never hearing from you again ever.

Didn’t you think yesterday’s eclipse was inspiring?

I’m catching the train tomorrow in Hagerstown at 8:30 a.m., which should reach Baltimore by 10:30. If I walk straight to Lexington Market and pick up a meat pie for lunch, I should reach your house by 12. I’ll be hungry. I hope you’ll be too. 

The last message about picking up the pie attests to the speed and efficiency with which the postal service once operated (or perhaps to the overly-optimistic expectations of its patrons).

Before Hallmark started churning out greeting cards, people relied heavily on postcards to send greetings for major holidays, such as Christmas, New Year’s, Valentine’s Day, and Easter. In the United States, holiday cards were sent in smaller volumes for St. .Patrick’s Day, Memorial Day, the 4th of July, and Thanksgiving. Variations existed from country to country.  For example, the French typically sent Bonne année (Happy New Year) postcards instead of Christmas postcards. Germans often sent postcards for Pfingsten (Pentecost). Postcards also often honored birthdays and, in Europe, name days (i.e., the feast day of the saint after whom someone was named). In the early days, “having a good time, wish you were here” postcards weren’t the norm. Often, the image born by a postcard had little bearing on the types of messages written on the back, which typically reflected the types of messages seen above.     

The postcard was often designed explicitly as a prelude to a letter or as an abbreviated attempt at one; after a fashion, a “bald-headed letter.”

Some carried an impatient printed message on the image side asking, in various ways, “When are you going to write the letter you owe me?”   

Far fewer postcards sent a printed message offering apology for being tardy in letter writing. Such postcards said, “Yes, I owe you a letter.  For now, this postcard will suffice.”  

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And some cards offered humorous rationalizations for why the sender was simply too distracted or disabled to write a letter.

Still other postcards made no apology and simply said, “I’m glad to spend some time with you by sending this message, albeit brief.”

Even if such messages weren’t printed on the image side, these were common rejoinders in the handwritten messages people crammed into the tiny message space on the back. A few fairly typical postcards used to illustrate this story show how writing messages by hand on postcards often served as the primary means of rapid,  communication, just as later generations first used telephone, and then turned to text messaging.  


NOTE: This exhibit draws from a piece Jim Ross previously published in the Summer 2017 Ilanot Review, "The Postal Origins of Text Messaging.” While the entire issue of Ilanot Review, which was on the theme “letters,” may be of interest to readers here — this exhibit serves as a jumping-off point for a series on postcards and the messages they carry during “the golden era of postcards” (1893-1918).