Like soggy British summers and dads wearing socks with their sandals, sending postcards has long been a holiday tradition.
Whether we were sunning ourselves on a package holiday in Spain or camping in the rain in Lowestoft, we never failed to write a postcard home to boast about what a wonderful time we were having (even when we weren’t!).
But sadly, even though many of us still love receiving postcards, this great British tradition is disappearing. Recent research reveals that the number of Britons sending postcards has dropped by 60 per cent in the last 20 years as social media and emails have taken over the role of the Royal Mail.
A survey by Gatwick Airport in June this year found only 28 per cent of travellers sent a postcard when they were last on holiday, compared with 70 per cent in 1997.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though, as the study found that an above-average number of youngsters aged 18-34 sent a postcard on their last holiday. Maybe the texting generation could be the one to revive the postcard habit – something we’d love to see.
A text or a tweet can never compare with the joy of receiving a hand-written postcard to add to the collection stuck on the kitchen noticeboard. No better excuse is needed to take a nostalgic look at the remarkable history of postcards and the place they hold in our affection.
A history of the postcard
It all started in 1840 when a Victorian eccentric called Theodore Hook is said to have created the world’s first picture postcard.
Purely for his own amusement, Theodore stuck a Penny Black postage stamp on a hand-coloured caricature poking fun at a group of pen-pushing Post Office scribes and sent it to himself.
However, it wasn’t until 30 years later when postcards were issued with halfpenny stamps already printed on the back and pictures of famous landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower on the front that the concept really caught on.
By the beginning of the 20th Century, the picture-postcard industry was booming and postcards featured subjects as varied as pretty girls, the Boer War and royal events. In 1902 the Post Office allowed both the address and the message to be written on one side of the card, with a division in the middle, leaving the the other side free for the picture.
Postcards played a hugely important role in the First World War. They were sent to and from the front lines by soldiers and their families. The small size meant servicemen could write only brief messages home without going into the horrors of war.
In addition, there were many officially distributed propaganda postcards showing war heroes and leaders, as well as satirical images of the enemy, intended to keep up morale. One of the artists creating these wartime images was Donald McGill. After the war was over, he was the instigator of a postcard revolution when he came up with the idea of the saucy seaside postcard.
McGill’s colourful, bawdy, designs became a holiday institution, selling an amazing 200 million over five decades.
But the scantily clad women and cheeky jokes they featured landed him in serious trouble when he was charged under the Obscene Publications Acts in 1954. Copies of his postcards were destroyed and some publishers went out of business as a result. They would have been astonished to know that today McGill’s iconic postcards can fetch thousands of pounds at auction.
It’s sad to think that the old-fashioned tradition of postcards could face extinction, going the same way as hand-written love letters and photographs.
It’s true that they take a bit more time and effort than a Facebook post (and sometimes arrive three weeks after the holiday is over!), but postcards are so much more than just a scribbled message. They are a lasting souvenir of special moments in our lives. And in today’s fast-moving ephemeral world, that sounds like something worth preserving.
- Click here to find out more about the history of postcards from the Royal Mail