An entangled object: the picture postcard as souvenir and collectible, exchange and ritual communication.

Author:Rogan, Bjarne


The picture postcard craze went hand in hand with the rise of a new consumer culture, a more affluent society, and a new middle class. Modernity is the common denominator and the frame of reference. However, these cards served a multiplicity of uses and functions including as collectibles, ritual communication, and gift exchanges, and were enmeshed in a tangle of relationships. What characterized the craze for the picture postcard a century ago and guaranteed its enormous spread and popularity was precisely these enmeshed functions, concrete as well as symbolic, and the many layers of meaning invested in the postcard. Few material items are more aptly characterized as "an entangled object" than the picture postcard of the Golden Age.


Indeed, there is one who corresponds with me too, but he's so foolish that he writes letters. Did you ever hear about anything so ridiculous? As if I care for a good-for-nothing letter! I cannot put a letter into my album, can I? What nonsense! When I get a real boyfriend I will simply insist that he send me the nicest postcards there are to be bought, instead of pestering me with those dull letters.

(Reflections of an anonymous Norwegian girl, "Brevkort og Backfischer" 1903, 41)

One of the most striking consumption phenomena at the beginning of the 20th century was the craze for the picture postcard. (1) The vogue started between 1895 and 1900 and faded out between 1915 and 1920. These two decades have been called the Golden Age of the picture postcard, and with good reason. The hunger for cards seized both young and old, males and females, in Europe and the USA, and on other continents as well. Except for the mania for the postage stamp, there had never been up to that time a more pervasive and ubiquitous fad for a material item. Roughly estimated, between 200 and 300 billion postcards were produced and sold during this Golden Age. (2)

The Picture Postcard--an Icon of Modernity

The picture postcard has been the object of several studies. Its production and distribution, iconography, and semiotics have been analyzed by--among many others--Carline (1972), Ripert and Frere (1983), Ulvestad (1988), Schor (1992), Bogdan and Marshall (1995), and Geary and Webb (1998). I have discussed the collecting of postcards during the Golden Age myself in three articles (Rogan 1999, 2001a, and 2001b). Nevertheless, research perspectives on the postcard phenomenon have tended to be rather narrow and removed from their broader social and cultural contexts. Their iconography, representational and ideological connections, production techniques, distribution networks, and collecting modes--however fascinating--are only a part of the story. It is not possible to explain the enormous popularity of this non-essential material item and the billions of cards sold and mailed every year unless we also consider the card as an exchange object, a gift, and a message carrier. What triggered my curiosity about these things were (a) the fact that my research material--present-day collections of postcards from the Golden Age--often contain 50% or more of unused and unmailed cards, and (b) that the written messages generally contain very little information. It struck me that scholarly interest has concentrated on the picture side of the postcard, and that little work has been done on the significance of what is on, or not on, the other side of the card. In this essay, I shall look at both sides of the postcard, at the messages inscribed by their users as much as at the imagery, and discuss these in terms of exchange ritual and communication.


Aesthetics and communication, ritual and symbol, technology and business, play and action, imagination and remembrance, desire and materiality, commodity as well as subjective experience . .. There seems to be no end to the perspectives that may be applied to the picture postcard, even if few of us will go as far as Ostman when he stated that, "I ... maintain that small, nice, mostly valueless picture postcards do have a very important function not only for the study of what is at the bottom of our discourse, but even for a deeper understanding of Man; the picture postcard stands--in a way--at the center of humanness" (1999-2000, 8). Ostman himself approaches the phenomenon through a discourse analysis of a functional-pragmatic kind; he is, however, more convincing when it comes to the linguistic-textual analysis than in understanding the postcard as a material object and an agent of action (e.g., as a collectible, a gift). (3) An integrated theoretical approach would have been desirable, but is it really possible? So many different theories may be applied, depending on whether the focus is on the postcard as a collectible, a gift, a souvenir, a medium of communication, etc.

A holistic approach to the postcard should take account of the embeddedness of the object in contemporary culture. My point of departure is the postcard not "at the center of humanness" but rather as "an emissary of its culture," or as T.S. Eliot once put it: "Even the humblest material artefact, which is the product and symbol of a particular civilization, is an emissary of the culture out of which it comes" (T.S. Eliot 1948, qtd. in Briggs 1988, 11). A century ago, the picture postcard meant much more, and very different things, than it does today. It arose out of new technologies and production processes, as a result of industrialization in the latter half of the 19th century. The postcard craze was a response to a new desire for things, created by an unprecedented access to commodities for broader population groups. It was a response to a longing for colorful images, made possible by new reproduction techniques. It was an answer to modern communication needs as mass tourism began to take off on a burgeoning scale. Furthermore, it satisfied new leisure habits, like the collecting interests of women--a group which until then had had few opportunities of finding an accepted outlet for such desires (actually, postcard collecting was started by women). In short, the picture postcard went hand in hand with the rise of a new consumer culture, a more affluent society, and a new middle class. All these developments seem to have coalesced in the picture-postcard boom. Modernity is the common denominator and the frame of reference.

A Golden Age

The illustrated postcard craze, like the influenza, has spread to these islands [Great Britain] from the Continent, where it has been raging with considerable severity. (The Standard, 1899) The popularity of the picture postcard rose steadily through the 1890s, as appearance, colors, and printing techniques improved. From the turn of the century, the number of dispatched cards exploded. Europe was virtually flooded with picture postcards; metaphors like "an inundation" and "the letting out of waters" were used by the press, as well as terms like "influenza" and "pest." In 1903, a British paper predicted that within ten years Europe would be buried beneath postcards, as a result of the new "postcard cult." That year around 600 million postcards were dispatched in Great Britain alone. In Germany the number exceeded one billion, and the same quantity is reported from the USA. Japan lagged a bit behind, with only half a billion. England passed the billion-card mark in 1906. It is estimated that seven billion cards passed through the world's post offices in 1905 (Carline 1972; Ripert and Frere 1983).

These numbers do not include all the cards that were bought and put into albums--as souvenirs or as collectibles--without being mailed, during the Golden Age. The collecting zeal followed the same trend, and there is reason to believe that the number of cards bought but not mailed was not very much lower than the enormous numbers that were put in the mail. In 1900, The Times reported on this new collecting "mania," adding that it had not yet reached the same heights in Britain as it had in some other countries. Within less than a decade, however, the mania had spread all over the world--even if the picture postcard business in Africa and Asia was probably intended mainly for Western consumption--a conclusion that is based on the fact that most picture postcards from these parts of the world are found in European and American markets and collections today (Geary and Webb 1998). Specialized postcard shops and exchange bourses grew up in most major western cities, but cards could be bought virtually everywhere.

The popularity of the picture postcard was due to several factors, which, analytically, can be sorted into the following four groups. In practice however, any card might fall into several of these categories:

* The aesthetics of the card. As a cheap pictorial item in a world where other colored pictures were still rare and expensive, the motif in itself was of high importance. The pictures gave visual pleasures, information about distant places and famous persons, opportunities for longing and dreaming, and pretexts for discussions in the family and conversations at social gatherings, as for example in the very common habit of keeping postcard albums for guests to look at. Postcard albums were the "coffee-table books" of the turn of the century (Rogan 1999) and the cards, with their colorful visual representation of the world, symbolized modernity at large.

* The card as a souvenir. The enormous number of all sorts of cards (apart from collections strictly speaking) secured for posterity in chests and drawers, in recesses and attics, tells its own tale about the drive to uphold the memory of persons, places, and events. All the congratulations cards, but even more the large quantities of cards with local and tourist motifs, testify to their value as souvenirs--souvenirs of persons, of places where someone lived, of sites visited, or of travels undertaken.

* The card as a collectible. A new collecting vogue, that of...

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