December 18, 2020
Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.
During this pandemicky year, a friend of mine has taken to writing me a letter every day. She usually includes details about the workday, family responsibilities, emotions of being at home, etc. A few times, she has included an old postcard, written more than a century ago, as part of the letter. These post cards have created an intense curiosity in me.
Post cards began in 1861 in the United States according to the Smithsonian Archives, which explains, “On February 27, 1861, the US Congress passed an act that allowed privately printed cards, weighing one ounce or under, to be sent in the mail. That same year John P. Charlton (other places seen as Carlton) copyrighted the first postcard in America.” Initially, post cards were split so that one side was for a message, and the second side was for the address. However, over time, they developed images and pictures on the front, and moved to a divided back so that address and message were on the same side of the card. (All of these seemingly minor changes made their way through Congress as pieces of legislation which mandates the postal laws.)
Splitting the message and the address on a single side of the card is called “The Divided Back Period.” I recently received one of these gems in my letter. This divided post card also belongs to what the Smithsonian calls the “Golden Age of Postcards” due to their extreme popularity of use. Judging from the content on the few antique postcards that I have received, I can see why they were so popular. These cards all mention either an invitation to dine or visit. They often contain one or two sentences at most. They consist of very little information other than the date and a signature. Even the addresses are minimalistic, containing only house number and street name. I was surprised at the address of “City” until I learned that zip codes were first created in 1943 and not widely used until the 1960s.
As I read through these postcards, it reminds me how much correspondence (something which I enjoy immensely) has changed over the years. First, and perhaps most obvious, is the handwritten note versus electronic notes. Some hand written notes can be very difficult to read. Cursive has almost become its own language, and each person puts their own flourish into the script. Some people, though, demonstrate perfect handwriting. These “by the book” scripts, however, reflect the way that education has changed also, since the “book” itself has evolved over the years too. For many years, cursive was taught with flourishes and embellishments, but over time it lost some of its ornateness, moving from a Spencerian script to the less ornate Palmer method.
Of course, as typewriters, word processors, and computers grew in popularity, handwritten notes have shown significant declines. Morevoer, the inventions of telephone, email and instant messages offer such ease, that many people forego the more traditional methods. (It is important to note that sending something in the mail costs money, whereas electronic mail is often included with some type of ongoing service plan. Cost is likely an important factor in the decline of written correspondence too.) However, it is still important to understand the evolution of handwritten scripts themselves. They enable us to read correspondence and perform archival research prior to 1950s. And we also might be better prepared to analyze digital fonts if we know the history of our own texts.
For me, these post cards are like little treasure boxes. They link my world to another world. In this case, on a card from the Conservatory, Bronx Park, NY, on May 12, 1909, during the “Golden Age of Post Cards,” Mrs. Dillmann is inviting Mrs. Harrison for a Tuesday evening. I can imagine the food, the drinks, the early summer evening air. I wonder at the transportation, at the distance, at the location. In other words, post cards present an opportunity, an invitation, a pathway, to wonder.
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