Review of Picturing the Postcard: A New Media Crisis at the Turn of the Century

Picturing the Postcard: A New Media Crisis at the Turn of the Century
by Monica Cure

University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, MN, 2018
264 pp., illus. 33 b/w. Trade, $100.00; paper, $25.00
ISBN: 9781517902780; ISBN: 9781517902797.

Reviewed by
Kathryn Adams
May 2019

“The illustrated postcard is simply conquering the world…Alexander, Hannibal, Caesar, Bonaparte and Lord Kitchener himself were never so quick, so lightning swift in their conquests.” Henri de Noussanne, 1901 (p. 2)

It is a certainty that many of us have purchased picture postcards in our lifetimes without ever having considered the rich history that trails behind them. What began as a bud of an idea in 1865 by a German postal director, who suggested the postcard as an efficient means for businesses to communicate, fast became a new media disruptor. Once these seemingly unassuming cards fell into the hands of the general public, their popularity rose quickly and by 1870, 75 million postcards had been sent through the British postal system alone. In her book, Picturing the Postcard: A New Media Crisis at the Turn of the Century, Monica Cure not only leads us through a highly detailed exploration of the postcard’s intricate history, but describes the effect this new media had on popular culture at the time and draws comparisons to the histrionics of today’s social media.

The 37-page introduction is an impressive body of work in itself and gives a clear chronological account of the postcard’s rapid rise in popularity after it was first launched by the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1869. The postcard was appealing to the masses because it was cheaper to send than letters; it was faster, and the brief message was seen as a radical new way to communicate. Both the lower and upper classes had access to the postcard, making it a social leveller, and its lack of concern for privacy was daring and confronting. The postcard upset the usual manner in which communications had been conducted and was superseding letter-writing and the telegram. But along with this disruption and all its positive elements, there were feelings of angst, fear, trepidation, privacy concerns, legal issues, messages of hate and propaganda. #SoundFamiliar

Cure is clearly a postcard aficionado, and this book feels as much a passion project as an academic treatise. Born in Romania, Cure grew up in Detroit, USA and garnered a love for collecting postcards during her own travels as an 18-year-old. Cure studied late 19th/early 20th century British and American literature and completed her doctoral thesis at the University of Southern California, writing her dissertation on “the invention of the postcard as a new form of communication technology and its representation in the turn-of-the-century novel”. It was during this time that course work including new technologies, theories of photography and colonial visual culture, led her to look at the postcard in a new light, and the ideas for this book were born.

The author highlights the ways in which the postcard has been represented in novels such as Edith Wharton’s The Custom of the Country, Anne Douglas Sedgwick’s Franklin Winslow Kane, and E. M. Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread among others. The idea that “postcards could very well stand for the people using them both in discourse and literature” along with the fretfulness felt at the turn of the century about the postcard’s accessibility to people from all corners of society, meant that the lower classes, and women in particular, had a voice for the first time. The traditional order of society was being turned upside down, and feminism was being spurred on by the new order of fast communication. The alluring nature of the short message was not only challenging linguistics but was creating an “illusion of intimacy” between sender and recipient that traditionalists found indecent and promiscuous. Literature was expounding on this and mirroring society by bravely embracing the new and challenging the old. Cure’s detailed dissection of the novels in the body of her text is extraordinary however, some readers may find the links tenuous at times.

The postcard in all its guises is examined here, and Cure gives equal weight to both the quirky and grim aspects of the postcard. Once the picture postcard came into vogue and presented the world with images of ordinary local scenes, personal portraits, famous landmarks or works of art, the postcard “craze” was unstoppable. Fads developed such as the secret language of stamps. Hidden messages of love and yearning were conveyed depending on how and where a stamp was positioned on a postcard. But postcards were not just sent to woo or boast holiday destinations, they had a darker side. The disturbing “real photo” postcards that were used to grandstand the lynchings of African Americans in the Southern states of America are a chilling example of the postcard being used as a form of terrorism.

By 1918, the postcard had reached the end of its “golden age” — postage rates doubled, the telephone became the preferred way of communication, and the postcard eventually slipped into the realm of banality. Cure’s well-timed and meticulously researched publication prompts us to consider the lifespan of our own social media landscape. The similarities between the postcard as new media and our own social media experiences are mentioned in both the introduction and postscript, but Cure’s academic observations in this area are keenly missed throughout the body of her text. In her closing, however, Cure invites us to swap the word ‘post-card’ with ‘internet’ or ‘social media’ in this observation from the end of the nineteenth century which could very well have been written in the twenty-first century:

“With all the contrivances for increasing our speed of communication, and for enabling us to cram more varied action into a single life, we have less and less time to spare for salutary human intercourse. The post-card symbolizes the tendency of the modern mind. We have come to find out so many things which ought to be done that we make up our minds to do nothing whatever thoroughly.” (p. 215)

#WishYouWereHere