Before phone service, email, texting, and social networking made communication quick and cheap, people wanting to send an inexpensive greeting to someone far away could purchase a colorful postcard and a one-cent stamp. These “penny postcards” were originally produced exclusively by the US Postal Service, but in 1898, private companies were allowed to produce plain cards with a message on one side and the address on the other.
In 1907, the Postal Service began to permit postcards with a divided back area, half for the address and half for a written message, leaving the front side of the card free for colorful designs and innovating the way people communicated. With a wide range of gorgeous styles and images, sending a postcard was an easy way to keep in touch, especially around the holiday season.
I’ve collected quite a few of these cards to decorate our farmhouse for Christmas and New Year’s. Originally I was attracted to the vintage colors and designs of the cards—and the low price. Many of my cards cost just a quarter; some by more famous designers or of special motifs like Santa Claus were a few dollars. I set the cards in vintage pottery or old frame in like-minded motifs of pine cones, farm scenes, or, my particular favorite, poinsettias. Others I hang on the Charlie Brown tree we always cut from our own land, wild cedars that spring up under the cottonwoods they can only grow crooked and thin.
A few years ago, I started paying attention to the correspondence written on the backs of the postcards. Like Christmas cards today, most include only a few lines with typical holiday sentiments like “Wishing you a Merry Christmas,” “Thinking of you this holiday season,” or “Hoping this card finds you well.” Often they promise to pay a visit or write more soon, as in this 1913 card: “I am having a pleasant visit. Hope to tell you all about it some day.”
A few of my cards, though, contain a closer look into the lives of their senders. These are the cards I treasure because their words help me imagine a small connection with the past. The messages fall into several categories: illness, absence, happiness, and promises of or exhortations to further discourse.
Illness wasn’t uncommon in the early years of the 20th-century; postcards sent at all times, even at the holidays, mention illness as an important event in the sender’s life, as in these examples:
From a 1913 card: “We would like to see all you people. Suppose you will have a Xmas tree. Edwin will have a small one. He has been sick again with croup and liver trouble but is feeling better now.”
A 1912 card reads: “Dear Folks: How are you all? I hope you didn’t get the scarlet fever. Jean had a bad cold but is better.”
In 1913: “Will drop you this card and tell you the [illegible family name] are all coming down with the measles. Elmer is over them now and I have the Grip.”
Or this one with its inventive spelling: “Little Joe got the hooping cough he had it pretty bad to.”
A 1918 postcard includes both illness and absence: “Have been ill is why you did not hear from me sooner. Maybe you can picture my heart strings.”
Absence or missing the card’s intended is a common theme in vintage postcards. Before people could pick up a phone to call a family member or friend, distance and time limited frequent conversation and the postcards lament this absence. For example, a 1910 card to an unmarried woman in Michigan hints at a former friendship: “You no doubt will be surprised to receive a card from me but you see I think of you once in a while. Terrible lonesome up here now. Regards, Nellie.”
A 1912 card from Pete to Belle seems flirtatious: “Have been good boy and I know Santa will not forget me. Merry Xmas. Come down and see my tree.”
A 1910 card sent from Maude in California to Mary in New York reminds Mary what she’s missing in a sunnier climate: “It was nice of you to remember me with a Xmas card. Do you ever wish you were back in Calif? The oranges are getting nice and ripe now and the peach, plum and almond trees are in blooming.”
Other cards celebrate proud or happy events in the sender’s life, like this 1909 postcard: “Xmas greetings with a happy and prosperous New Year. Am proud of the baby’s picture. She is a fine looking baby we think.” The postcard was not of the baby’s picture, however, so we’ll have to take the sender’s word for the baby’s fine looks.
One of my favorite cards for its wholehearted, self-congratulatory tone is postmarked Wassenaar, Nederland and dated 29th December ‘49:
Dear Herman & Berthe, We are wishing you a prosperous and happy New Year. We hope that you have decided to come over to Europe this year. Last summer my wife and I have spent our holidays in the Bavarian mountains. Further so I think it is nice to be married. I have got an excellent wife. Yours truly, [illegible name] and Ingeborg
A postcard theme that initially surprised me is guilt about not keeping in touch. The sender either promises to write soon or more often or chides the receiver for infrequent correspondence. For example, the postmark on this simple card with an art deco design includes a little poke at the reader: “How are you all Haven’t heard from you for so long I think you owe me a letter.” On the address side of the card, the receiver has penciled “ans Jan 3”—proof that she wrote back.
A 1909 card pens a similar lament: “As you have not sent me any word for so long will drop you a line to let you know I . . . .” Unfortunately, the rest of the words are unreadable because the ink got wet and ran.
One card sender favored writing over calling, or “‘phoning,” as “telephoning” was abbreviated back then: “Will write to you soon. I couldn’t get over so I thought I would rather write than call you on phone.”
Instead of guilt, a 1918 card from Illinois tries to tempt its reader with the promise of an important message to come: “I often think of you. Let me hear from you. If you come to Chi[cago] come and see us. I have some thing I would like to tell you.”
I wonder what that “some thing” could have been and whether it was ever delivered. The message seems a little dramatic. But are we so different today, with our instant and constant messaging? We like to know what the people in our lives are doing, whether by email, phone, or penny postcard. These postcards prove that, as with all good writing, we crave the details of each other’s lives, not just the “Wishing you” sentiments. In writing your holiday cards, add just a line to share something interesting about your year or remind your reader of a personal connection. If someone came across your card years from now, what would they learn about you?