Many do not even think about it. But there was a time, before the Internet or platforms like Instagram, Twitter or Tiktok existed, in which one had not been on vacation if they did not send postcards to family and friends with whom they could account for their trip. This now seemingly extinct tradition began 150 years ago in Germany.
“The postcard as a new form of written communication is a German invention”, recalled in a recent article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper the researcher and professor at the University of Vienna Walter Hömberg. His article referred mainly to the entry into force, on July 1, 1870, of the decree signed by Otto von Bismarck, “El Hierro Chancellor” and father of German reunification.
The postmaster of the German Empire, Heinrich Wilhelm von Stephan, in addition to being remembered for introducing the telephone in Germany and reforming the postal service in his country, had already proposed in 1865 the Postblatt –Something like “Open mail sheet” – as an alternative way of communication to conventional letters. It is supposed that sending the recipient only a written sheet without the communication would be more practical and cheaper.
As he remembered the recent exhibition More than words: 150 years of the postcard from the Berlin Communication Museum, developed from August last year to February, Von Stephan’s idea is the origin of the signing of the decree signed by the “Iron Chancellor” in 1870.
That decision was, almost, after the introduction on October 1, 1869 on Austro-Hungarian soil of the “letter of correspondence”. So the first postcard was signed in the small town of Perg in northern Austria. The Austro-Hungarian authorities were quicker than the German authorities to pass their postcard legislation. However, it was among the Germans that this form of communication took more roots.
In fact, as Hömberg recalled in the pages of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, the German stereotype at the end of the 19th century was that of someone who, traveling, the first thing they did was look for a place to buy and send a postcard. “The German traveler seems to be under the solemn obligation to send a postcard to every train station” that he stepped on, was read in the British newspaper The Standart in 1899, according to the research of the professor at the University of Vienna.
At the end of the 19th century, postcards already dedicated space to images, moving away from their first versions in which there was only text. Furthermore, at the turn of the century, the first postal letters already had color. In 1900 the turn of the century was celebrated in what seemed to be the full technological peak of the second industrial revolution and the beginning of modern industry.
Back then, there was no issue not postcards. “In the first decades of the 20th century, postcards were Twitter, E-mail, Flickr and Facebook all together in one thing. They were a fashion that swept the world. Billions of postcards were bought, sent and pasted into albums” , according to Benjamin Weiss and Lynda Klich, authors of the book The Post Card Age, a volume published in 2012 by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
To realize the size of the use of postal letters, it is enough to remember, as the exhibition at the Museum of Communication in Berlin did, that, at the time of the First World War, only in Germany it was estimated that they were sent free of charge 10 billion postcards by military personnel.
Later, the III Reich, “a media dictatorship” according to the definition of the historian Gerhard Paul of the University of Flensburg, used the postcards to popularize the imagery and values of that fatal totalitarian state. Also Otto and Elisse Hampel, the two famous Nazism-resistant creators who inspired the work. Only in Berlin, they used postcards to spread messages against the Führer regime.
The postcards are now also one of the reflections that still account for the extinct Democratic Republic of Germany (GDR), communist Germany. The firms responsible for the production of postcards generated between 25 and 30 million units a year there. “The postcards are testimonies of the socialist plan and its economic shortcomings,” as its “quality and variety in West Germany were greater,” as they recall at the Communication Museum in Berlin.
Of the postcards exhibited in the exhibition on the history of this form of communication, it is worth noting that, in the postcards created on Berlin in the GDR, the wall that divided the capital was not shown. This traumatic infrastructure dismantled in 1989 did occupy a place in the postcards of the Federal Republic of Germany (RFA).
With the fall of communism and the rise of other forms of communication, the use of postcards seems to have entered a crisis. Thus, following the German case, in 1998 400 million postcards were sent, according to the accounts of the Berlin Museum of Communication. In 2017 the number of postcards sent had been cut in half. Then 195 million were sent.
These times of pandemic, in which according to official data only 17% of Germans want to travel this summer on vacation outside their country and only 35% are willing to do so within their borders, do not seem to be the most favorable to send postcards. However, that does not want the postcards to have lost value. What’s more, the old ones are now paid at a gold price.
Thus, at the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Hömberg cited how in November 2017, 925,000 euros were paid at auction for three postcards. They were dated 1913 and were signed by the German expressionist painter Franz Marc.
At the beginning of this century, the Portuguese Paulo Magalhães gave postcards another dimension by creating Postcrossing, a platform made to keep its users in contact through postal letters. Their numbers indicate that, in 2019, just over 750,000 people from more than 200 countries are using this system of exchanging postcards between users. They are, without a doubt, part of the last redoubt of those who still enjoy a form of communication that resists the passage of time.