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Post Modern Postcards
While some debate whether the standard sized photochrome or the larger continental will dominate the postcard market, they are missing the digital revolution under their noses. The world has not been the same since computers entered into everyday use and the Internet has changed the way we communicate forever. Business in its drive to ever reduce cost is forsaking paper products altogether in favor of using non-physical electromagnetic means. Technology has not only affected the way we do things but the way we think and perceive. New generations of children are growing up with their brains wired differently than ours to meet the digital challenge. Many of the traditional reasons for producing postcards are now being answered though other devices. Many more of the traditional institutions that once supported the postcard industry are fast disappearing or evolving into something completely new. While postcards continue to be produced in great number, they lie in the shadow of their former glory. Technology is now creating new routes to take us to new places that we cannot seem to socially keep pace with. The question that cannot be accurately answered is, where is this all going?
What we know for sure is that digital technology has the potential for completely replacing printed images. Images captured through digital means can now be disseminated electronically and viewed on a whole range of devices without ever having physical substance. Even the production of paper postcards no longer requires the use of film or printing plates. As the traditional supports to postcards disappear it is easy to predict their demise, but this only addresses half the story. While some things fade into obscurity others become highly prized relics of another age. New technologies may destroy old traditions but they also create new paradigms, which we are not yet able to comprehend. The sheer number of cards that have been carefully saved for over a century attests to the value placed on them whether we can accurately attribute the reasoning for this or not. Perhaps this factor alone provides more insight to the future of postcards than any current trends.
Unlike the other sections in this history, many of the subjects here raise more questions than can possibly be answered as events swirl around us. The questions asked by any generation must also be considered a part of history for they help define who we are. While some of these points may prove inconsequential, others may revitalize or even kill the postcard industry and interest in collecting entirely. Only tine will tell. As a consequence this section will have to be continuously re-evaluated and updated.
WORLD WIDE WEB
Punch cards were first developed in the 1830’s to direct the path of threads on looms so patterns could automatically be made, a process still used today in the manufacture of fine lace. Herman Hollerith inspired by this idea began using punch cards to aid his statistical analysis while working with the N.Y. Board of Health and the 1890 Census. As his tabulating machines grew ever more advanced he named his company International Business Machines (IBM). This digital based technology eventually evolved into the computers we know today. Computers had started to talk to one another back in 1969 before most of us had any idea what they were. In 1983 these network lines were divided into two separate systems for both military and private use. By 1985 there were up to 2000 users on line, and in 1988 the network was finally made available for commercial use. On August 6th of 1991 the World Wide Web was created as a means of aiding interpersonal exchange over the Internet, and within two years this service was made free. The introduction and widespread use of the Internet has affected postcard collecting beyond expectations. Online auctions and sales have greatly extended the reach of both collectors and dealers. Individual collectors have created web sites to show off their cards. Local postcard clubs can now share information beyond their geographical communities. Ideas and knowledge concerning postcards can now be shared on a scale never before achieved. There are now over one billion people online.
So when was the first eCard sent? It’s hard to say. Does email comprise the new version of the postcard or is it something more? Email has certainly become the predominant way of sending quick cheap notes, which was the original purpose of the traditional paper card. At some point in the 1990’s images with notes attached that resemble paper postcards started being sent over the Internet lines, and by 1996 it became a popular practice. Ever since then there has been a number of online companies that offer copies of antique postcards alongside original modern designs that can be sent out through email. Designers have taken advantage of this new medium to create cards that talk and some that are even animated. These eCards have no physical reality other than their magnetic energy floating out in cyberspace. This has created an entirely new set of concerns and opportunities for the eCard collector in regard to storage and display. It also raises new worries in regard to privacy as third party eCard stores can save the addresses on these cards and sell them to mailing list firms. As this once free service becomes more commercialized, users can expect ever higher fees. Despite that no postage is required to send these cards, and that they can be made at home, eCards have not replaced analog snail-mail cards, at least not yet. This however is not a question of technology but of what we are comfortable with. The ease of sending notes and images over the internet has already replaced the postcard in many ways even when not sent as an eCard.
A new type of trading card began to be seen in the 1990&rsquos; that combined the passions of collecting with that of role playing. While card games had been around for centuries, these new trading cards were oriented toward children and were acquired by the direct purchase of a game. Additional and often more rare cards could often be added through various promotions and by attending special events. In this way card decks can be customized to play out specific strategies while providing publishers with multiple ways to cross market their products. Wizards of the Coast was the first to try to patent trading card games in 1997 but a number of other firms have already placed a number of these types of games on the market, with Pokémon probably being the best known. While these cannot be considered postcards for they are not meant to be mailed, they do demonstrate the continual popularity in collecting cards even among the young with no end in sight.
ONLINE AUCTIONS 1995
In 1995 Pierre Omidyar started a company called Auction Web to auction off collectable items between users of the Internet. It has since grown into the giant known today as eBay that sells everything under the sun. These types of auctions have not only put many postcards into the market place that may have not otherwise ever seen the light of day, it has created opportunities for many people with little access to postcard clubs or shows to buy cards and begin collecting. The auction process however contains inherent flaws in which a small handful of bidders can greatly influence prices, and not always by legal means. When dealing with a product like postcards, with few pricing catalogs available and little history of recorded worth, there is often too little information to go by to make an educated bid. Too many bids are determined by personal obsession with an object rather than true market value. While it may seem that these pitfalls can be avoided simply by not shopping on line, the growth in participation in online auctions have begun to destabilize postcard pricing as a whole. The pricing of postcards has always been more of an art than a science but the varying opinions to what a card is worth have never been greater. While these auctions have greatly contributed to the rising value of postcards, its full effects still remain to be seen.
The area in which the use of postcards seems to be the healthiest today is in advertising. Every American with a mailing address probably receives advertising postcards in numbers they only wished their receipt of picture postcards would equal. With the creation of bulk rate postage, advertising through the mail remains a viable option for most businesses. These mass produced cards however are not usually considered collectables unless you include those gathered by the Sanitation Department. If our predecessors viewed the advertising postcards of their day as we view the junk mail of ours, we can better understand their rarity. While it is doubtful that most modern advertising cards will ever appeal to collectors they are not all of the same quality as some may capture unique characteristics of our time through their graphics or subjects. Most however are simply made to convey a message without concerns of good design. Design work is too often seen as an extra unnecessary expense when anyone with basic computer skills can now layout a card. We no longer exist in an age when visual media was rare. This now dilutes the impact and significance of even the best cards.
Rack cards, usually continental sized photochromes, started to be given away as free advertising in the early to mid 1990’s. It is the revenue from the advertising on them that provides the publisher with profit. As advertising rates are determined by circulation, giving cards away for free provides for the widest possible distribution. Unlike advertising cards that are mailed in mass to every door, rack cards need to attract the attention of those passing by display racks in order to get circulated. Some are very attractive or clever having being designed by artists or prominent ad houses; others are not. As great as the images they carry may be, they are rarely exclusive to postcards but are available on everything from magazines to billboards. They can be considered a carryover of the giveaway postcards once freely available from service stations and motels in the 1950’s and 60’s, but they are much more part of mass marketing add campaigns. The sudden appearance of free rack cards contributed greatly to the demise of many small independent publishers who could not compete with them. Though extremely popular today, as most things that are free, their monetary value as collectables are dubious in this age of media saturation. Despite this they are already being sold as such. They can however provide a cheap alternative to those unable to afford the ever-pricier antique cards, especially if investment is of no concern.
With problems plaguing the recording industry and new outlets making music more widely available through the growth in technology, many musicians stopped seeking that illusionary record deal that would make their career and began promoting themselves. In some cases this led to producing, distributing, and publicizing their own music as well. Visual artists had often used leftover gallery cards that advertised a specific exposition of art work for their own general promotion and now musicians have followed suit. They developed a new type of hybrid postcard based on the earlier exposition card and the modern rack card, unattached to any particular event and given away free for publicity. These cards are now in wide circulation are some have even been designed to be folded and inserted within the compact disk case that hold the recording. While this type of card is most often associated with independent recording artists, larger labels have also begun to incorporate this idea into their own packaging.
Discover America, Inc. was founded in 1965 with government support to help revive the domestic tourist industry that died out in the 1940’s. It was based on the old ideals of national tourism but post war America was a different country and their large scale promotions largely fell on deaf ears. Tourism had long ago created a cultural platform from which postcards of places visited, whether it was an historic battlefield or a scenic wonder, could be purchased as souvenirs. Since the 1950’s vacation time has become steadily more centered on hedonistic activities and spectacle, from simply shopping and dinning to the mountain biking and kayaking of action vacations. Amusement and theme parks of ever increasing size and activity have grown from being the destination of a local day trip to a long family vacation. The ability or even the desire to find the unique has steadily decreased as the American landscape rushes to become more comfortably homogenized. Postcards are a visual medium, about capturing a view that solidifies ones connection to a place. As vacationers become more self-involved with what they do rather than connect with what they see, will the desire to accumulate pictorial souvenirs continue? Will they tourists be content with the simplicity of the picture postcard as the demand for more stimulating acquisitions grows?
Although the United States has always been a diverse multicultural society, this was not traditionally expressed in the imagery placed on postcards. Where Blacks, Chinese, Native Americans, and other people of color were depicted, they were done so as objects of interest rather than as members of the general society. The Civil Rights Movement not only brought Blacks up to the forefront, it inspired many other groups and peoples to assert themselves and demand visibility. While this long struggle has provided us with many more paradigms in which to view our own history, and ourselves, it has also fractured the traditional mythology of national identity. This loss of a singular perspective has caused the usual backlash as some look to hold on to the familiar to ward off the anxiety of change. There is now a growing trend to re-embrace the symbols of national identity that were often frowned upon by many as meaningless and outdated just decades earlier. The pictures held by postcards over the years have created very potent images in the American psyche for people to draw on. We often still represent ourselves in the same romantic and sometimes even racist manner as we did on cards a hundred years ago, a perspective which may have been obsolete even then. At this time many formally misrepresented communities have brought their true histories into the light even if they are not yet firmly part of the new National identity. This has at least allowed these groups to be visually represented in more than one dimension.
The first settlement in what is now the United States was made by Spain nearly a century before the founding of Jamestown or Plymouth. After the expansionist policies of the U.S. led to the incorporation of many of these communities into our territories, their Spanish heritage was eventually added to our own in creating the American Myth. This can easily be seen in the way many old missions of the Southwest were made into important tourist destinations and how they provided the subject matter for numerous postcards. The Spanish Mission Style would also become an important force within American architecture. While the Spanish culture we absorbed was used to bolster the status of our newer Nation and promote tourism, the people who embraced this culture are mostly absent from older postcard images. When Spanish-Americans were previously depicted it was mostly in some exotic form that would be pleasing to tourists. While postcards today still capture the uniqueness of this culture we now allow ourselves to also portray these people as a part of mainstream society. Debates over our Immigration problems have recently grown nationwide leading some to overlook our Country’s Spanish heritage amidst the heated rhetoric. Large mainstream publishing firms will no doubt do their best to avoid taking sides but as long as this topic remains highly controversial it will provide the potential of influencing the imagery to be placed on postcards by smaller publishers in many different directions.
During postcard’s Golden Age, cards were produced by a plethora of printers both large and small. There was stiff competition between them to produce ever more desirable cards to capture a larger share of the market. This led to the use of a wide variety of printing techniques, graphic styles, and innovative new forms. As the demand for postcards began to decline some firms contented themselves with producing cards of particular interest for only a small niche audience. Many printers were eventually forced to close and those who managed to survive sometimes merged with other troubled firms just to sustain profitability. This trend has continued over the years so that even the few remaining large American printers that produced the linens and chromes of the 1950’s and 60’s have now disappeared, replaced by even larger multinational corporations. The results have largely been an outpouring of blandness. As individual cards are produced in increasing quantity, their subject matter has become more generic to insure greater distribution and longer shelf life. Corporate management of these multinationals may have little to no personal connection to the regions they produce views of causing business decisions to be made solely on the basis of marketing reports and the bottom line. Few corporations now take an interest in the actual product they turn out as they totally focus on shareholders and short term profit margins.
News and social related imagery had been declining from the face of postcards ever since the end of the Golden Age. By the end of World War Two this type of commentary had just about disappeared as cards were now almost exclusively focused on tourism. Much of this change was simply due to the public’s interest in more exciting forms of visual media. Where once the real photo postcards of a local photographer might have been the only way to disseminate pictures of an event, it had been supplanted by newspapers, pictorial magazines, newsreels, television, and the Internet to the point of irrelevance. While the changes spurred by technology initially helped to create thousands of new media outlets the trend over that last few decades has been to consolidate the distribution of pictures and news into the control of fewer and fewer hands. Now that mainstream media has abandoned their responsibility to provide the public with real news in favor of promoting their own narrow self interests it has given new impetus to those unsatisfied with the promotion of the status quo. Many have turned to the Internet where the possibilities of reaching a wide audience with limited funds is almost unlimited. Blogs (website logs) have been set up to convey everything from personal stories to information not covered elsewhere. Information on subjects such as postcards that publishers in print may see no profit in can be accessed on the Internet and usually free of charge. While much of today’s technology has been oriented toward the Internet it has also breathed new life into the small local publisher. The cost of producing postcards is now so low it is within reach of many average people. Even graphic design and photo retouching can now be done on a home computer. Although the desire to produce cards is no longer as great as in years past, the growing ability to do so has led to some very interesting and unique postcards that are true expressions of their time.
There has been a debate for some time about the usefulness of the Penny as currency. While many have tried to hasten its demise, the public’s sentimental attachment to it has kept it in circulation, if only by gathering dust in jars. As of 2006 the cost of making a Penny has risen to 1.3 cents, even though there is hardly any copper left in it. This has created a loss to the U.S. Mint of over 70 million dollars a year. The demise of the one-cent piece may finally be on the horizon in an age of growing government deficits. Although postcards have been highly priced for many a year, the term Penny Post Card is still in use to describe antique cards. If the word Penny falls out of common usage with the end of the coin, will the use of Penny Post Card follow with it?
On top of the threat from email, the drop of literacy rates does not bode well for postcards. Ever since the Golden Age literacy has been in steady decline to about 18% of world population. These figures however are rather skewed as the ability to read varies greatly from one country to the next, and the definition of literacy has not remained constant over time. Although the worst literacy rates tend to be in developing nations, the United States is not well positioned with a world ranking of only 49th place. According to the U.S. Department of Education 14% of Americans were functionally illiterate in 2003, but the problems may run much deeper as even larger numbers are reading impaired. Some studies have shown that 60% of adult Americans have never read a book of any kind, and only 6% read one book or more a year.
There seems to be a long tradition of older generations criticizing the handwriting of those younger than they. This reasoning behind this argument becomes dubious when actually examining the back of postcards issued over the last hundred years as there seems to be little difference in handwriting other than that attributable to the writing tool employed. This however may finally be on the verge of actual change as more and more schools become dependent on using computers. Cursive handwriting has already been dropped from many school curriculums being deemed unnecessary for a modern age. The messages on the back of postcards may one day become as cryptic as a dead language even if one can be found where the handwriting is legible.
The first filmless camera was developed in 1972 based on the videotape technology of the 1950’s, but a number of other advancements needed to fall into place before the first commercial digital camera finally became available in 1981. Since then the digital format has transformed photography faster and more completely than anyone would have thought. Many famous brand camera manufacturers are now leaving the film camera business. Even Kodak has retired Kodachrome, the world renowned film that brought us photochrome postcards. Color separation by copy camera in the production of printed materials has now been replaced by digital scanners. Despite these dramatic changes the real revolution is yet to come, with all its consequences still unseen. Even though photography has slowly integrated itself within the Art World, there remains an ever present dichotomy between the two that has been present since inception. Art tends to be seen as coming out of the imagination thus presenting a biased view of the world at best. Photographs have been manipulated to distort reality from the very start but the overwhelming response to them is that they are a slice of life. These long standing paradigms are now growing confused, as the ease and occurrence of manipulating photos have expanded beyond all expectations. As the differences between photography and hand drawn art are blurred, much confusion will abound in the ways we interpret and value them until a consensus forms new paradigms. What this shift will be is anyone’s guess but it will greatly change the way we perceive the world around us. These changing ideas will not only determine whether postcards will continue to be made, but whether we will have the insight to value those made in the past.
Postcard formatting has undergone a number changes throughout its history with different requirements issued by authorities regarding their size and backs. Even so they have remained nothing more than printed ink on paper, novelties aside, which require no special apparatus to access their written and visual content. Today digital technology has given us Compact Discs that are set up alongside postcard racks in many stores that can offer a wider and more numerous collection of views than the totality of all cards on display. This phenomenon has been growing slowly but steadily, eliminating postcards as they both compete for limited shelf space. If most contemporary cards are now purchased for saving rather than sending, will CDs eventually replace them, especially in the hearts of the new computer literate generation? Older traditions are now fading out of public memory at an ever increasing rate, but as technology races forward, the formats we view our media in are also constantly shifting and developing. The small Floppy Disks that were commonly used in the 1990’s for portable data were down sized from larger discs that were actually floppy just a few years earlier. New computers with CD readers and writers will no longer read either of them. Now many predict broadband technology will become dominant for data transmission and that CD’s may be obsolete by 2015. With all the effort that has been made to record data onto them, will the same effort an expense be made to re-record this information or will much of this knowledge and imagery simply disappear? Much of our analog history has been left to rot where conversion costs can not be covered by a disinterested marketplace. While millions of postcards were lost over the decades, millions more have survived the last hundred years. Because postcards are low-tech their age has never been a factor in our ability to enjoy them but as all physical objects they are subject to decay.
The war on terrorism as waged by the United States has initiated new preservation concerns. As the Executive Administration defines all email in the same manner as postcards, it assumes the sender has forfeited any right to privacy. As of 2007 there is proposed legislation to force Internet providers to save every single email in perpetuity for possible government surveillance. The eCards we send may be stored in government archives long after we and all paper cards have turned to dust. This of coarse is of no benefit to historians who do not have access to officially classified documents.
The Fair Use Doctrine has traditionally limited the amount of control copyright holders have over their material when a greater social good is created by allowing its use. This policy however is coming into ever greater conflict between the public who is creating a proliferation of imagery throughout the world due to digital communication and the corporations who have now amassed most copyrights and fear a loss of profits. Corporations have been pressuring Congress on this issue and legislation is now proposed to turn copyright laws into guarantied revenue. Copyrights have already been extended to ensure that large media giants can continue to reap profits from images that should rightly have fallen into the public domain. More and more lawyers have gone after artists and photographers who have depicted logos, buildings, or manufactured goods within their work without corporate permission. In many cases legal threats will be issued as an act of intimidation where no actual case can be made under the law. Publishers now fearing lawsuits have dramatically curtailed certain types of photographic work that have been printed for decades. Many of the images traditionally found on postcards could no longer be used in today’s climate.
We are now seeing a growing trend among businesses to deny ownership to the customers that buy their products. What is rising in its placed is licensing. It is most familiar to us through the computer software we can buy but never really own and has become increasingly difficult if not impossible to share. While we have long appreciate the value of libraries as a society, their efforts to put their entire content on line for greater public access is seen as a nightmare by others who feel this will cut into their profit share. Sharing has become such a fowl word amongst many of those attempting to maximizing profit that more and more proposals for one time use of products are being developed. The move toward licensing over ownership will only increase as fast as consumer resistance allows. Will postcard dealers be required to pay royalties on every card they sell or will there come a day when paper postcards are no longer available to us because there is no way of enforcing one time use?
Countering this trend toward licensing is a rapidly changing public attitude that embraces sharing. As digital technology increases by leaps and bounds, the fidelity of all reproduction is not only growing extremely accurate but also becoming cheaper and easier to transmit. As more reproductive means finds itself in the hands of common folk, the more it is used to bypass traditional means of intellectual distribution. In the face of this shifting paradigm, many corporations continue to tout the line that this is stealing, but will the new digitally immersed generations now emerging ever really believe that? Will our future laws reflect the prevailing beliefs of our populace or be controlled by the dinosaurs that run too many of our corporations? The old models concerning intellectual property are dying. In the meantime all consumers are becoming to be viewed as potential criminals to be monitored, but this policy that greatly alienates customers is also proving not to be good for business.
The scale of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 caught the world’s attention but while these events were given extensive news coverage they had little impact on postcard production. The most noticeable exception to this was in New York City, which bore the brunt of these attacks. Downtown Manhattan was initially cordoned off and slowly reopened bit by bit to the public over the months that followed. Much of the normal economic activity of the area had come to a grinding halt and most of those walking the near empty streets were made up of the curious and those wishing to pay homage. The byways around Ground Zero, where the World Trade Center had collapsed began to quickly fill with venders whose livelihoods had been disrupted. Instead of selling their usual wares to the lunch hour crowds that no longer existed, they began hawking WTC souvenirs that included as many postcards of the Twin Towers as they could find. While some criticized their profiteering they were filling a real public hunger for something more than mementoes. As more people began to visit Ground Zero publishers began producing new postcards depicting the World Trade Center, only this time they were almost always combined with patriotic themes. This extraordinary event created an unprecedented demand for postcards and publishers were quick to act. While postcards have long relinquished their power to convey visual news to other media, cards are still greatly valued as tokens that helped many people find a connection to both this place and the surrounding events. These postcards serve as remembrances of a temporal world that can be physically embraced, which was always part of their appeal.
WAR ON PHOTOGRAPHY
The availability of imagery to be placed on postcards is now facing new challenges despite the increasing technological ease of procuring pictures. Since the terrorist attacks of September 11th on New York City, law enforcement agents around the Country have continually harassed photographers taking pictures of everything from infrastructure to ordinary tourist sites. In most cases the laws prohibiting this activity have been vague to nonexistent which hasn’t stopped warnings, arrests, destruction of property, or beatings. Where no constitutional grounds for enforcement exists, a war of intimidation has begun in an attempt to control behavior. In our present climate the Judicial and Legislative oversight needed to protect American’s rights to free speech has been rare as many judges have place allegiance the law beneath their own fears, and politicians maneuver to advance their careers through fear-mongering. Will we reach the point of seeing ordinary view-cards confiscated off of store racks as possible aids to terrorism?
Attempts to curtail photography have not been limited to intimidation. Much legislation has been proposed or passed to restrict photographers throughout the world but in the United States much of this activity has failed when challenged by First Amendment advocates. At hearings on these issues in New York strong voices of concern were raised that these types of restrictive laws would put an end to the City’s rich pictorial heritage and impoverish future generations. Unfortunately even where laws officially protect photographer’s rights there are too often unofficial polices that allow abuse to continue. In countries involved in conflict such as Iraq and Afghanistan photo journalists have been killed in record numbers. While always a dangerous occupation their traditional perceived neutrality is no longer being widely recognized as they are often specifically targeted in attempts to control the flow of images.
Fears of pedophiles has also reached hysterical proportions in these times, being constantly fueled by media looking for greater market share and by politicians trying to advance their careers. In some communities photographers have been banned from working in the proximity of schools or playgrounds regardless of their intentions. In some towns it has now become illegal to take snapshots of children in public places even if they are your own. Children, who these laws are supposedly meant to protect are now being arrested as pornographers for taking pictures of their own bodies. While these rising fears do not seem to extend beyond the borders of the United States efforts are being made to enforce our moral codes in other nations. The traditional family postcard of your grandfather as a bare bottomed baby posed on a bearskin rug may now pass for child pornography. Ownership of postcards depicting nude children that were once considered beautiful or even just plain ordinary now put dealers and collectors at risk.
Since the end of the war in Viet-Nam our government and its military have become fearful of a free press, for the dissent it might arouse from a well informed public might force changes to be made in official policies. Ever increasing efforts have since been imposed to limit access by the press to the battlefield in an attempt to control all of what is seen and thus what people might believe. Even the current practice of embedding reporters within military units is meant to skew their perception of events as they bond with the troops. The notion that modern wars that are fought with smart weapons that just kill the evildoers with little risk to us has proven to be erroneous, yet the so-called superiority of our weapon systems continues to be glorified in much of media’s presentations while harsh realities are ignored. As in previous wars, American soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to use postcards to write home, but you will no longer find images of dead bodies or the ruins of homes on them as were commonly placed on cards from earlier conflicts. As the media has become concentrated in the hands of fewer corporate giants, they provide us with depictions of the modern battlefield on postcards that tend to resemble those sent from exotic vacation spas, only with an added patriotic emphasis. Not all of this is due to political or corporate agendas as the public’s appetite for gruesome images has been steadily declining over the years and publishers can only make a profit by providing customers with what they want. It may be impossible to direct blame as both sides work to reinforce each other’s behavior but it does not bode well for a society when there is no accountability to the truth.
At the time of their origin, postcards were the fastest and cheapest method of communication across distances; in today’s world of high technology it is now the slowest. Despite the ability to send quick and cheap postcards via the Internet, the greatest competition to the printed postcard is the cell phone. Since the FCC first authorized its use in 1982, the number of cell phones has increased to the point that they are now an integral part of a great many lives. Many of the cell phone conversations held today seem to be as trivial as the messages written on the back of old postcards but this is no coincidence. These phones have become more than just handy communication devices; cell phones are now the newest part of the old ritual of confirming social relationships. This is a role that many postcards held at the turn of the previous century and was no doubt an integral ingredient to the postcard craze. Now with cell phone cameras it is easy to send a snapshot along with a message, just like a postcard. The majority of contemporary postcards that are purchased today are saved as souvenirs. Those that are still mailed are done so more out of the romance with the tradition than for any practical reasons. We are no longer dependent on postcards to provide us with a quick means of communication or a view of our world, and movies, television, compact discs, magazines, and video games, create more than enough visual stimulation. Emails and cell phones have now become the primary social means for personal exchange. It might even be suffice to say that the cell phone has become the contemporary postcard.
Advances in technology and science have been proceeding for some time at a rate faster than many of us are uncomfortable with. This pace seems to be ever increasing causing many to wonder where we are going and others to retreat back into the comfort of traditional beliefs. Public dissatisfaction often leads to a clamoring for the abstract idea of change that is met with great resistance once it actually gets underway. We are currently faced with a dilemma in which we are thrust into new technological, economic, and social orders with neither our consent nor understanding, and with no regard to future consequences that more often than not remain unknown. Our world is now changing so rapidly that much of what was captured on photochrome postcards just thirty or forty years ago has disappeared. This is not just relevant to the replacement of old structures or the filling of vacant lots, but to the manner in which we lived. Change has become such a consistent part of everyday living we often can no longer see what has passed before us. We still tend to think of the photochrome postcard as modern and contemporaneous when in fact it is rapidly becoming an antique. A century ago the inability to quickly communicate caused many technological discoveries to languish for years or decades before they were able to be commercially applied, but today many innovations still suffer a similar fate because we either isolate ourselves within specific fields of knowledge or cannot comprehend their relevance when our mindset remains in another time.
Decades worth of collectors have touted their good reasons for acquiring postcards, with each an assuredly legitimate answer to why they spend good money on basically useless scraps of paper. Economic pundits have also described this process in terms of the usual supply demand rationales for at least a century. It has only been in the most recent of years that researchers have been able to make use of magnetic resonance imagery scanners to map the activity of the brain in minute detail as a person carries out specific tasks or thinks certain thoughts. Its ability to predict irrationality has given us new insights into the way we chose to make purchases that may have little to do with the way we always thought our decisions were made. While there is most likely real value in certain human activities beyond the manipulation of dopamine levels, we may still wonder if this imaging process will have measurable effects on our everyday lives. In the end will we be provided with a greater understanding into our own behavior that will make us wiser collectors, or will we find ourselves returning home with more postcards than ever before purchased from skillful dealers now armed with behavioral science?
It has also been observed that the steady flux of digital technology added to our everyday lives has altered the way our brains function. The old model of the unchanging adult brain is now obsolete as we see it can repair itself and continue to grow. While noticeable changes coincide most with learning new material, the most pronounced changes have occurred amongst children who have grown up in this digital age and put information together in new ways. Technology is now changing at such a fast pace that generations of children born just four years apart are having very different forms of brain development. It is too early to judge the consequences of this phenomena but it is certain that not only our children but each generation will come to perceive postcards with a different set of criteria and with a very different eye. Even so there are certain parameters that are set by simply being human.
The major difference between today’s collector and those of a hundred years past is that we are now capable of putting postcards in a historical perspective. Certain events and topics portrayed on old cards can now add a previously unforeseen value to them. Many of the postcard histories that we have depended on were written just thirty years after the Golden Age and they can now be reexamined in a new light with the passage of time. Only reality is blind to our wishes and bias, as history is an interpretation of facts as we’ve come to know them. Postcards cannot be properly understood without understanding the context in which they were made and we must be careful not to err by distorting past facts with contemporary eyes; projecting modern values on cards that did not exist at that time. This can even be a problem when examining modern cards, which are too often compared with their ancestors without ever taking into consideration the very different surrounding circumstances in which they are now produced. It is also important not to be too forgiving by explaining away reprehensible behavior as nothing more than the accepted mindset of the times. While prevailing attitudes must be taken into consideration when evaluating all of history, it must be remembered that these were indeed choices as there were always dissenters from generally accepted beliefs.
Since no one forces us to buy postcards, choosing the imagery to be placed on them has always been a discerning task if a publisher is to see any profit. While artistic beauty is often used to attract customers, all sorts of emotions and basic behavioral traits have long been played upon to encourage sales. Patriotism, escapism, sentimentality, voyeurism, and sexuality have all been and still are the top ingredients for marketability, though certainly not the only ones employed. Though overtly displayed on old cards, these qualities were mostly used in such subtle ways that we often do not even recognize them today for having been so well trained not to see them. While history can give us context it is also important to recognize and gain further insights into the constant driving forces that are inherently human within all of us if we are to understand the true meaning of postcards.
The majority of contemporary postcards purchased today as saved as souvenirs. Those that are mailed are done so more out of tradition than for any practical reasons. This brings into question a less measurable aspect to postcard collecting; the postcard as memento. While the act of collecting has been characterized as everything from a natural inclination to a mental illness, the truth of the matter is that most of us do it if only saving a pebble from a beach. It is a way of holding on to things, places, and memories, and most often nothing less than a physical object will do. This habit of course existed before the first postcard was ever made, and will continue even if all postcards were to disappear. While newer generations in a fast changing world have a different outlook toward visual media, it is not yet possible to tell what effect this will have on the basic desire to collect.