Who still sends postcards anyway? That must have been a widespread response to the news that Britain’s oldest postcard publishing firm, J Salmon, established in 1880, is closing down.
The habit of sending postcards to people at home from your holiday destination may well now seem quaint, a convention belonging to the dark ages before social media made communication so easy and so immediate.
Easy it certainly wasn’t. The whole process of sending postcards home to family and friends, which was an integral part of UK holidays back in the day, from the 1950s to the 1970s, say, was laborious and time-consuming. You had to take a list of names and addresses with you, and a pen that worked.
Then you had to choose and buy the cards, which might have involved visits to compare the multi-buy deals in various shops, and to select pictures that would appeal to individual recipients. The trip to the post office to buy stamps could dominate a whole afternoon. Sometimes you would leave it so late that you arrived home before the card.
Composing the message could present a challenge. Those with little facility with the written word would scratch around for something to say, while others, determined not to let the limited space thwart their literary style, would squeeze as much as possible into the small space available.
Content focused mainly on the weather, accommodation and activities, much like today’s social media communication, without the references to food and drink.
You really wouldn’t Instagram the average meal of a few decades ago, or the spam sandwiches and flasks of tea which accompanied the walks and the afternoons on the beach.
And instead of flattering representations of a hotel or boarding house, there would be a local scene with a message along the lines of ‘today we visited the beach just up from here’, or a picture of a hotel with ‘our room is marked with a cross’, the cross frequently omitted, or eradicated by the effects of smudgy ink and rainwater.
Postcards give a snapshot of an era and a certain kind of character, not just in the images of seaside resorts and towns and villages, but in the content and tone of the messages.
The determination to make the best of it no matter what shines through the assertions that everyone is ‘having a lovely time’ and that the weather is ‘nice when the rain stops’.
Browsing through a postcard album is like reading a mini-history of people’s lives. You see friends and family growing more adventurous in their choice of destination, as package holidays become popular in the mid-1960s.
You see the personal or economic changes in their lives as postcards from the Isle of Wight or Skegness are replaced by those from Benidorm or Corfu. The arrival of a card from an unexpected place — ‘what’s she doing on Skyros?’ — whets your appetite for the story.
When we look through old postcards, the sight of someone’s written words can have a sharp impact, bringing the person to life in our minds, in a different way from photographs. The unexpected familiarity of someone’s writing, or the growing uncertainty of a faltering hand creates a pang, an awareness of passing time and the ties that bind us.
Postcards were a useful weapon in the arsenal of youthful romantic communication. If a relationship was at the delicate, almost-there stage and a letter from your holiday destination would be too heavy and a phone call difficult or impossible, a postcard could strike just the right note. Pens would hover over the message — is ‘wish you were here’ too obvious? does ‘having a great time’ suggest that the person is not missed? The days before emojis.
Stephen Duffy’s affecting song The Postcard uses just such a situation for a powerful story of teenage romance and death. His girlfriend Kimberley is on a school trip to France and she sends him a postcard.
You can imagine her carefully choosing the scene, and agonising over the message, perhaps consulting her friends and annoying everyone in the shop. She might use one of those scented gel pens. She needn’t have bothered, though, because he doesn’t remember getting the card, and he was off down The Crown with Debbie anyway. What a rat.
But fast-forward some time, and he finds the postcard and puts it on the wall, along with a photograph of him and Kimberley. She’s dead, victim of an accidental overdose. How could this have happened, he wonders, as the past closes in on him. In a tone similar to Ray Davies, he gives a thumbnail sketch of their time as a couple, walking home from the pub, broke, not smoking, hardly drinking, just enjoying talking and being close. Something changed for Kimberley. You can imagine him reading and re-reading the postcard, looking for clues in its brief message.
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