As the third-largest collectible hobby in the world, postcards have traveled through time, each one bearing a work of art that exemplifies the time it was created in. Postcards merge the worlds of art and photography, politics, activism, and anthropology, yet they are often overlooked in their significance. Showcasing the changing world as it happened, from women’s rights to WWII, and reflecting the constantly evolving art movements of their time, postcards have proved to be an important part of art history.
Although the conception of the postcard evolved over centuries, the postcard as we know it today was officially invented and sold in Germany in 1869. After selling 10 million in the first year, other countries quickly picked up on the mode of communication, making the postcard an international sensation. In a time before social media, texting, and readily accessible news, the postcard, which was exceedingly cheaper and faster than sending letters, was an ingenious invention. The golden age of the postcard came at the turn of the century with free public education allowing more of society to read and write, the expansion of the postal service, the growing tourism market, and the availability of postcards at practically every store. Coming into the 20th century, postcards had already become a popular collector’s item due to their historical significance and beautiful designs.
When Art Nouveau was at its height in 1890-1910, postcard design embraced the modernity of this new style. The postcard designs of this time disregarded symmetry and instead utilized curves and natural lines, drawing inspiration from nature and plants, often using women, particularly oriental women or women from ancient art as the main subject.
The Art Nouveau style, however, soon evolved as the designs simplified, developing geometric lines and vibrant colours, shifting away from the naturalistic look of Art Nouveau and towards the sleek designs of Art Deco. Although Art Deco postcards often still depicted women, the shift in style brought with it a shift in perspective. The female figures were given a sense of autonomous freedom, and as the postcards circulated the globe, they aided in promoting social evolution.
Photographic postcards were popularized during the Golden Age from 1900-1920 and made photography accessible for those who were not of the elite, bringing the newfound art of photography to a widespread audience undivided by class. Additionally, newspapers bearing illustrations were an extremely rare and expensive occurrence, so by 1909 when photographs were able to appear on a postcard within a few hours, people turned to postcards as a news outlet.
The postcard industry fell following its height during WWI due to the emergence of automobiles, amateur photography, the illustrated press, telephone, and radio, which raced to replace the versatile functions of the postcards. Additionally, the development of industrial production subsequently lowered the quality of postcards and diminished their artistic value. However, the 1960s and 1970s saw a revival of the postcard with innovative designs as artists began to notice the potential of the small, traveling canvas. For artists looking to express their disapproval of the elitist art world, postcards were and are the perfect medium. The postcard is art that those of any social class could own and hold in their hands. Additionally, postcards allowed both independent and esteemed artists to cheaply mass produce their works and have them circulate the globe without the need for assistance from traditional museum and gallery networks. This trend also brought artists new freedom to create works that held socially charged messages commenting on political dissatisfaction and other taboo subjects, such as John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s iconic War Is Over! (1970) which globally expanded the Lennon-Ono peace campaign.
Experimental art dominated the postcards of the 1960s and 1970s, bringing a new appreciation to a seemingly outdated mode of communication. Ben Vautier’s absurdist piece, The Postman’s Choice (1965), involves an interactive element by duplicating the recipient address on the front of the card, inviting the sender to address the postcard to two different recipients, presenting a dilemma to the postman who must decide who to mail it to. In another example, Rachel Whiteread’s untitled 2005 mail art transforms an existing postcard by strategically punching holes into the alpine landscape.
In some cases, surviving postcards are the only living examples of an artist's entire work. The humble and useful nature of the postcard drew artists towards it as a means to showcase their art. For many, the idea that someone would choose their art to send to a loved one is an intimate and beautiful way of sharing their work. Although the time when there was a need for postcards as a means of communication and receiving news has passed, these beautiful works of art and their nostalgic novelty are far from extinct. Many museums such as The British Museum’s 2019 exhibit The World Exists To Be Put On A Postcard, which is now available as a book, and The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Burdick Collection of over 50,000 pieces of mail art as well as the millions of postcard collectors around the world, keep the historic works of art alive.