Postcards and the end of an era

Postcards and the end of an era

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The website Postcrossing offers a rare chance to be sent a postcard. Photograph: Alexander Crook/7Days

Good postcard writing is something of an art. Or, at least, it used to be. In the whole of 2012 the only postcard that landed in my mailbox was addressed to a Mr Colin Barrett, sent with the sincerest wishes of my real estate agent.

In Cambodia, I’m not even certain how to receive one. But on the first of January I received an email that made me think 2013 could possibly be a year in which postcards played a part.

Three years ago, in a spurt of enthusiasm, I joined a website called Postcrossing. The premise is a kind of snail-mail Chatroulette –but with more of a hands-across-the-world and less hands-down-your-pants zeal - the slogan coaxes the user to “send a postcard and receive a postcard from a random person in the world!”

On Postcrossing, you create a profile and then you are sent the details of a randomly selected user, who lists suggested topics they’d like addressed in the postcard and, very specifically, the types of postcards they prefer. “Black and white” and “trains” are some themes. “Mikhail Baryshnikov” was another, from a Russian user (after trawling shops I think I can now definitively say there are no postcards of Mikhail Baryshnikov where I come from).  

The thought that the bulk of my life’s paper correspondence was made between the ages of five and 24 makes me quite sad. I’ve often thought my own writing was better suited to the postcard format. But what I really mean is that it is coyly on view – intended for one person, but visible to others.

As a means of communication postcards may now be antiquated, yet filling a small rectangle with 140 characters or less of random observation and proof of the exceptional time you’re having is something most people now do a manic several times a day. Without a single stamp to show for it at the end of the year.

So when I received an email newsletter at the start of the year from Postcrossing, I thought again about getting back on board.

Before the novelty of Postcrossing wore off and my account was deemed inactive, I received one postcard: from an American family on holiday in Chicago. It was short and cheerful and didn’t quite establish who they were or where they had come from. It may as well have been sent to the wrong address.

Yes, I’d treasure a fond message scrawled on the back of a black and white postcard of the dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov – or even of a train – but the average postcard is like the average Facebook status: made for one-off reading.

Perhaps I joined Postcrossing because it seemed like a bridge between the Internet and the world of paper. As a Gen Y-er, I am embarrassed by my alarmist fear of the death of paper and the fact that no future communication technology, other than time travel, excites me.  

To remind myself of this and ward off nostalgia, I have kept a single postcard from the collection of a woman I never met.

I came across what I like to think was her entire postcard archive in a junk shop in New South Wales, Australia.

Crammed together in a solid brick of yellowing card, over several shoe boxes, the postcard collection still only covered a couple of decades. I immediately thought of buying the whole lot, which at the dubious price of $20 was “laughable”, according to my dad.

Whether she had dull friends or extremely narrow interests, I’m not sure, but decades of cards yielded few clues as to who this woman was.

Facebook, in fact, would have been the perfect medium for her.


To contact the reporter on this story: Rosa Ellen at [email protected]


Follow Rosa on twitter at: @rosaellen


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