There’s even a word for it: deltiology. Though many of my friends believe I’m more of an archaeologist. I’m a collector (or student) of postcards and plague relatives and friends with requests to send me a picture memento of wherever they’re going for holidays, the exotic work trip, honeymoon (I do!), or a city break. After a lifetime of collecting, I’ve hundreds, shoeboxes full of postcards of different sizes, colour, black and white, matt or gloss, from the predictable messages to the bizarre. They’re all unique, just like people’s writing styles.
For some it’s a concise description of what they’ve done. For others, it’s a description of the place or a line about receiver and life back home. Humour motivates some writers while others begin by proudly proclaiming they’ve fulfilled their promise to send one. One of my favourite senders is the writer whose messages are two lines encapsulating what they’re doing, the ambience and the backdrop of what they’ve escaped back home.
Despite the world’s diversity, the experience of sending a postcard is near universal. There can be a challenge in finding a shop or post office with a good range of cards, then a stamp (often the real linguistic test), a pen and a post box.
For the receiver, the challenge is in the waiting. There’s no correlation between distance and postal journey. Some of the postcards I have from far flung places arrived within a week. Some European countries fare far worse. Not long after my wife and I first met I asked her to send me a postcard from a girls’ holiday.
‘Do you really collect them?’ she asked, bemused.
‘Really, I do. And I’ve never got one from Ibiza before.’
Nothing arrived and the joke that she couldn’t be trusted began to run. Ten months’ later, her valiant efforts came through the letterbox. I still have the image of a shopkeeper discovering the card she’d asked him to send down the back of a cash register. I knew then…
Yet the art of sending, like mail, seems to be dying. Why bother when you can take a photo and Whatsapp it? If you want to give someone the flavour of a place in real time you can Facetime. When I ask people to send one their groan contain the exasperation of going back in time.
Yet for all the effort – and it really can be – the postcard remains an authentic gift that gives a sense of place or experience that a text or call can never do. The writer must dedicate a few minutes to describing their journey or experience. For the recipient, it’s a snapshot they can touch and feel, a memento they can retain and revisit in a way not done with the ephemeral phone photo or text.
As postcards die, or hibernate before a future renaissance, there’s another benefit to bear in mind: it’s a way to remotely keep in touch with those with whom you want to gently revive contact. You know those aunts or uncles or family friends you want to say hello to but whom you wouldn’t just ring or text? Or the friend you haven’t contacted in ages with whom a reconnecting call or text has grown ever more daunting? The postcard is the perfect connector. The next time you communicate the postcard will be the stepping stone from which you can pick up where you’d left off.
Like the Christmas card, it can be a thoughtful way to simply say hello. For me and a certain friend, we send an annual or biannual postcard, different places but always the same two-line private joke without a sign-off. It’s our way of saying that despite time and distance we’re still friends.