Academic journal article Cultural Analysis

An Entangled Object: The Picture Postcard as Souvenir and Collectible, Exchange and Ritual Communication

Academic journal article Cultural Analysis

An Entangled Object: The Picture Postcard as Souvenir and Collectible, Exchange and Ritual Communication

Article excerpt


The picture postcard craze went hand in hand with the rise of a new consumer culture, a more affluent society, and a new middle class. Modernity is the common denominator and the frame of reference. However, these cards served a multiplicity of uses and functions including as collectibles, ritual communication, and gift exchanges, and were enmeshed in a tangle of relationships. What characterized the craze for the picture postcard a century ago and guaranteed its enormous spread and popularity was precisely these enmeshed functions, concrete as well as symbolic, and the many layers of meaning invested in the postcard. Few material items are more aptly characterized as "an entangled object" than the picture postcard of the Golden Age.


Indeed, there is one who corresponds with me too, but he's so foolish that he writes letters. Did you ever hear about anything so ridiculous? As if I care for a good-for-nothing letter! I cannot put a letter into my album, can I? What nonsense! When I get a real boyfriend I will simply insist that he send me the nicest postcards there are to be bought, instead of pestering me with those dull letters.

(Reflections of an anonymous Norwegian girl, "Brevkort og Backfischer" 1903, 41)

One of the most striking consumption phenomena at the beginning of the 20th century was the craze for the picture postcard. (1) The vogue started between 1895 and 1900 and faded out between 1915 and 1920. These two decades have been called the Golden Age of the picture postcard, and with good reason. The hunger for cards seized both young and old, males and females, in Europe and the USA, and on other continents as well. Except for the mania for the postage stamp, there had never been up to that time a more pervasive and ubiquitous fad for a material item. Roughly estimated, between 200 and 300 billion postcards were produced and sold during this Golden Age. (2)

The Picture Postcard--an Icon of Modernity

The picture postcard has been the object of several studies. Its production and distribution, iconography, and semiotics have been analyzed by--among many others--Carline (1972), Ripert and Frere (1983), Ulvestad (1988), Schor (1992), Bogdan and Marshall (1995), and Geary and Webb (1998). I have discussed the collecting of postcards during the Golden Age myself in three articles (Rogan 1999, 2001a, and 2001b). Nevertheless, research perspectives on the postcard phenomenon have tended to be rather narrow and removed from their broader social and cultural contexts. Their iconography, representational and ideological connections, production techniques, distribution networks, and collecting modes--however fascinating--are only a part of the story. It is not possible to explain the enormous popularity of this non-essential material item and the billions of cards sold and mailed every year unless we also consider the card as an exchange object, a gift, and a message carrier. What triggered my curiosity about these things were (a) the fact that my research material--present-day collections of postcards from the Golden Age--often contain 50% or more of unused and unmailed cards, and (b) that the written messages generally contain very little information. It struck me that scholarly interest has concentrated on the picture side of the postcard, and that little work has been done on the significance of what is on, or not on, the other side of the card. In this essay, I shall look at both sides of the postcard, at the messages inscribed by their users as much as at the imagery, and discuss these in terms of exchange ritual and communication.


Aesthetics and communication, ritual and symbol, technology and business, play and action, imagination and remembrance, desire and materiality, commodity as well as subjective experience . .. There seems to be no end to the perspectives that may be applied to the picture postcard, even if few of us will go as far as Ostman when he stated that, "I . …

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