Wish You Were Here!

by Edwin Newman and Leonard Probst

A brief fantasy: The stooped man held out his hand. He had obviously seen better days. “Brother,” he said wheedlingly, “can you spare a dime to make a deltiologist happy?”

“Spare a dime?” came the not unsympathetic reply. “What can you get these days for a dime?”

The panhandler smiled. “A postcard,” he said.

End of fantasy. But it is true that a postcard can be sent anywhere in the United States for a dime. And if you get the plain government postal sold at post offices, the card comes with the stamp. Like the imaginary panhandlee above, most Americans don’t seem to understand what a good deal that is. Compare it to a local telephone call: in sixteen states, the price has gone up to twenty cents, and it may soon reach that level in seven more. In Florida, local telephone calls from pay booths cost a quarter.

Moreover, while postcards that are not deliverable are, as the Post Office puts it, “wasted” rather than returned to the sender, it doesn’t have to be that way. Even most Post Office officials and letter carriers don’t know that if you have written “Return Postage Guaranteed” on a card that turns out to be undeliverable, you will get it back. You will be charged ten cents for the service, not much of a price for finding out that the person to whom you sent the card doesn’t live there anymore.

About the word “deltiologist”: for thirty years, postcard collectors have been trying to establish themselves as serious memorabiliasts equal to numismatists and philatelists. They took their name from the Greeks who, as might have been expected, had a word for postcards, although they didn’t know it. That word was deltion, meaning “small writing table.” In 1948, Randell Rhoades, a biologist at Ashland College, Ashland, Ohio, combined deltion and logos, meaning “branch of knowledge.” Ergo (which is a Latin word that means “consequently” or “hence”) deltiologist.

The government postal reached its heyday in 1951, when 4.5 billion were sold at a penny apiece. The price was doubled the next year, and sales went down. They have been going down ever since, and in 1978, only 665 million were distributed.

On the other hand, picture postcards continue to flourish. They are as popular as ever with travelers, and museums print and sell them in vast quantities. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York thoughtfully created Supertext, adhesive paper on which a message can be written and which can be pasted over such information as “In the 1880’s, Renoir began to paint in what he later called his ‘sour’ or ‘dry’ manner”; or, “Degas regretted having included the watering can, used in dance studios to lay the dust, but the owner refused him permission to obliterate it.” If the recipient peels off the paper, the card is restored to its pristine condition.

Senator S. I. Hayakawa of California is a museum card enthusiast. He buys them in batches of thirty or forty, sends them to friends and family, and sometimes writes a letter on a series of three or four. “When I send a postcard with lovely art on it,”Hayakawa says, “what I mean to do is to present a really delicate compliment. I’m saying that you are a man or woman of culture, and I would like you to receive this.”

The Senator has a different view of the form cards he receives by the bushel. He recalls a man who sent in a card and then telephoned to find out what stand he had taken on a given issue.

Picture postcards reflect public moods. One card that is currently enjoying big sales was created by the painter Robert Indiana. It shows the word “EAT” on a red and orange background and the word “DIE" on a black and red background. That’s all. Another by Indiana shows a sleek automobile smashing into a pile of burning television sets.

The point of view is less clear in a card tacked to the wall outside Woody Allen’s office. It shows a pudgy little girl with her ankles crossed, and her hair in a shingle bob. Allen thinks it funny, and probably should not be asked why. When humorists are asked why they think something funny, it tends to depress them.

There probably would also be little point in asking Yoko Ono about a card she composed in 1971. The picture side is pure white, except for the words “A Hole to See the Sky Through.” In the center of the card is a hole.

With the exception of the name “deltiologist,” everything about the postcard is a tribute to people who think small: minimum cost for the card itself, minimum postage, minimum effort in mailing. The message has to be minimal too, and one way to meet the challenge is to use cablese, a form of writing that foreign correspondents sometimes employ to save cable tolls. For example, “I am returning to America as soon as possible" would come out in cablese as “Americawarding sappest,”which is two words instead of nine. “Sappest,”by the way, is short for “soon as possible.” In journalistic use, tacking on “est” means you’re trying very hard.

Obviously, cablese on a postcard requires that the person being written to understand it. There would be no point in writing, “Eye efforted spring Junior smorning but release uninvu. Will infill soonest" if the person at the other end could not translate that into, “I tried to get Junior out of jail this morning, but his release does not appear likely. I will give you the details as soon as I can.”

Where the words are mutually understood, postcards are especially handy on a trip, in camp, or on vacation. That is why the most common postcard message is, “Having wonderful time. Wish you were here.” A comedy by Arthur Kober about young people on vacation, called Having Wonderful Time, ran 310 performances on Broadway in 1937. A musical version turned up on Broadway fifteen years later with the title (and the name of the hit song) Wish You Were Here.

In French, “Having wonderful time. Wish you were here” comes out “Vacances merveilleuses. Pense a vous.” That is five words, which is a matter of some significance. French postal clerks used to check the number of words on every postcard. If you wrote five words or fewer, not counting the signature, you paid a fixed rate. If you exceeded five words, you paid more. The distinction was dropped for domestic cards some years ago, but it is still in effect for postcards sent abroad. Five words cost a franc (twenty-three cents); more than five cost one franc and twenty centimes (twenty-seven cents).

Postcards have been used for marriage proposals (which could get in under a five-word limit: “Will you marry me?”), but it does seem an offhand way to signify undying affection. The postcard’s character is not suited to solemn occasions, permanence, or words that carry weight. Also, when people send letters and receive cards in return, they may resent this seeming devaluation of their correspondence.

On the other hand, George Bernard Shaw skillfully exploited the hint of poverty in the postcard. The numberless requests that he received for money were turned down on postcards, thereby implying that the British tax system left Shaw unable to afford a letter, let alone a donation.

Some devotees believe that postal workers have used the postcard to develop a new art form, as one of them indignantly said, by “stamping over as much of the message as possible, and using a wavy line, overinked postmarks, and a collection of smudge and block stamps as though the card has been run through the canceling machine twice.” It brings back an ancient joke:

Postman: “Madam, is this card for you? The name is obliterated.”

Woman: “Then it can’t be for me. My name is O’Reilly.”

Who created the postcard? Most historians identify the inventor as a twenty-nineyear-old Austrian economist named Emmanuel Hermann. He made the suggestion on January 26, 1869, in an article entitled “A New Kind of Postal Correspondence.” The Austrian Post Office picked it up later that year and sold more than 3 million “Korrespondenz Kartes” in three months. Because they were to be handled without the protective covering of an envelope, the Korrespondenz Kartes were printed in brownish paper so as not to show dirt. In 1894, Hermann issued commemorative cards, which he signed and numbered and sent through the Austrian mails. Today they are worth at least $100 each.

The British were the first to add a picture, and the excitement was so great that the police were called out to control the crowds at the London General Post Office. Two million picture postcards were sold in the first week, each costing a half-penny. The same year, 1870, postcards came to Germany, Luxembourg, and Switzerland, and by 1874 they were available in most of the rest of the world.

There is no doubt that an American, John P. Charlton of Philadelphia, conceived the idea of sending a single piece of paper through the mail eight years before Hermann. Charlton was granted a copyright on December 17, 1861, and, according to George and Dorothy Miller in Picture Postcards in the United States, 1893-1918, his brainchild blossomed as a piece of cardboard “manufactured to be sent through the mail bearing a message or advertisement.” The manufacturing was done by a company called H. L. Lipman, and the cards became known as “Lipmans,” but it appears that their use was largely confined to Philadelphia.

In the rest of the country, because of the historic stress on the privacy of the mail, there was little use of postcards and none of postals until 1873, and it took two acts of Congress to pave the way. This had an ironic echo a century later, when a safe at the CIA’s Langley, Virginia, headquarters was opened and a batch of about a hundred pieces of mail was found inside. Most of them were postcards from Europe, principally from the Soviet Union. The postal official who tells the story says, “The CIA looked silly. They apologized to us for taking the mail and then asked us to deliver it.”

S. S. Bumstead of Springfield, Massachusetts, is credited with being the first American to send a postal. He mailed it on May 12, 1873, to a friend in Springfield, Henry M. Hurt. How long it took to deliver it is not recorded. Bumstead’s card was one of 5 million issued in the first two days, one for every eight persons in the country. When Postmaster General John Creswell made his annual report for 1873, he was able to say: “They have supplied a public want and we have made a new and remunerative business for the department.”

Businessmen soon recognized the possibilities and one of the earliest forms of print advertising in the United States was the “trade card.” In the 1880s, for example, advertisements for “Merchant’s Gargling Oil” were sent out on postcards with pictures showing the oil being used for sore throat and chapped hands.

How much good the gargling oil did is open to question, but there is no doubt that the postal played a conspicuous part in bringing the Statue of Liberty to the United States. In the early 1870s, the French announced their desire to give the United States a memorial tribute to the lasting friendship between the nations. The French were to pay for building a statue designed by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, who pictured Miss Liberty as “a beautiful lady welcoming poor and humble immigrants to America.” The United States was to pay for the pedestal and the land, Bedloe’s Island in New York Harbor.

In France, $250,000 in public contributions was raised without much difficulty. In this country, public appeals for money failed. Postmaster General Creswell then persuaded President Ulysses S. Grant to approve a picture of Bartholdi’s Miss Liberty as the stamp on the first postals issued in this country, 121 million of them in fourteen months. The face of the proposed statue was seen from coast to coast, and partly because of that, the $250,000 was raised. But it all took time. The French had planned to present their statue on America’s Centennial in 1876. The unveiling took place, to cheers and applause, ten years later, on the wet and foggy afternoon of October 26, 1886.

Picture postcards hit their peak of popularity from 1900 to 1915. James L. Lowe, Baptist minister, lecturer in English at Pennsylvania State University, and director of the Deltioiogists of America, says, “They were actually a form of entertainment, almost a mania, a social phenomenon. People put them into albums and set collections out to be admired. In doctors’ offices, they were prestige symbols. When you got married, there were postcard showers when you got as many as 500 cards in a couple of days.”

Pre-1915 cards are now “antiques,” and they are one of the newer targets for the twenty-five deltiologist clubs in the nation. A few collectors claim to have more than a million postcards each, indexed according to style, publisher, and date. One deltiologist in San Francisco claims to have 4 million cards. Lowe’s collection includes “52,000 by a London publisher named Raphael Tuck, all filed by number.” He adds, with some pride, “That may be the largest collection of Tucks in the United States.”

Lowe says the most valuable cards today bear the unlovely name of garbage. They were of the penny variety, issued on March 1, 1902, showing the full face of the late President William McKinley. According to the U.S. Post Office Department, Mrs. McKinley didn’t like the picture of her husband, so the postmaster general ordered every one of the 1,625,000 postals destroyed. Somehow, one box containing 500 cards ended up in the offices of a garbage-dumping firm in New York City, Messrs. Booth, Dailey & Ivins, 13-21 Park Row, which used them to let its clients know the weight of their garbage and to advise that it had been dumped at sea. Lowe says that 461 of these cards are known to exist; they are valued at $1000 each if not used, less if they were. Lowe has one, unused.

To the deltiologist, many features count: design, lettering, the picture itself, postal markings, artistic merit, materials used, the publisher, and how and when the cards were made. Today’s cards are produced from color slides. During the period from 1939 to 1955, they were printed by lithographic process on linenlike paper; these are now called “Linen Era” postals. From 1916 to the late 1930s, no card seemed complete without a white border.

Cards have been made from many materials. In Ireland, early in this century, they were made from peat moss. From 1907 to 1910, the United States and Canada issued postals of wafer-thin aluminum and copper, until the metal was found to damage other mail. These were followed by celluloid, and then by pictures on cellophane overlays. In Australia, kangaroo hide was used. Some Americans found an ingenious use for postcards with embossed fronts: they smuggled narcotics into prisons until the Post Office caught on.

The first “busy person cards,” carrying a number of printed messages and a block to be checked for the appropriate one, appeared in 1905. A version of the “busy person card” was used in World War II. A number of countries at first refused to permit prison camp inmates to communicate with their families. Thanks in part to pressure from the International Red Cross, these countries relented to the extent of allowing prisoners to send cards with just enough information to show that they were alive and in enemy hands.

Collectors specialize in cards that picture such things as trains, trolleys, early airplanes, the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, famous mountains, great architecture, courthouses, Presidents, politicians, world’s fairs. One that deltiologists cherish is the “hold-tolight” variety, on which the moon or the windows of a building appear to light up (the parts that light up are thinner than the rest of the card). Mechanical cards, with parts that move at the turn of a wheel, are in great demand, and there are specialists in offbeat cards, such as those picturing anchors, wishbones, beer steins, cats, and characters from Charles Dickens.

Deltiologists say that World War I ended the golden age of postcards because of the shortage of printing materials and because most of the picture cards in the United States at that time came from Germany. Nonetheless, famous postcards did come out of World War I: the “feelthy pictures” sold to American doughboys in the back streets of Paris, where the light was so poor they couldn’t see how little they were getting.

The British also dealt in what were considered to be somewhat vulgar postcards. These appeared about 1900, were usually sold at seaside resorts, and offered crudely drawn illustrations of “spooning” couples, henpecked husbands, oppressive mothers-in-law, and buxom women in tight dresses. A sample joke:

“1 like seeing experienced girls home.”

“But I’m not experienced.”

“You’re not home yet.”

Another sample joke:

“I’ve been struggling for years to get a fur coat. How did you get yours?”

“I left off struggling.”

George Orwell regarded such cards as “a worm’s eye view of life,” popular because they served as a permissible outlet for feelings otherwise publicly repressed. Orwell wrote, “The lazy, cowardly, debt-bilking adulterer who is inside all of us can never be suppressed altogether and needs a hearing occasionally.”

Orwell was concerned for “the common man.” So is Representative Henry Gonzales of Texas, who has introduced a bill to restore the penny postal, though not for commercial use. Gonzales’s argument is, “We must provide some relief for the common man.”

So far, Gonzales has got nowhere. Neither, in another proposed use of the postal, has Jimmy Carter. Before he became President, Mr. Carter was among those trying to get Congress to allow voter registration by postal. He did not succeed then, and Congress has turned down the idea a few times since. In the absence of a federal law, the states do as they please about it.

Professor Richard Smolka of American University in Washington, D.C., has computed that 53 percent of the total voting population now lives in eighteen states where postal registration is possible: Alaska, California, Delaware, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Minnesota, Montana, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, and Wisconsin.

In theory, registration by mail helps voter turnout because it makes registering easier. Some opponents argue that people who register by mail are less likely to vote than those who bother to register in person. The facts are not conclusive. The voting trend is down, but postal registration may have prevented it from being even further down.

If Congress ever does enact a national postal registration law, the versatility, usefulness, and economy of the postal card will again be shown. Then there might be a national campaign: “Brother Can You Spare a Dime To Vote?” □