Postcards versus Instagram

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Can we talk about postcards for a minute? 

Postcards were the social media of the 20th Century. They were short and pithy, widely available and affordable, sometimes frivolous and often impermanent, and pretty much as close to instant as things got before the digital age. And when it came to celebrating special events, they postcards were possibly more popular a century ago then than social media is now, if you can believe that. 

Once I read in an article my friend Selise had written that on just one single day in 1906, famous Brooklyn theme park Coney Island Post Office processed more than 200,000 postcards. That's a big number by anyone's standards, but to help put this into perspective, I pulled out a calculator and made some comparisons. 

  • During its heyday in the first decade of the 1900s, Coney Island regularly attracted crowds of more than 100,000 people a day
  • On any given weekend, that crowd would routinely send more than a quarter of a million postcards to family and friends (more than 125,000 postcards a day)
  • And then on that one day the 100,000-strong crowd posted more than 200,000 postcards

I tried to think of an equivalent for my time and place. We don’t have any theme parks here in Melbourne, Australia, so the closest I could come up with was the annual Royal Melbourne Show. It runs for 10 days each year and in that time attracts approximately half a million visitors. 

In 2016, Instagram photographs tagged for the Melbourne Show from all 500,000 attendees totalled close to 65,000. (I got to this figure using a combination of the hashtags #royalshow, #royalshowselfie, #royalmelbshow, #royalshow2016, #royalmelbourneshow2016, and #melbourneshow, which were the key ones I could find).

So my maths isn’t great but if you divide the Melbourne show attendees and Instagram posts by 10 to get a day rate, that’s 50,000 people snapping and posting 6500 photographs on their phones, or every seventh person at the show sharing just one photo.

On the other hand, in just one day in 1906, those 100,000 people I mentioned purchased, wrote on, addressed and stamped and posted 200,000 postcards. That's two postcards per person, 18 times as many as the Instagram posts. 

I don’t really know what I want you to do with that information, other than possibly to find it as mind-blowing as I do. I mean, my research wasn’t scientific and I realise we should probably add Twitter and Facebook to that tally, if only I could get the information, but still... On the other hand, people generally use more than one hashtag per photograph, so that 6500 is probably a very generous tally – it could well be a lot less. 

And my friend, 200,000 postcards is a LOT of postcards in one day. 

I got so obsessed with this statistic that I even made a little hand-painted infographic to illustrate it. (I know, I need to get out more. Go see a movie Naomi!). 


(You can download a PDF of this infographic here if you'd like to use it). 

I like to picture those carnival-goers of 110 years ago, stopping to catch their breath after a ride on the roller-coaster, or relaxing for a cup of hot tea or maybe even a scoop of ice-cream (such luxury!). I imagine the men wearing boater hats, and the women in those glorious Edwardian dresses you see in etchings. Holding parasols. There are hawkers and performers and musicians roaming everywhere, in my imagination, flanked by carnival sideshows and wooden rides, too many to count, offering every kind of thrill and wonder to the fun-seeking crowd. From a stall somewhere my lady and gentleman have purchased postcards and stamps, and now they sit down on a wooden bench to write. 

Wish you were here. 

Arthur rode the loop-the-loop

Shooting the chutes at Luna Park. Such gaiety!

And in the days and weeks to follow, all over America and the rest of the world, tiny messages begin to land in people’s postboxes. They were tangible tweets or Insta-moments, bearing the marks and scars of a long journey; with messages in scrawling script or halting print, bold capitals or containing just a signature; decorated with stamps. On their reverse, an illustration or early photograph, a window to elsewhere.

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The heyday of postcards

  • There were 1.76 million postcards issued in the US in 1875. By 1910, that number had increased to 7.26 million postcards issued
  • The cost of posting a postcard in the US remained 1 cent for 30 years, from 1898 to 1928, except for a few months in 1925 when they were 2 cents
  • Women sent three times as many postcards as men 
  • People were over-sharing way before social media: “There are people who would write anything on a ‘postal,’ from a recipe for fruit cake to the last quarrel that they had with their husbands.” Baltimore Sun, 1903
  • Today in the US it costs 34 cents to send a postcard (here in Australia, the cost is $1)


So this is my challenge to you: before your next tweet or Insta-share, send somebody a postcard! I guarantee you will make their day. 

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