The advent of digital technologies has made incredible strides in "shrinking" the world around us, allowing us to communicate in real time over vast distances. It's even more impressive when we think about the relative "youth" of these technologies. How many of you remember surrendering your phone line so your modem could connect to EarthLink, CompuServ, or AOL? When did you first make use of email? Now, compare these changes to the speed of your text messages or social media posts.
Now, how many of you think of postcards only as souvenirs instead of thinking of them as historical social media?
It's true! From their initial development in the mid-1800s, postcards evolved to capture key elements of life, from particular forms of dress to historical landscapes that no longer exist. Postcards have quite a rich history.
Postcards serve as clues, telling you where someone traveled, when someone traveled, and might share the places they consider important during their travel (restaurants, activities, or hotels). Compare this to a Facebook post where someone uploads pictures of a family vacation and tags the location. Also, postcards were less expensive to mail than letters. Even today, a postcard costs $0.36 to mail compared to the $0.55 to mail a first class letter.
The postcard above was shared on a Facebook group for Vintage Michigan Postcards. If you look in the lower right, the postcard was printed by the Detroit Publishing Company. Check out the Library of Congress's page on the Detroit Publishing Company (DPC) for more information on the company and their extensive collection. The Newberry has an online guide available which explains their dating of DPC postcards, and according to their numbering schema, this postcard appears to date from between 1908-1909.
When you examine this postcard, and recognize the year is approximately 1908, what stands out at you? What do you think about the prevalence of electricity and street lights? What does the street and sidewalk tell you about transportation?
Postcards give us a great deal of insight into the past, and they can serve as artifacts and clues for your own investigations into the past. St. John's University has a well-designed library guide which presents an overview of postcards and how to pose historical research questions related to postcards, and the New York Public Library has an informative page on the use of postcards in local historical research developed by their Managing Research Librarian in the US History, Local History, and Genealogy division.
Historians are still struggling with how to use social media in the future, but looking to the past helps us frame these questions for later generations.