I arrived home recently to an unexpected sight. Staring back up at me from the floor as I entered my house from the cold London night was a sun-soaked dog-eared image of Australia, adorned on its back by a few words of greeting from a far-flung correspondent. It was, of course, a postcard.
As intriguing to me as the snail-slow journey this flimsy piece of paper had undertaken was the fact that this simple art has stood the test of time, despite alternatives offered by the internet and instant messaging.
Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised; after all, postcards retain the stamp of approval from gallerists and are as popular as ever with collectors. From 13-20 March, the Royal College of Art in London will be venerating a selection of postcards in its Secret Art sale, the 22nd annual instalment. Previous contributors include David Hockney, Tracey Emin and Zaha Hadid, all of whom were tasked with decorating postcard-sized pieces that are then gifted to a cast of picked-at-random entrants who get to own works of art for a nominal fee.
But why has the popularity of this anachronistic form of communication endured? The format hasn't changed much since the first was hand-painted in the 1840s by the British satirist Theodore Hook. There’s still a picture on the front and room to write on the reverse. Sadly, knowing that their message will likely be read by everyone who sees it means most writers save the juicy stuff for correspondence sealed in envelopes – or latterly inboxes. But maybe this openness to intrusion is part of the postcard’s voyeuristic allure?
By the early 20th century, images of tourist hotspots criss-crossed the nation to let family and friends know that despite the fact their beloved had visited the Great Wall of China, Lady Liberty or La Sagrada Familia, its writers’ thoughts were resolutely with their not-so-nearest but still dearest.
Later, British seaside resorts created their own genre of these paper send-homes: pioneering a bawdy, bright-hued version. But seaside kitsch doesn’t tell the full tale. Postcards have borne everything from correspondence between couples forcibly separated by war to advertising images intended to ignite sales and the works of old and modern masters reproduced in miniature after museum trips.
It’s a simple sentiment but a powerful one: bundles of postcards, catalogued, hidden away then one day revisited carry more impact than a folder of emails stored on a hard-drive. The sheer variety of images and the personality captured by the hand-written sentiments on the reverse keep the format alive in the face of threats from phones, texts and the like. Like my recently received antipodean missive, postcards transport us away from the everyday, capturing special moments and proving that the medium can be an integral part of the message.
Josh Fehnert is Monocle’s Edits section editor.