Monday, February 25, 2019

Picturing Postcards: the first Instagram?

By Susan Zehnder, Education Director
I found a postcard in my office from 1907 with a message to a Miss Pearl Van Name of Horseheads, NY. It reads, “Will answer your card at last. I had all most forgotten you. Why don’t you Phone? Christina” 

 It’s puzzling to me that Christina wrote to Pearl at all. If both had a telephone, why didn’t Christina phone Pearl herself? Instead, Christina used the reliable postal service to deliver her message.

She sent this card by morning mail, because there's an “AM” appearing below the year in the stamped postmark. Carriers in 1907 delivered mail more than once a day, a convenience that lasted into the 1950s.

A postcard like this required a one-cent stamp. Mailing postcards continued to cost a penny until 1917, when postage doubled. This two-cent price remained the same for the next forty-two years. Today the cost of postage for mailing a first-class postcard is thirty-five cents. 

In the late 1860s, the U.S. government first permitted sending postcards through the mail. Writers were restricted to putting a message on one side, and an address on the other-just as Christina did. This didn't change for almost fifty years until 1907. In fact days after Christina mailed this card, the governing board of the Universal Postal Congress voted to allow a divided side of both government and privately produced postcards. Both message and address could now occupy the same side, and according to the Smithsonian, the era became known as the “Divided Back” or “Golden Age of Postcards” due to the increasing popularity of mailing picture postcards. 

Postal delivery had a direct impact on growing cities like Elmira. Through a program called Rural Free Delivery (RFD) adopted in the 1890s, improvements changed the way small towns and rural areas received their mail. RFD meant instead of traveling to town to pick up mail and packages, small town residents and farm families received mail service at home. RFD also helped regulate shipping costs by assuring delivery from reliable carriers. An early supporter of RFD was U.S. Postmaster General John Wanamaker, an American merchant from Pennsylvania and owner of one of the nation’s first big department stores. Not surprisingly, the success of RFD had negative effects on small town merchants who now struggled to compete with national stores that offered a wider assortment of goods. 

RFD increased access and reliability and had a positive effect on local employment. New opportunities flourished, and the number of letter carriers grew. A 1913 photograph of rural carriers shows a convention of workers from the area.
Rural Letter Carriers Convention, Penn Yan, 1913
At the turn of the twentieth century, few shipping restrictions existed. In 1914, in the state of Utah, parents of four-year-old Miss Charlotte May Pierstorff shipped her off to her grandparents for only fifty-three cents, cleverly avoiding the cost of a train ticket. While her parents may have felt this a frugal choice, the postal service did not agree. She wasn't the only child shipped over the years, and as of 1914, the post office prohibited shipping humans. 

Taken around the same time Christina mailed her postcard, this photograph of the Elmira Post office shows a busy mail sorting room.
Mail sorting room, Elmira Post Office, 1903-1910

Christina, like many others, had great faith in the United States Postal Service, and mailed her postcard and message to Pearl instead of using the telephone.

People still send postcards. Today, the United States Postal Service operates over 30,000 post offices in the nation, and delivers billions of pieces of mail every year. One hundred years after Christina sent her card to Horseheads, students from Mrs. Dauphinet's fourth grade class at Gardner Road Elementary, part of the Horseheads Central School District, participated in a postcard project seeking postcards from every state in the nation and Washington, DC. Supported by the school's Parent Teacher Organization and the Chemung County Chamber of Commerce, it’s a great example of a project that just couldn’t be “phoned in.”
Gardner Road 4th grader tracking postcards. (photo supplied by Horseheads Central School District)

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