Postcards as Artifacts: Insights into Everyday Life and Society

Once a staple of long-distance communication, postcards have evolved into treasured collectibles and valuable historical artifacts. These small, rectangular cards have provided fascinating insights into the everyday lives of people and the societies they lived in. This article will explore the history of postcards, their role in reflecting culture and society, and their continued relevance today.

Postcards as Cultural and Societal Mirrors

Postcards are more than just mementos of a bygone era – they offer us a snapshot of the past and reveal insights into the values, beliefs, and concerns of the people who created and exchanged them. This makes these small pieces of cardstock into a fascinating visual archive of human history. By examining postcards from different time periods and locations, we can glean valuable information about everyday life and society, such as:

  • Social norms and customs
  • Architectural and urban development
  • Technological advancements
  • Artistic trends
  • Political and social issues

Social Norms And Customs

Postcards offer a visual representation of a particular time and place, capturing moments in history and society. They often depict people engaged in various activities, from leisure pursuits to work routines, providing a glimpse into how people dressed, interacted with one another, and spent their time. These images reveal changing social norms and customs and provide valuable insight into the history and culture of the time.

For instance, postcards from the early 1900s often showed women in long dresses and men in formal wear, highlighting the dress codes of that era. Postcards also depicted people engaged in activities such as riding bicycles, playing sports, or dancing, showcasing the changing leisure activities and pastimes of that era.

Similarly, postcards from the mid-twentieth century often showed people working in factories or on farms, highlighting the changing nature of work and labor in our society since that time. Some postcards of that era also depicted people engaging in recreational activities such as going to the movies or attending concerts, showcasing the growth of entertainment and leisure industries during that time.

In addition to their historical and cultural significance, postcards also provide a glimpse into the art and design of their time. Many postcards were beautifully illustrated or featured photographs taken by skilled photographers, making them valuable artifacts for studying the evolution of visual culture and graphic design.

Architectural and Urban Development

As postcards frequently feature photographs or illustrations of buildings, streets, and cityscapes, they offer valuable information about the evolution of architectural styles and urban planning. This visual record can help us understand how societies prioritized public spaces, infrastructure, and aesthetics in different historical periods.

By examining postcards from different historical periods, we can see how societies prioritized different aspects of their public spaces, infrastructure, and aesthetics. For example, late 19th century postcards may show bustling streets filled with horse-drawn carriages and grand Victorian buildings, reflecting a society that placed great importance on impressive architecture and traditional urban design.

In contrast, postcards from the mid-20th century may depict modernist skyscrapers and wide, open plazas, reflecting a society focused on efficiency, functionality, and the creation of new forms of urban space. Similarly, postcards from today’s world may feature sustainable buildings, pedestrian-friendly streets, and green spaces, reflecting a society that prioritizes environmental concerns and the well-being of its citizens.

Technological Advancements 

The designs and images on postcards often reflect the innovations and inventions of the time. In this way, postcards have long served as a visual documentation of the technological advancements that have shaped society over time. The designs and images that adorn these small rectangular pieces of paper often provide a glimpse into the innovations and inventions that were prevalent during a particular era. 

From the early automobiles that revolutionized transportation to the newly constructed bridges that expanded trade and commerce, postcards capture the essence of progress and development. In the early days of postcards, images of steam-powered locomotives and airplanes were particularly popular, showcasing the public’s fascination with new forms of transportation. 

As the world became more connected through global travel, postcards featuring famous landmarks and tourist destinations began to emerge, highlighting the advances in communication and transportation that made it easier to visit far-off places. During the Industrial Revolution, postcards showcased the latest technological marvels, from towering skyscrapers to factory machinery, as people celebrated the efficiency and productivity gains of new technologies. 

In the early 20th century, postcards also served as propaganda tools, promoting new technologies like electricity and automobiles as symbols of national progress and power.

Today, postcards continue to capture the impact of technological advancements on society. From the rise of digital communication to the advent of renewable energy, postcards offer a snapshot of our ongoing journey towards progress and innovation. Whether as a nostalgic reminder of the past or a hopeful glimpse into the future, postcards remain an enduring testament to the power of technology to shape our world.

Postcards have long been a l low-cost enduring medium for artists to showcase their creativity, experimentation, and exploration of various styles, techniques, and themes. Their affordability and widespread availability have made them an accessible and popular art form for both artists and art enthusiasts alike. Postcards have a rich history and have been used for a variety of purposes over the years, from conveying messages of love and affection to serving as souvenirs for travelers.

One of the fascinating aspects of postcards is their ability to serve as a reflection of the popular artistic movements of a particular era. By examining postcards from different periods, we can gain insight into the artistic trends and styles that were prevalent at the time. We can also see how these trends were influenced by various social, cultural, and political factors, as well as how they, in turn, influenced public taste and perception.

For instance, postcards from the Art Nouveau era of the late 19th century, are characterized by their intricate designs, flowing lines, and ornamental motifs inspired by nature. These postcards reflect the Art Nouveau movement’s fascination with organic forms and its desire to break away from the rigid, traditional styles of the past.

Similarly, postcards from the Art Deco period of the 1920s and 1930s are known for their streamlined, geometric designs and bold colors. These postcards reflect the Art Deco movement’s interest in modern technology, industry, and mass production, as well as its celebration of luxury and glamour.

By examining postcards from different eras, we can gain a deeper appreciation for the diversity and evolution of artistic styles and movements over time. We can also explore how these styles and movements were influenced by the cultural, social, and political context of their respective eras, and how they, in turn, shaped public taste and perception.

Political and Social Issues

Through old postcards, we can gain insight into the public’s opinion on these matters and how society grappled with these issues. Postcards have a long history of being used as a medium for social commentary and political expression, with a particular focus on controversial topics that were often considered taboo in public discourse. These issues included women’s rights, race relations, and war, all subjects of intense debate and disagreement during various periods of history.

Examining these postcards offers deltiologists a unique perspective on how the public viewed these issues and how society grappled with them. For instance, postcards that featured images of suffragettes protesting for women’s right to vote or civil rights activists fighting against racial discrimination provide a valuable insight into the prevailing attitudes and sentiments of the time.

Similarly, postcards that depicted the horrors of war, such as images of soldiers on the battlefield or civilians caught in the crossfire, offer a glimpse into the public’s reaction to international conflict and the toll it takes on individuals and communities. In closely studying these postcards, we can gain a better understanding of the social, political, and cultural context in which they were created and how they reflect the prevailing attitudes and values of the time.

The Relevance of Postcards in Today’s Society

Despite a rapid decline in postcard usage due to the rise of digital communication, postcards continue to hold a special place in our  society’s collective memory. They are now sought after by collectors, historians, and artists, who appreciate their aesthetic and historical value. Additionally, the postcard medium has found new life in the digital realm, with virtual postcards and social media platforms allowing users to share images and messages in a manner reminiscent of the traditional postcard.

Postcards are unique artifacts that offer a window into the past, allowing us to better understand the everyday lives and societies of previous generations. By examining these snapshots in time, we gain valuable insights into the evolution of society, as well as the changing shape of daily life over the decades and centuries. As our world continues to change, postcards remain a vital source of historical knowledge and a reminder of our shared human experience.

Amelia Desertsong is a former content marketing specialist turned essayist and creative nonfiction author. She writes articles on many niche hobbies and obscure curiosities, pretty much whatever tickles her fancy.
Back To Top
%d bloggers like this: