Looking back at the past year, most of the writing that I’ve done that hasn’t been for grad school has been in the form of postcards. It certainly hasn’t been on this blog! Since January 2020, I’ve been sending one almost daily to my aunt, who is in hospice. First, I used the postcards that Linda and I had collected over the years—most before our first date in 2002. These had been sitting in a box for decades waiting who knows for what. When I ran out of these, I turned to purchasing vintage postcards from vendors on Ebay. For very little money you can buy a stack of gorgeously printed, assorted, blank postcards. These had views of long replaced bridges in Virginia, canyons in Utah, and even European spas. When this stage ran its course, I turned to the personal. I had 25 photos that I’d taken printed as postcards at moo.com. These were both family snaps and pictures I’ve taken over the years. But, by early January I’d sent the whole set, so I began drawing my own with pen and ink, often adding watercolor. I’ve long since lost count, but altogether I’ve sent more than 200 cards. So here’s what’s I’ve learned about postcards.
Modern recreations of vintage postcards do not do them justice
Over the past year, I’ve bought a few vintage inspired postcards, not that I’ve traveled very much. When you set these next to the antique postcards they’re intended to recreate, they look awful. The original postcards were the product of more than just a mechanical process of photographic reproduction, they were made by skilled artisans who understood lithographic printing better than anyone alive today. The colors are rich and well chosen—the result of subtle choices made by the printer. They’re printed on high quality paper. A digital image, filtered and processed to look ‘vintage,’ printed on cheap, coated card stock can’t compare. These small pieces of art are sold for very little—so long as you’re not particular—at antique stores and flea markets everywhere. Postcards were popular, the texting of their day. Here’s a message on the back of the image of the Halsted Street Bridge below: “Does this look familiar? Chicago. All right, at the depot with my ticket. What’s the matter with the Sox? Lucy” Just a casual message from the fifth of October, 1908. Nothing important.
People used to be proud of their civic infrastructure
If you dig through enough vintage postcards, you’ll realize that there was a time in our history when people were proud of their community’s basic infrastructure, things that most people today don’t think of as beautiful or important. That railway trestle bridge that goes over a street near where you live, the rusty one with graffiti? Very likely someone once published a postcard of it that someone else bough and sent to their aunt. To look at old postcards is to reflect on how we have lost a sense of pride in our built environment. Today, if someone published a postcard of a highway overpass it would be understood as ironic. We have long since stopped being impressed by feats of engineering and our infrastructure no longer aspires to be beautiful, or even not ugly. If you unwind this simple fact, you can find a whole commentary on aesthetics, privatization, the building materials industry, commodification, engineering, taxation, and more—have at it!
A picture’s worth a thousand words, but you can only fit about 75 on the back of a postcard
If your goal is to write frequently, I can recommend randomly selected postcard, they make great writing prompts. The picture on the front can be a metaphor, the jumping point for a super-brief story, the recounting of an experience, an excuse to get descriptive, or it can be something more creative. One of my favorite series of postcards that I sent was a set of picture postcards from Kiev with text written in Cyrillic. I used these to create my own imaginary version of Kiev inspired by Italo Calvino’s classic novel, Invisible Cities, which feels like it may have been written on postcards in the first place. Some vintage postcards had already been used with messages written in pale ink a century old. This might feel sacrilegious, but I wrote directly over them, responding directly to the text that I was rendering illegible. You can do what you want.
Making your own postcards is easy
The world of vintage postcards is so vast that I could have stuck with them for years and at some point I will likely return to them. But if you like to make images, having postcards made from your own photos is super fun. I used Moo to make 100 postcards, four each of 25 designs. The main limitation with Moo is that while you can have up to 25 different front images, you can only have a single back image. Also, unless you buy 100, they are quite expensive on an individual basis. I chose a combination of family images and photos that I thought would be fun to write about. While I’ve always been close to my aunt, we’ve never been kept with each others’ lives on a regular basis. Going back through the photos I’ve taken, there were a lot of experiences that I thought would be fun to share. And I was right! My aunt typically responds to the postcards with texts. And these certainly prompted a lot of conversations.
You can do whatever you want
And I wanted to draw more…. I have felt a little creatively muted in recent years. Kavarna, the coffeehouse my wife and I owned, stopped being a creative outlet for me several years before we sold it in 2019. And what energy I had at the end of the day went into the community. I started a literary festival, I fought Walmart, I ran for elected office (and lost), and served on boards. I set aside my own personal creative endeavors to get some things done and I did have a few positive impacts. But I fell out of the personal habits that nursed my creativity. And recently when I sat down to design product labels for our food business, I felt becalmed. Writing is one thing, but to have any success with visual design you need to exercise that part of your brain. It doesn’t matter whether its good, the act of drawing is a form of visual problem solving that you can apply to design and it gets better with practice. So when we temporarily relocated to Florida for a couple of weeks, I took the opportunity to make drawing postcards a daily thing. I thought I’d share one of these, actually a set of 4.
You write enough postcards and eventually someone will write back!
Ultimately it’s about correspondence.
My Aunt Lori died on February 23rd, 2021.