The history of the postcard

“Don’t forget to send me a card”. This is something people have been saying to their friends and relatives leaving for a holiday for well over a hundred years. This summer tens of thousands of colourful cards will be sold all along the Coast to allow Heinz, Henk, Hirafumi and Henri to tell the folks back home they are here. But who invented this handy means of communication? According to the French ... it was a Frenchman. During the Franco-German War of 1870 a large number of French troops were holed up in camp at Sillié-le-Guillaume in the Sarthe. As week after boring week passed by, they found there was no paper left to write home on. Leo Benaudeau, a wily local bookseller, had the idea of cutting sheets of cardboard into small oblongs, large enough to carry a short message.

The soldiers went for this in a big way and soon the carte postale – with a picture – became a routine holiday purchase. “There was a golden age from about 1890 to 1914,” says Christian Deflandre, founder and director of the Museum of the Postcard in Antibes. “It was a new medium and a new market and there was a lot of originality in the earlier creations. This became much less evident as mass production took over and publishers went for long runs of essentially banal images. Look in London, New York, Tokyo or here on the Coast, the choice is very poor and that’s been the case for a long time.”

Last year sales in France were something over 300 million – half the figure of a couple of decades ago. Explains Deflandre, “The card is losing out to technology. When people are away they call up their friends and family on their mobile or send texts, emails or tweets or they use Facebook.” True ... up to a point. According to a survey carried out for the online travel agency ebookers, still around 70% of holidaymakers send postcards. VP Guillaume Cussac, who commissioned the study, is not surprised: “I can see two reasons. Firstly, a postcard – unlike a text, a tweet, or an email – is something durable you can keep. That’s why you still see them on the walls of offices and homes. And there’s another point: a postcard is not part of our instant communication culture. When you send a card to someone you’ve taken a certain amount of trouble – choosing it, paying for it, writing it. It’s a more personal, considerate gesture.”

The museum in Antibes opened twelve years ago. It includes an historical presentation of the postcard along with a collection based on a variety of themes illustrated in cards published over the past hundred years or so.