Six things you didn’t know about the humble postcard

The quintessential John Hinde postcard with ginger-haired boy and girl with donkey laden with turf.

From saucy ones to tinselled or Hinde holiday snaps, postcards retain their popularity, Robert Hume reports.

ALTHOUGH texting is the number one way of keeping in touch while on holiday, the humble rectangular postcard is still popular with holidaymakers.

A recent survey for lastminute.com found almost a quarter of Irish holidaymakers still send them. Postcards not only beat emails as the favourite method of saying ‘Wish you were here’, but they’re also more popular than phone calls and even social media.

1. The earliest known picture postcard was a (kind of) selfie! In 1840 London playwright and novelist Theodore Hook, well-known for his drollery and wit, played a great practical joke on the Post Office by creating and posting the card to himself at his home in Fulham. His hand-painted design caricatured Post Office workers, who are depicted as “scribes” sitting around an enormous inkwell. In 2008, this first postcard was auctioned for a whopping £27,000. Not surprising really. Theodore Hook was to the postcard what the Earl of Sandwich was to the hasty snack.

2. After 1900 the USA witnessed an explosion of interest in postcards, many of which were purchased to collect rather than send. Postmasters started to confiscate some of the more risqué cards, such as those showing swimsuits, “feminine ankles” and “lovers in romantic attitudes”. They also had a problem with tinsel cards. Kits with glue pens allowed tinsel to be added to postcards at home. The Post Office considered these cards “hazardous” as clerks might cut themselves, and required that they be mailed in an envelope. The request was largely ignored and up to 20,000 tinselled cards a day without covers were redirected to the Dead Letter Office.

3. Embossed postcards were used to smuggle morphine tablets to prisoners in New York. When the post for convicts at Sing Sing prison was being examined in the chief warder’s office on 19 January, 1913, a heavy book accidentally fell on an embossed picture postcard. The embossing split, and a fine white powder filtered out. Several morphine pills were found concealed beneath the embossing. There were about 50 of these embossed cards in that day’s post, and two thirds of them contained drugs. It had long been known that the convicts showed “special fondness for picture postcards”, commented the chief warder, “particularly the embossed variety”. A woman in the New York underworld was charged with making a large income by selling these cards to the friends of convicts.

4. A staggering six million copies have been sold of Donald McGill’s saucy 1950s “Kipling” postcard. A bookish young man sitting on grass holding a copy of Kim, asks a giggling long-legged girl: “Do you like Kipling?” Girl coyly responds: “I don’t know, you naughty boy. I’ve never kippled.”

A gentleman and family man, McGill was also “the king of the saucy postcard”. His cards show fat seaside ladies with huge bosoms (“nice marrows”) and gigantic bottoms, voluptuous bathing belles, scantily-clad secretaries, saucy maids, red-nosed men with enormous bellies, nagging wives and foolish-looking vicars. All with double-entendre captions: “Can I show you anything further, sir?” asks shopgirl, climbing steps in tight dress. Or: “The Vicar is at the window sponging his Aspidistra.” “Horrid old man! He ought to do it in the bathroom.” Nudge nudge, wink wink.

5.Circus manager turned postcard manufacturer John Hinde, who set up business in Dublin in 1957, kept a saw in the back of his car, and would think nothing of cutting down the odd bush that he would then use to conceal anything he found a bit of an eyesore; and sure enough, many rhodedendron bushes appear in Hinde’s shots. His postcard empire specialised in making vivid and idealised views of the rural Irish landscape — Keem Bay on Achill Island, turfcutting in Connemara. There are donkeys, red-haired children, and unusually favourable weather conditions, all given an extra “oomph” by intensifying the image in his studio — today’s ‘enhancing’ through Photoshop. He would insert flowers in the foreground, and conjure up dramatic sunsets. Torquay would be transformed into a sun-soaked riviera, Ballinskelligs Bay into a bright turquoise pond.

6. But why bother with a conventional postcard at all? You can buy postcards made of thin wood and leather, and ones that make sounds; copper postcards are sold in Michigan; even coconut “postcards” are available in Hawaii. “Anything that you want to say on a card or in a letter will make more of an impression when it’s written on a coconut,” reports coconutmessages.com.

In Hoolehua, Molokai, the postmaster will not only sell you a coconut but also lend you marking pens to decorate it. The best coconuts for postcards are the already dried out ones that weigh less and are cheaper to mail.

“Do not stand under a tree and shake it,” cautions Hawaiimagazine.com. “Falling coconuts can kill you.”

Postcards continue to thrive. But they are not always rectangular — nor even made of card.


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