The joy, and possible value, of sending a card

I’m addicted to sending postcards, and a UK study suggests the habit may be on the rise

Stamps are another thing I miss about postcards. Photograph: Getty

My dad used to travel a lot for work. After a while I asked him to stop sending me pictures of airports. Another favourite was a blank blue rectangle with the text “The Sea in Brittany” (or wherever) overlaid. Whatever the picture was, I loved getting his postcards.

As I began to travel I became a committed postcard-sender. The ritual of choosing the cards, and choosing my cafe from which to write them, followed by the hunt for a post office, became a feature of my holidays. “Having a lovely time, wish you were here . . . ”

Does anyone still send postcards? Now that “posting” means something entirely different, selfies and iPhone snaps, text messages and emails on-the-go have severely dented the postcard industry; but what have we lost in the process?

The world's first postcard and, for a while, the most expensive ever auctioned, was from – and to – Theodore Hook. He was a 19th-century composer, writer, man about town, and practical joker extraordinaire.


One of Hook’s hilarious japes was to arrange for a host of tradespeople and luminaries, including the Duke of Gloucester and the governor of the Bank of England, to visit the otherwise unremarkable Mrs Tottenham of 54 Berners Street, thus winning a bet he had made with a friend – that he could transform any house in London into the most talked-about address in just one week.

After pulling off a feat like that, it must have seemed small potatoes to send a card to oneself. The fact that it was stamped with a Penny Black enabled it to sell at auction in 2002 for £31,750 (€27,000).

Exotic stickers

Stamps are another thing I miss about postcards. Those exotic stickers and their often equally beguiling postmarks were part and parcel of the receiving experience. Just over a decade later, the Hook postcard record was trumped, and this time it had nothing to do with the value of the stamp. A postcard of the otherwise unremarkable French town of Pau sold at the Gaertner auction house in Germany for $188,000 (€160,000).

In fairness, the postcard was from Picasso to his pal Guillaume Apollinaire. Dated September 5th, 1918, Picasso had eschewed the more typical "nice weather, hope to see you soon" sentiments, for a cubist portrait of his friend, titled Sainte Apollinaire. Old postcards look lovely in a frame, but this time, it's clear which side you'd have facing out.

Closer to home, Whyte's sold a postcard from James Joyce to his publisher for £9,000 (€11,400) in 2001, which Ian Whyte described at the time as "probably the highest price ever paid for a postcard". It possibly was, until the Hook came along a year later.

Looking through old boxes in the hopes of finding auction gold is one thing, but it also gives you gorgeous little vistas on the past. Ireland of the late 1950s to 1970s is forever characterised for me by John Hinde’s ultra bright and ultra cheesy images of Aran sweatered, red headed children and malevolent donkeys. He also had some pretty nifty shots of Dublin Airport, which would have undoubtedly delighted my Dad.

Until I first went there, Paris was, for me, a city entirely writ in art nouveau with the Eiffel Tower poking up, due to a series of postcards from some source or other. And then there was the writing on the back. Never mind being designated Snowflakes, today’s generation have never experienced the crushing blankness of mind that falls when faced with that tiny rectangle of card, and the need to write just two or three lines. Those little vignettes of a trip can be glorious however, especially out of context, as Tom Jackson’s Twitter account @PastPostcard goes to show.

Discovering and (virtually) posting such gems as a gorgeous country scene with the ominous legend: "Are under siege by seven savage geese who attack us when we emerge from caravan," quickly led to more than 20,000 followers and a book deal. Now with more than twice that number of devotees, the book is just out (Postcards from the Past, Fourth Estate, £9.98). Within its pages you can find an admittedly very English, but also very hilarious sense of the recent past. "Dear Auntie – you will be surprised to hear I am going to prison tomorrow" on a postcard of the parish church in Gillingham is another treat from the Twitter feed.

Hates jugglers

Back home, and I recently found an old postcard when it fell out of a book I hadn’t read for years. It was from my best friend from college, and it took me right back to a weekend we had spent together in Edinburgh. Showing a quiet scene of the High Street, it was nevertheless soaked in the sights, sounds and smells of the Edinburgh Festival, and an old man leaning out of a window shouting “I f***ing hate jugglers”, which is what she’d written on the back.

I’m still addicted to sending postcards, and a UK study, carried out for Gatwick Airport (I’m sure have one of those in my collection too) suggests that the habit may be back on the rise. It could be they’re using one of the brilliant new postcard apps – such as MyPostcard, which turns any phone snap into a real, physical postcard, and posts it as well for just €1.99. Try it, it’s addictive.

However, a look at @PastPostcard is inspiring me to greater things, such as the one from the Isle of Wight: “Today I have disposed of unnecessary extra belongings”. Wherever you’re going, or staying, happy holidays everyone.