The history of the postcard: From practical jokes to global communication

ByAndrea Thompson

April 30, 2024

The simple postcard, an enduring symbol of travel keepsakes and a conveyor of warm greetings over miles, boasts a history as vibrant as its picturesque depictions.

The inception of the world’s first postcard captivates history enthusiasts, signifying the start of a widespread movement in both personal and business communication.

The concept of the picture postcard is believed to have originated in Austria, where it was permitted to have a message on one side and an address on the other. The oldest known picture postcard is from 1840, crafted by British writer Theodore Hook. This postcard showcased a hand-painted design and was mailed to Hook himself, adorned with a Penny Black stamp, the first adhesive postage stamp in the world.

The early venture into postcard production was initially a novelty rather than a precursor to widespread use. It was not until the second half of the 19th century that postcards started to become popular as a communication tool. The United States saw the creation of the first commercially available postcards in 1861 by John P. Charlton of Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, in Europe, the idea of an inexpensive and straightforward method of correspondence was emerging. In Austria-Hungary, the inaugural postcard was released in 1869 after Dr. Emanuel Herrmann’s recommendation.

In Britain, the first postcard was officially introduced in 1870.   They became famous for several reasons:

  • Affordability: Postcards were a cheaper way of communicating as costed half the price of a stamp at that time.
  • Efficiency: They allowed for quick and easy communication without the formality of a letter.
  • Collectability: There was a craze for collecting postcards, which contributed to their popularity.
  • Cultural: Postcards became an integral part of British culture form sending secret messages, boosting moral during the war, a message from a loved one or travellers keeping in touch with home.

In today’s digital age, postcards may appear somewhat antiquated amidst the rise of social media; however, they still inspire, are experiencing a resurgence, and contribute to the charm of travel.