October 10, 2013

From Postcards to Tweets: The Byte Connection



Hug to Peg

We think that today’s “modern” communication is new. Perhaps it is, but it has the basic elements of historical communication.


In 1869 a revolutionary technology appeared in the form of postcards, a form of communication that was open to all eyes (no privacy here). It happened in an Austrian post office, where three million postcards were sent in the first three months, according to columnist Monica Cure, writer of Tweeting by mail: The postcard’s stormy birth.

Four years earlier Heinrich von Stephan, a German postal official, had proposed the adoption of what he described as an “open post-sheet” made of stiff paper. One side would be reserved for the recipient’s address, and the other side would have just enough space for a brief message. It would circulate at the cheapest rate possible.

His idea was rejected as too radical.

The postcard’s popularity baffled and even appalled the cultural elite. On one hand, it seemed ridiculous and highly inappropriate to write anything remotely personal on a postcard, where postal workers, neighbors or servants could read the message. On the other hand, if one lacked anything substantial to write, why write at all? The smaller format inhibited sustained thought. Some even blamed the postcard for a decline in literacy and argued that its shorter format led to poor grammar.

The smaller format of communication exploded around the globe as the proposals to include postcards in the mailing system took hold.

Post cards. Short messages.

I just recently signed up for a Twitter account. Again short messages. However, there is no circumventing the Twitter short message, which is limited to 140 characters, including spaces.

I pondered about the shortness of the messages in both postcards and Twitter.
How do the messages on postcards compare to Tweets? How many characters (including spaces) can be written on a typical postcard?

I took the postcards I gathered as I sorted through boxes of papers and typed their messages on a worddoc. I eliminated the dates and the signatures, since Tweets supply that information.

Among the postcards I found only two Tweetable messages (number of characters in parentheses). First:


Dear Lizzie Hope Gram is all right. Uncle Sam is quite feeble. we are having a nice time. Love from all. Lizzie (104)

(1911 post card message sent from East Lamoine, Maine to Portsmouth, New Hampshire)


And second: Hi! Lookee where I am while you enjoy (?) NY. I’m in Amherst. Talk to you when we’re both home. Peg (95)


Other post cards were so long I had to break the message down to two Tweets.

Laughlintown Pa
June 14-1912
Hello Ruth: I suppose you are busy these days picking strawberries. On the other side is a picture I took. I bet you never saw it before. Do you know Uncle Noah Swank’s address? If you do I wish you would send it to me as I would like to write to them.
Your friend “Nellie H” (264)
To Mrs. Ruth Dewitt, Ligonier R D #2 c/o Ed Swank, Penna.


Hi Ruth: Are you picking strawberries? I took the pix on this card. I bet you never saw it. Your friend (103)

If you have Uncle Noah Swank’s address, send it to me. I will write to them. (77)


Another related a story of Monte’s youth: 1989 Young fun times: Monte and Al once flooded the yard beside our house and “played hockey.” I can still see them whacking the puck (sp.) Also, there was a time of “showing off” on bicycles—in the ditch. My memories are better of those days than now—but so far I get by. Love to All Dorothy (Griffith) (On address side: Reverse side made me think of this). (288)


1989 Young fun times: Monte and Al once flooded the yard beside our house and “played hockey.” I can still see them whacking the puck (sp.) (139)


Also, there was a time of “showing off” on bicycles—in the ditch. My memories are better of those days than now—but so far I get by. (136)

The following post card was mailed to Monte and I by my stepfather’s mother:

Dear Family
I am now in Kissimmee Fla. Will go from here to Americus Ga. Then hopefully I will have time to stop and see you all. I’ll call from Mabel’s. Have been able to add 3 days to my Ameripass. Love Grandma (Dorothy Chase) (192)

I’m in Kissimmee, Fla. Going to Americus, Ga. Hope to stop to see y’all. Will call from Mabel’s. Added 3 days to Ameripass. Love (128)


The following was mailed to our family by a pastor colleague of Monte’s:

To 5104 N. Redan Circle, Stone Mountain 1984
Greetings! Sunday
Thanks so much for your gift of Nolan, as well as your generous money gift. We are having a great week. We are in search of this bird – very common to this area. Worshipped in a U. M. Church in Ketchiken. Love to all – Becky & Don 216
From Alaska to Jamestown, 199(0) bird Horned Puffin

To tweet:
Thanx for your gift of Nolan + generous $ gift. Having great wk, are hunting for this bird. Worshipped in a U. M. Church in Ketchiken. Luv (140)


A young friend in the Navy mailed us this post card:

30 July 89
Dear Carolyn, Monte, Sandy, Nolan, etc.
Hi guys! We just left Palma, Mallorca after 4 days of very much needed r & R. This job can be/is a real pain. I got your card (thanks!) on an exceptionally bad day. I’ll tell you about it in a letter. We will be going through the Suez Canal shortly, + then into the Gulf. Oh joy. January 11th can’t come soon enough.
Well, I’ve got to go on watch. Take care + send mail! Love John (375)


Two stars by signature. Postmarked U. S. Navy Aug 3, 1989
Sent to 126 Mitchell Rd.

Hi. Just left here. Had 4 days of much needed R & R. Job can be/is real pain. Got your card on a really bad day, thanks!. Will write.

Will go thru the Suez Canal shortly, and into the Gulf. Oh joy. Jan. 11th can’t come soon enough.
I’ve got to go on watch. Send mail! Luv


“I have no words in which to speak of this abomination,” complained one writer in Scribner’s Magazine in 1908. “It symbolizes the triumph of the commonplace, of the cheap-and-easy, the utter capitulation of individuality. On their edges will be scrawled flying words, and some initials…”


In writing we are taught to make our point in the least number of words. Tweeting (and postcarding) both require this knack. For short quick communication this may be ideal. It also allows people to touch base.

However, the Tweets (and Facebook commentary) on mundane everyday habits (I’m in the bathroom, I brushed my teeth) diminish the value of short contacts.
In spite of the value I see in short, meaningful communication bytes I must agree with the writer’s statement: to me who so dearly love a quiet letter from a friend, (even) written infrequently.

No matter. Postcards and Tweets are here to stay. I hope they don’t cause the death knell to the letter.

We are back from Nfundland. Had a wonderful 17-hr ferry trip over from New Glayra. N. S. to Argentia, Nfundland. It is beautiful country. All rocks + water—ocean, lakes, rivers. Everywhere are coves w/fishing boats. Prime fish is cod. Saw lots of icebergs—even from our bedroom window. Had drinking water w/pieces of iceberg in it. Hope your summer is going well. LUV Ma + Pa 367

Note the pre-Tweet use of abbreviations copied from one post card, broken down into two Tweets…

Returned frm Nfundlnd. Great 17-hr ferry from New Glayra to Argnetia. B’utifl country. Rocks + H2O. Oceans, lakes, rivers. Many coves w/fshing boats. Prime fsh: cod. (140)

Lots of icebergs. Drinking water cooled w/pieces of iceberg. Enjoy your summer. (79)


Post cards were the precursors of Tweets. What was the precursor of post cards? Was it Doodles? I’ll let you figure that out…I ran out of research time.

Just a reminder: even tweeting cannot eliminate the joy of receiving the old-fashioned post card. The handwritten message is more personal and warm, even the occasional one from someone whose script is unreadable.




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