On Oct. 1, 1869, the Austrian postal service implemented an idea suggested by Emanuel Herrmann, the country’s national economist. Until that time, letter writing was the normal channel for sharing news. But letters were expensive, fussy, formal. Herrmann envisioned a practical and cheaper means of sending short messages.
And, presto, Twitter was born.
Well, not Twitter of course, but certainly its precursor — the postcard. Anyone who has spun around a rack at a vacation spot to pick out just the right image before struggling to sum up one’s extraordinary adventures in one little box appreciates the challenge of crafting pithy prose. But the idea stuck and postcards — those colorful communication carriers — exploded in popularity.
That has not changed in 150 years, modern technology notwithstanding.
“Despite the convenience of e-mail and instant messaging, it’s still thrilling to find a postcard waiting for us in our mailboxes at the end of the day,” said Paulo Magalhães, director of the international Postcrossing Project (postcrossing.com), a community of more than 781,000 people in 209 countries, including about 1,000 members in Minnesota.
“These tangible tokens of someone’s care and attention steal the prime spot on a fridge door or workspace cork board, their meaningful messages becoming a gentle reminder that we are cherished.”
A Portuguese software engineer, Magalhães loved receiving postcards but didn’t know many people with whom he could exchange them. So, in 2005, he built a website in his free time with the goal of connecting with others. Fourteen years later, Postcrossing members have exchanged 53 million postcards, with no signs of slowing down.
To celebrate the 150th anniversary, events have been held around the world, from Austria to Zimbabwe, including museum exhibitions, library events and informal meetups; a Postcrossing gathering at Luther House in Minneapolis’ Dinkytown was held earlier this month.
If you missed it, head north: The Postal Museum of Finland continues its festivities through January of 2020, wrapping up with an exhibition honoring the Christmas postcard art of the Finnish artist Virpi Pekkala.
We reached out to five Minnesota Postcrossing (PC) members, to ask what drew them to this special mode of communication.
Gerald W. Fry, St. Paul, 77
I teach international/intercultural education at the University of Minnesota. A friend, knowing that I am interested in learning more about the diverse cultures of the world, mentioned Postcrossing to me about seven years ago and I joined. Since then, I’ve sent 1,906 postcards and received 1,902. Sometimes PC folks send envelopes stuffed with goodies, such as multiple postcards, exotic teas, magnets, bank notes, book marks, coins. I have learned so much about the rest of the world from PC. I have studied 14 languages and get cards in many languages. Among my PC “friends,” there is virtually no one like me. I now have a good “virtual friend” in the Pitcairn Islands, the most remote place on the planet. Postcrossing is a great way to build your social wealth … and has made me really appreciate the basic altruism of us humans. My goal is to have good friends in every country of the world. PC is a big help in that regard and destroys distance. Also, research suggests that writing by hand is good for the brain.
Meredith Anderson, Falcon Heights
I’m retired now from a career in technology, most recently designing websites. I joined Postcrossing on April 6, 2010. A Facebook friend wrote a post about Postcrossing and I wandered over to take a look. What I love most about traveling is meeting people, and Postcrossing is a great way to connect with people all over the world. I’ve now sent 6,101 postcards and received 6,090. In my profile, I ask people to tell me about their favorite foods, and most do. I find that many people have the same favorite foods. For example, many Chinese correspondents tell me hot pot is their favorite food. I appreciate how Postcrossing continues as is, in the middle of strife in the world. For example, I watched the invasion of the Ukranian Crimea in the news and then heard the angst of people when I received their postcards. People who want to learn more about the world, what’s not in the newspapers and what’s outside the usual tourist haunts, would enjoy Postcrossing.
Sandra Tischer, Rochester, 37
I’m a middle school math teacher. I joined Postcrossing in March of 2008 and have been hooked ever since. I have sent and received more than 5,100 postcards. When I was a child, our mailman used to deliver our mail right into our kitchen and chat a bit with my grandmother. My godmother used to send me cards on special occasions like birthdays or my first day of school. When I was 8, I had my first pen pal and we kept on writing to each other until it tapered off in our teenage years. So I guess you can say that I have always appreciated [finding] something special for me in the mail. I like to pass the postcards on to my 3-year-old son, who always gets a big smile on his face when someone picked a card for him. And who doesn’t like to find a bright little piece of paper in the mail among all the bills and fliers after a long day at work? A card from Australia in the midst of Minnesota winter? Tropical beaches during a January blizzard? Just the idea that a stranger on the other side of the Atlantic or Pacific took some time out of their busy day to make mine is sweet and special in itself. In a world that seems to be growing apart by the day, it is so important to make personal connections with other people, no matter how short-lived and random they are. I’ve even opened a second account for my students.
Sara B., Eveleth, 47
I live in northern Minnesota and work as a certified registered nurse in an operating room. As I write postcards to people, I tell them it is a place of many lakes, rivers, trees, wildlife and open pit taconite mines. I joined Postcrossing on Aug. 4, 2005. Since I was about 7, I have had pen pals and really enjoy sending and receiving postal mail. According to my stat page on the Postcrossing website, I have sent 3,881 postcards and received 3,876. I am bilingual in English and Spanish, and Postcrossing users from Spanish-speaking countries will write to me in Spanish. A couple of postcards I have received from China have been written in script and I have had to use online language translators or network with someone who would know how to translate the message. I also like art and like to receive art postcards of the works of Frida Kahlo, Yoshitomo Nara, Edward Gorey, Asian art, Charley Harper and Gustav Klimt. Some Postcrossers will send postcards by local artists where they live and I enjoy this as well. The several years I have been involved in Postcrossing have made me want to learn more about the strengths, weaknesses, similarities and differences that exist between where I live and other people and places, not just here in America, but around the world.
Joanna Volk, Eagan, 59
I work as a health unit coordinator in the emergency room at United Hospital. I have four young adult children. My husband passed away in November of 2017. Back in the 1960s and 70s, I had many pen pals all over the world. I sent my first card on Jan. 13, 2010, and have now sent 2,289 postcards and received 2,284. I collect penguins, so I love postcards with penguins. I also like postcards with doors, dogs and children. I am Jewish, so I ask for pictures of different synagogues around the world. I also like to put stickers on the cards I send and really like when people put them on the cards I receive. Because I have received so many postcards, it is always exciting when I receive a postcard from a country I was not familiar with, including Guernsey, Macao and Northern Mariana Islands. I have found that people around the world have a lot in common. They like to talk about their family, education, work and pets. They also like to talk about their friends and what they like to do in their free time. Minnesota is a great state and many people around the world only know of the east and west coasts, so you have a way to educate and share with others another part of the country. I love to travel and this is kind of a way to do that without actually getting on a plane. Even though the world has become so small with social media, here is a way to share your life the old-fashioned way with people around the globe.