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Wednesday, 28 August, 2002, 15:13 GMT 16:13 UK
Written on a pre-text
Postcard and mobile

Postcards were as much a part of the summer holidays as sunburn and sand between the toes. But as holidaymakers trade text messages for traditional greetings, are we losing the art of postcard writing?
Before every house had a telephone, long before mobiles, e-mail and texting, friends who wanted to exchange brief missives from afar would use postcards.

Indeed, the postal service was in such good shape in the early 1900s that a card could be sent locally in the morning to confirm an appointment later the same day.

Postcards on rack
Postcards: Left on the rack
By 1908-9, 860 million postcards were sent through the post in the UK each week. That's more than double the number of text messages sent today.

Inevitably, the medium has wilted in the white-hot glare of the communications revolution.

Sales are still respectable - in the three months from July to September last year, 32.6 million postcards were handled by the Royal Mail.

But as postcard collectors gather in London to pore over some two million specimens at this year's Picture Postcard Show, they know the heyday of this celebrated form of communicating is long gone.

Ad to the collection

These days postcards are more a promotional tool than a blank canvas for correspondents to scribble their thoughts on.

Couple asleep on deckchairs
Even brief missives are too much effort for some
Penning a postcard home is still a "must do" for many holidaymakers, although even on this front the medium is under attack from text messaging.

Last summer, almost a third of adults surveyed said they planned to send home a text message from overseas. Texting's nascent successor, picture messaging, is even more promising, say insiders.

Amid it all, enthusiasts are lamenting the lost art of postcard writing.

Just as text messaging has forged its own unique writing style - CUL8R, LtsGt2gthr, 4EVRYRS - so postcard writing had its own strictures and rules.

...I'm getting old and am almost on the shelf...

Postcard from 1908
To some collectors, what's written on the back is the most interesting part of the hobby, says John Bateman, of the Postcard Traders Association.

The postcard's heyday ran from 1900 to 1914, driven by a combination of cheap photo-lithographic techniques and the issue of half-price postcard stamps by Royal Mail.

"It's important to remember what purpose the postcard served in those days before most people had phones," says Mr Bateman.

Short and to the point

Then the postcard was used to convey a short message: "We've arrived at our holiday destination" or "We're coming back from Cleethorpes on the 9.12 train, could you meet us at the station?"

At a time when letter writing was still an art form, postcards were intentionally informal.

Steve Webb MP
"Weather lousy but sightseeing good"
"The purpose of a letter was to develop an idea or ideas. It was for people to express their feelings about something and used to develop correspondence," Mr Bateman says.

Collector Tom Phillips notes the brevity and impulsiveness of postcard messages encouraged people who might have been daunted by the conventions of letter writing.

They were classless and democratic and the limited space was a blessing to those with poor spelling or without much to say.

In his book Postcard Century, Mr Phillips developed the idea of postcard writing as an art form.

A fine art

Rather like haiku, he says, a well-written postcard covered a number of bases - the greeting, the weather, the health of the writer, enquiry as to the health of the correspondent, signing off - in as few words as possible.

Of course, many didn't follow these constraints. But the fact that a card was open for the world, or at least the postman, to read meant they tended to carry dull or banal thoughts, says collector Brian Lund.

Vincent Van Gogh
Even Van Gogh painted postcards
Occasionally though, a postcard would be used to convey more profound sentiments.

One of Mr Lund's favourites from his collection is a card send from Birmingham in 1908, which reads: "To my dear Henry, as I'm getting old and am almost on the shelf it behoves me to remind you of your promise of years ago. No doubt you will want to withdraw but I shall hold you to it since it's absolutely my last chance."

The lack of context in this snapshot of a romantic melodrama only heightens the intrigue, says Mr Lund.

Another example in a similar vein can be found in Tom Phillips' book, with the concluding postcard in a series sent by World War II American GI Max Church from his posting in Europe to his family back home in Detroit.

"Dear Dad, when you write next time could you include Pierre Braun's name, it will make him feel that my parents have accepted him as he has accepted me."

Any thoughts? Send us an e-mail postcard in 50 words or fewer.

When I am old, I am going to line a room with all the postcards I have ever received, so I can sit and remember my friends and good times... You can't pin txt msgs to the wall!
Louise Clarkson, UK

You're all wrong - the challenge with a postcard is to write as much as possible- readable with a magnifying glass & leaving the address clear (just). 200 words+
John, UK

What's the point of sending a postcard when 99% of the time you get home before IT does? Plus, a postcard and a stamp costs far more than it does to send an SMS message.
Dave, UK

Dear BBC
Wondering what happened to the ten postcards I sent from Ibiza a month ago...........wondering if I should have texted instead...........
Quent, UK

Weather is here, wish you were beautiful.
Mark Wigmore, UK

Not knowing what to do, I'm writing to you. Not knowing what to write, I conclude. Best, Dimitri
Dimitri, UK

Postcards do what text messages can't and invite the recipient(albeit briefly) to share the holiday. That's worth the price of a stamp.
Brian, UK

Three little words on a postcard sent home to my girlfriend from our weekend away (which she was on with me) were worth their weight in gold. I dont think a text would have had quite the same result.
Steve, US

I know I asked you to feed our cats while we were away but I just realised I forgot to leave you the keys to our flat. Please feel free to break in through the window. Hope this reaches you before the cats starve. Hope all is well otherwise.
Peter, UK

I discovered some years ago that postcards mean more to children. I always addressed them to my nieces and nephews and not the adults. Now I have a three-year-old daughter I write them from her to her friends and her cousins. Children are thrilled to receive their own mail, see new places and imagine how big the world is.
Dave Vanes, UK

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