The Rise and Fall of the World’s First Social Network
Distributed for Reaktion Books
The Rise and Fall of the World’s First Social Network
Postcards are usually associated with banal holiday pleasantries, but they are made possible by sophisticated industries and institutions, from printers to postal services. When they were invented, postcards established what is now taken for granted in modern times: the ability to send and receive messages around the world easily and inexpensively. Fundamentally they are about creating personal connections—links between people, places, and beliefs. Lydia Pyne examines postcards on a global scale, to understand them as artifacts that are at the intersection of history, science, technology, art, and culture. In doing so, she shows how postcards were the first global social network and also, here in the twenty-first century, how postcards are not yet extinct.
256 pages | 80 color plates, 30 halftones | 6 3/4 x 8 3/4
History: General History
"Considering the ephemeral nature of her subject, it's fitting that Pyne roams far off the path of the strictly historical account. She digs deep into the past, and in peculiar corners of the present, seeking curious details. . . . The search turns up its share of delights. . . . At its best, Pyne's book asks questions big enough and searching enough to reframe the way you think about more than just postcards."
Wall Street Journal
“In this beautifully illustrated, breezily articulated book, Pyne introduces us to an analog antecedent to today’s tweets, texts, and memes: the postcard. Condensed within this compact carrier of pithy messages, Pyne demonstrates, are histories of the postal service, printing technologies, and portraiture of the quotidian—as well as humanity’s enduring desire for palpable connection.”
Shannon Mattern, professor of anthropology at the New School for Social Research, and author of "Clay, Data and Dirt: Five Thousand Years of Urban Media"
"Pyne’s Postcards expertly tells the story of how this small piece of mail went from saving the US Post Office to being the foundations of our image-based social media platforms. This must-read book is a deeply researched chronicle of how we keep in touch, simultaneously invoking a rich sense of nostalgia while giving readers a meaningful framework for our contemporary moment."
There are a lot of different ways to dig into the history of postcards and any history will inevitably be incomplete. Although postcards were a mass medium, they were—and still are—a disposable one. This disposability means that there are holes in the historical record, making a complete archive of all the world’s postcards inherently impossible. Many histories of postcards opt to explore postcards through specific pictorial or geographic themes (“historic postcards of New York City”) or printed types (“American holiday postcards.”) These narrow, specific approaches tend to focus on postcards by a particular manufacturer, such as the iconic Curt Teich & Co. Americana postcards or the carefully lithographed portraits found on cards by London printer Raphael Tuck & Sons. Others opt to concentrate on specific postcard technologies, like Kodak’s “real picture” postcards. As many types and styles as there are of postcards, there is an equal number of ways to talk about their histories.
Throughout this project, I’ve learned at first hand that postcards are personal and always have been. I didn’t start out to write a book that drew so heavily from collections of family postcards or to highlight my own different postcard experiences. But, completely unexpectedly, the medium lent itself to this approach, as postcards require us to recognize that global social networks are built out of individual stories and connections. The more I dug into stories about postcards, the more I found myself and my family in them.
For example, my own great-grandfather, Robert Boles, saved a shoebox full of hundreds of postcards that were sent to him between 1905 and 1920—what historians call the Golden Age of Postcards. His daughter, my grandmother, kept the cards for years and gave them to my mom, who has long been interested in family history from my dad’s side of the family. My mom bequeathed the postcards to me when I started the background research for Postcards, convinced that these family mementos would offer a way to humanize the global postcard phenomenon. She was right.
To that end, reading postcards in various libraries and archives felt a bit as though I was reading messages in bottles; I didn’t know the recipient or the sender, and the message on the back would have made sense only to them. To put it another way, it was like reading a stranger’s text messages and trying to figure out the backstory for any individual text. Drawing on postcards from my family’s collection meant that I “knew” the people writing, receiving, or saving the postcards in a way that I couldn’t with postcards from other institutional collections. It continued to make postcards personal.
Postcards have left an indelible imprint on the history of human communication, unmatched by any other material medium. They owe their success to the decentralization of their manufacture as well as the physical material connection they created between sender and recipient. Postcards and their digital descendants continue to be about personal connections—specifically, short, cheap, ephemeral messages. There are inexorable echoes of postcards in contemporary digital picture networks such as Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, TikTok, and other photo-sharing apps. We recreate old social networks—old postcard social lines, if you will—with every post of a digital picture. Postcards are not yet completely extinct.