How do you get to know about your globetrotter friends’ exploits? Through their social media feeds? Instagram stories, Facebook updates, Snapchat streaks, and WhatsApp messages have taken over the art of writing on real paper. However, it was not very long ago that the tête-à-tête about an exciting holiday was delivered by the humble postcard—a desirable picture of the destination on one face, and the flip side detailing a friend’s experience. Though the circulation of these personal notes has now been limited to niche cliques, one can still appreciate the charm of the postcard. Here's a look at thow they evolved.
Internationally, the postcard hit the markets first in Austria, however the same was conceptualised by German postal official Dr. Heinrich von Stephan in North Germany in 1869. It was the better part of a decade when the instrument debuted in the Indian subcontinent. According to the book “Picturesque India: A Journey in Early Picture Postcards”, July 1879 marked the introduction of postcards in India for merely a quarter anna. Printed on a medium-light buff or straw card, “East India Post Card” was inscribed on the first product, along with the diademed head of Queen Victoria on the upper right-hand corner. On a global scale, popular monuments like the Eiffel Tower began featuring on the postcards in 1889. A Heligoland card, introduced in 1889, is believed to be the first-ever postcard to be printed in multiple colours.
Fast forward two decades—in 1899, the word ‘East’ was dropped, leaving just ‘India Post Card’ on the inscription.
Before photography took its place on the card as a permanent feature, lithograph print, woodcuts and broadsides were the only aspects available. As printing gained momentum in the nineteenth century, many experimented with special edition postcards made by prominent artists of the time.
With the British reign in India, the 1900s to 1930s saw the postcard as a means of communication for Europeans in colonies to connect with their families back home. Reports state that approximately six billion postcards were couriered through the British system between 1902 and 1910. Captures of one’s view while travelling became popular during the Yuletide and India was a common country to be seen. However, in these scenarios, locals were rarely seen in the pictures—monuments and empty landscapes were in vogue. On the other hand, many interesting or even tragic events would find their way on the face of the card.
As the years went on, more photographers and studios in the Bangalore-Madras belt began producing visuals on postcards to boost the Indian market. One can still find postcards from the 1930s captioned in English and Tamil. Ethnicity, gender, caste and occupation were the focal point when portraits of Indian natives made it on the postcard.
Come 1947, the historic year of Independence for India, the first postcard post-independence bore the new stamp design of the Trimurti in bright green. This was introduced in December of 1949. Unsurprisingly, many others were printed flaunting the images of Mahatma Gandhi—one with him holding a child, one where he’s spinning, at Sabarmati and so on. With the formation of the new capital, Delhi, many important landmarks of the city became a popular feature on the cards.
In 1979, an astonishing 2,100 million postcards were being delivered across the country, states a P&T department release celebrating the centenary of Indian postcards.
Unfortunately, the introduction of STDs (Subscriber Trunk Dialling) and PCOs (Public Call Offices) in the country stunted the growth of the cards in the 1990s. In 1993, however, India Post produced competition postcards after a popular show Surabhi with a weekly quiz. This generated some buzz.
As you may have imagined, the advent of the internet in the 21st century brought the beginning of the end of the postcard's popularity. So, India Post decided to run another idea to keep the business relevant. In 2002, the Meghdoot Postcard was introduced, offering advertisers space on the address side. This service, however, no longer exists. The option of advertising was a much later adapted feature as compared to the international market for the advertising card in the world was in Great Britain, as early as 1872.
To no one’s surprise, the postcard is no more the ‘it’ thing. There are easier modes of communicating with your smartphone in the palm of your hand. That being said, postcards have not completely been wiped off the face of the earth either. More indie companies have found a way to merge technology and print to come up with modern postcards, where one can simply use an application on the mobile to order a handwritten note for their loved ones. Some die-hard fans still buy and use them when on their travels. You will see many bookstores across India selling postcards with photos of local scenes in the front.
The future of the postcard in its traditional form may be rocky, however with the popularity of mixed media, who knows what else is possible?
Fun fact: The standard size of the postcard has largely stayed consistent, especially after a ban in Great Britain curbed the production of larger dimensions.