The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Are postcards obsolete?

postcards0301_online (Julia Yellow for The Washington Post)

We no longer wish you were here.

Or rather, these days, an individual I is much less likely to scrawl such a message on a postcard to a particular You. The collective We and the aggregate You communicate incessantly, of course. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and all that.

But it’s just not the same.

I started wondering about postcards in September, while traveling in East Asia. I bought them at museums in Tokyo and Gyeongju, South Korea; a bookstore in Kagoshima, Japan; and a monastery in Hong Kong that’s the site of the world’s largest seated outdoor bronze Buddha. (Yes, that’s a category.)

The big Buddha had been prime postcard bait when I was in Hong Kong 15 years earlier. Yet this time I saw postcards of it for sale only at the monastery itself. Souvenir shops, convenience stores and street stalls no longer sold them, or any other views of the ambivalently Chinese city-state. It was far easier to find a “selfie stick” than a postcard.

[Christmas postcards: America’s first social media]

A paper practice on the wane

For me, sending postcards is not simply force of habit or a tiny revolt against the “like us on Facebook” inanity of social media. It’s more personal than a generalized cyber-posting or e-blast, and at the same time less narcissistic. Postcards widen the conversation by adding a third element: the image itself, whether tacky or beautiful, generic or informative.

They’re also, in a way, more real. “It’s the actual physical feel of something,” says Nancy Pope, head curator of the History Department at the National Postal Museum, and “still one of those” who sends postcards. “When you’re able to actually hold something in your hand, that trumps reading something electronically any day.”

But not for many people. That sales and usage have been slipping in the United States — or across the globe, for that matter — seems self-evident. When was the last time you received a bona fide handwritten postcard? (It counts even if it comes from one of those people who use pre-printed address labels.) But quantifying the decline is tricky.

The U.S. Postal Service processed 770 million stamped postcards in fiscal 2014, down from 1.2 billion in 2010, according to figures provided by agency spokesperson Sue Brennan. The USPS doesn’t count how many of those were personal postcards, rather than promotional pieces of some kind. But most of the latter are classified as presorted bulk mail, a separate and larger category that’s diminishing at a slower pace (down to 2.3 billion pieces, from 3.1 billion in the same period).

Sales of postcard stamps have also declined significantly, although Brennan cautions that many people use regular first-class stamps on postcards. At the current rates of 49 cents for letters and 34 cents for postcards, that’s a 15-cent gift to the USPS.

As for the printed postcard business, in 2013 it was “probably half what it used to be,” says Matthew Tobin, then-president of the U.S. Souvenir Wholesale Distributors Association, in an interview with the Providence Journal that year. (His successor could be not be reached for comment.)

Whatever the exact numbers, the disappearance of postcards is apparent just by visiting the places that used to sell them. Locally, postcards have disappeared from newsstands, which are also in the process of vanishing.

In Washington, postcards are available from some, but not all, locations of the drugstore chains CVS, Rite Aid and Walgreens. Hotel gift shops and souvenir stores carry them, if in much narrower variety than a decade ago. (And at very different prices, ranging from a buck at the Mayflower hotel to a quarter at Souvenir City, seven blocks east at 10th and K streets NW.) Washington’s museum gift shops still sell postcards, although the selection is dwindling. The store shared by the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum carries individual cards, but emphasizes books of them: 30 for $10.95. Americana dominates, with collections of works by Norman Rockwell, Winslow Homer, Georgia O’Keefe and the Hudson River School.

The broadest selection is at the National Gallery of Art, which stocks more than 100 individual cards, as well as postcard books. Most are of works from the collection, although there are also seven different images taken at the gallery itself, with an emphasis on the flashier East Building.

The gallery’s chief of retail operations, David Krol, reports by e-mail: “Our postcard sales remain steady, with additional bursts due to special exhibitions. There has been no unusual drop in activity.”

Not just for vacation

Ramsay Teviotdale and Bill Tinto, a widely traveled Arlington couple who still send and receive postcards, are not National Gallery postcard types. “We usually go to the cheapest outlet. Not the museums, obviously. They’re very expensive,” Teviotdale says. “When we were in Memphis, we got all our postcards at the Walgreens.”

They have noted a decline in card variety and availability, but they have yet to be inconvenienced. “We do like looking at tourist stuff,” Tinto says. “We like the tacky souvenirs, and the postcards are usually right there.”

In France, Teviotdale recalls, they found many examples of the sort of free promotional postcards no longer distributed in Washington. But, she admits, in India, “the only ones we saw were postcards of the Taj Mahal we bought at the airport.”

Teviotdale and Tinto are baby boomers who use postcards to communicate with their peers and the members of the generation right above them. They recognize that postcards, and mail in general, are less important to gens X and Y. “Some of these kids who go off to college never know where their mailbox is,” Teviotdale says.

An exception to that e-oriented outlook is Ben Apatoff, a Washington-raised Brooklynite who’s just over 30. He sends postcards when he travels and on other occasions. “It’s a habit I picked up from one of my best friends, who lives in Mexico,” he says. “He went to college in the States and then moved back.”

“I saw how it was a really easy way to make people feel good,” he says. “If I go on a trip and send postcards, people are so appreciative. It doesn’t take a lot of effort, but it’s been a great way to keep in touch with people.”

Postcards became more important to Apatoff when he took a break from social media networks. He still doesn’t use Instagram, but he has returned to Facebook, which he uses mostly for political and community organizing. Even in this realm, he says, he follows up via snail mail. “I always thank them with a postcard, so people know what they’re doing is important. People have a really positive reaction to it. That’s really the reason I keep doing it.”

Although he picked up cards from a restaurant in Mexico, Apatoff generally doesn’t go for local color. He prefers art or architecture, such as the images of gargoyles at the National Cathedral he bought on a recent D.C. visit. “I like the ones that I can get an education from, if it’s a famous painter or sculptor or someone like that. Or old historical ones, like Civil War photography.”

Purists probably wouldn’t object to using postcards the way Apatoff often does, as a more personal and palpable alternative to e-mail. But some might question a card featuring a famous painting or vintage photo if it’s not sent from a site associated with that image.

“You don’t choose a postcard because of the space on the back,” says Pope, who organized a 1995 exhibition of vacation postcards titled “Are We There Yet?” (She actually had to borrow the items, since the Postal Museum doesn’t collect postcards, only postcard stamps.) “You choose it because of the image on the front. And the connection that has between you and the place, or you and the person you’re sending it to.

“It’s a personal or an emotional decision you’re making, a connection that you’re making using this third piece, this piece of cardboard — to emphasize, create or establish a memory.”

Teviotdale and Tinto think a card should be mailed from where it was bought, or nearby. “Even if it’s from the airport, we try to do that,” Tinto says.

“You want the postmark to be authentic,” Teviotdale adds.

That doesn’t concern Apatoff. “I don’t necessarily have to send them from the place where I am,” he says. “I can take some postcards from Mexico back to the States and mail them while I’m here.”

An origin story

One allure of the medium is that they convey not just an image and message, but also a material bit of another place. The coolest Internet-posted snapshot of Angkor Wat or the Patagonian Andes is not as concrete as a small rectangle of printed cardboard that actually traveled from there to you.

“It’s a warmth you cannot get from electronics, no matter how nice the Instagram picture is,” Pope says. “It’s not the thing that you pull out of your mailbox and pin to the wall.”

In South Korea, I sent a postcard to friends whose ­elementary-school-age son, Min, was adopted from that country as an infant. He claimed the printed-cardboard talisman and put it on his wall — both a picture of a meaningful place and an actual piece of it.

Yes, Min could have printed out an Instagram image and put it on his wall. But it’s just not the same.

Jenkins writes about film, music and visual art for The Washington Post and NPR.

More from Travel:

Travel Guide

Ski Guide

Caribbean Guide