Pictures on Postcards

Pictures on postcards were authorized by the Canadian post office in 1903 (postcards without pictures had been around since 1871), and over the next twenty-five years—a period known to postcard collectors as the Golden Age—postcards became popular as vacation souvenirs, and the images they bore became a preferred way of confirming one’s arrival at exotic destinations. For those who could afford it, custom-made postcards in tiny editions were available from professional photographers, who were to be found lurking with their equipment in the vicinity of picturesque sites such as the Hollow Tree in Stanley Park in Vancouver, which became during this time Canada’s most famous dead tree (often photographed with an automobile or horse and carriage drawn back into the hollow and occupied by well-dressed tourists sitting up straight). A photograph is a medium for transporting appearances from one place to another, and as such remains as mysterious today as it was a century ago. Photographs on their own are a residue or a trace of the past and seem more like hallucinations than objects; only when printed on postcards (or in magazines and newspapers), or arranged in albums or envelopes or stuck on the fridge, do photographs become embedded in a narrative that provides the context they need to make them comprehensible. These people are looking out toward family and friends, not at us, and we can infer by having grasped certain facts about postcards and the Hollow Tree that the message on the back of the card is a version of: “Here we are!” Postcard collectors are known as deltiologists and their hobby as deltiology, a coinage that emerged in the mid-twentieth century (apparently derived from the Greek for “small tablet”) to join those other ugly neologisms intended to elevate avocations into mysteries: philately and numismatology.

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