In the early 20th century, the popularity of the pocket camera in America led to a wave of DIY postcards. The snapshots depicted anything that the sender wanted to share with remote friends or colleagues, from family snapshots to amateur photojournalism. According to former BB guestblogger Mark Dery, real-photo postcards "are transmissions from the postmortem Internet," and they definitely have the feel of a visual Tweet shared with one's social network. In the Las Vegas Weekly, Dery reviews a recent book on the topic, Folk Photography: The American Real-Photo Postcard 1905-1930, by Luc Sante, author of the seminal account of New York City's underbelly in the early 1900s, Low Life. Dery's review of the book makes me want to start collecting Real-Photo Postcards. Me and everyone else, I'm sure. From Dery's essay, titled "Ghost Cards":
In one of those harmonic convergences of popular desire, profit motive, and governmental intervention that punctuate media history, the emergence of the real-photo postcard as the cell-phone snapshot of small-town America was the result of Kodak’s rollout, in 1903, of its cheap, easy-to-use No. 3A Folding Pocket model; the U.S. Postal Service’s introduction, in 1905, of the penny rate for postcards; and the growing penetration of Rural Free Delivery into heartland America."Ghost cards: Thanks to Folk Photography, at long last, we’ve got mail" (Las Vegas Weekly)
To Sante, these postcards constitute a “ghost telegraph,” as he told a radio interviewer. In Folk Photography, he writes, “The real-photo card was typically a product of the small town, particularly the small town isolated on the plains, whose newspaper did not have the capacity to reproduce half-tones, and whose lonely citizens felt an urgent need to communicate with absent friends, distant in those days even if they lived only three stops down the railroad line.” Like the blues, field hollers, chain-gang songs and other folkways of Old Weird America, real-photo postcards served as a social network, a kind of Basement Tapes of the backwoods unconscious, reporting local news, memorializing personal tragedies, scrapbooking sentimental moments.
David Pescovitz is Boing Boing's co-editor/managing partner. He's also a research director at Institute for the Future. On Instagram, he's @pesco.