Postcards : Miniature Masterpieces & micro-blogs of yore!

There are 306 billion emails that are sent out each day. Yet somehow, the warmth, intimacy and anticipation that a handwritten letter or postcard brings with it, is irreplaceable. For this edition we explore how ‘Postcards’, one of the most loved 19th century trends, came to be such a hit in India.

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In 1865, when a German postal official, Dr. Heinrich von Stephan suggested the idea of introducing postcards (or the postblatt), a debate ensued around privacy concerns. But in 1869, Dr. Emanuel Herrmann (a professor of Economics from Vienna) wrote an article in the Neue Freie Presse favouring the postcard, and the need for a cost-effective medium for “short” messages. He argued, that it would be cheaper for those who did not want to make the effort of writing a lengthy letter. The Austria-Hungary Post approved of his suggestions and on October 1, 1869, the first postcard or “Correspondenz-Karte” was launched.

Picture of the first postcard (Correspondenz-Karte) of Austria since 1. Oktober 1869; Austrian version ; Date sent: 22. Oktober 1870; arrival postmark: 23. Oktober 1870

From Austria, the postcard-trend quickly spread to the rest of Europe, US (1873) and Canada (1871). Interestingly, the story of India’s postcard journey, is closely linked to Germany and Austria.

In the Indian subcontinent, the first postcard had been issued on July 1, 1879. At the time, it only cost 1/4th of an anna to send one anywhere in British India, and 11/2 Anna for sending to a country affiliated to the Universal Postal Union. By 1883, 26 million postcards had been sold!

In 1896, when a young Mohandas K. Gandhi arrived in Bombay, in the backdrop of the growing nationalist movement, Postcards had already become an instrumental mode of communication. But there was more to the postcard – it was also an essential staple of a booming souvenir industry.

Girls School in Jaipur; Artist Cards from a World Tour 1898, Josef Hoffmann [signed], Joseph Heim, Vienna, Austria, 1898. Lithograph. Photo: Paper Jewels from the Raj, Mapin Publishing

Omar Khan, historian and author of Paper Jewels: Postcards from the Raj writes:

A photograph was sent to Dresden, postcards were struck from it and shipped back to Jaipur, sold outside the Hawa Mahal, mailed from Mumbai to London, due to arrive in two weeks, a minor miracle for a few annas or pennies.

By the 1880’s, Germany had come to dominate the industry of chromolithography with many postcards being printed there. One of India’s most famous artists, Raja Ravi Varma even imported German-made machinery to set up his own lithographic press in the 1890s. Like Ravi Varma, the postcard-print afforded many artists in India (and around the world) to have their work published and recognised widely.

Printed in Germany; Publishers : Moorli Dhur & Sons, Ambala Cantt.

The early 1900s witnessed a raging Postcard-trend, supported by a growing nexus of publishers, artists and photographers in different cities and towns. Mortimer Menpes and his partner visited the Delhi Durbar of 1903 and created a series of illustrations for their account ‘The Durbar’ – these were further printed and circulated as postcards offering a mini-visual of India and her people.

a popular stall in Northern India.

And so, postcards became a medium for sharing India’s essence with the world (often though, the visuals tended to reinforce colonial stereotypes). Through these small sized vignettes, one could catch a glimpse of places that weren’t easy to travel to.

Printed by Raphael Tuck & Sons.

At this point, there was a considerable growing interest amidst people in collecting cards, not just using them for correspondence. This is evident by the high volume of participation in postcard-contests hosted by the publishers Raphael Tuck & Sons (these began in 1900). Prizes of £1,000 were offered for the largest collection of Tuck cards sent through post.

With the advent of photography, the popularity of postcards soared.

India, 1904
India, Street Scene Jaipur, Printed by Clinton & Co.Bombay.

From colonial propaganda to souvenirs – the postcard had served a variety of purposes. Advertising was not far behind. With the Swadeshi Movement gaining momentum (1907-11) and with the installation of the printing machine in Calcutta (1907), postcards soon became an ideal way to promote products.

The Air India Postcards from the 1960s, continue to be a popular “Collectors Item”!

Post Independence, postcards have also been used by the Government for awareness campaigns. The ‘Meghdoot’ Post card for instance, introduced in 2002, which also offered advertising space, was primarily used for these.

We cannot close a newsletter on postcards without mentioning the Doordarshan show, Surabhi. In the 90s, the show created a record when they received 14 lakh letters in a week. The show’s “contest” segment inspired the Indian Postal Service to introduce a special ‘Competition Postcard’ costing Rs.2 (as opposed the normal 15 paise). Of course, a lot of TV shows started to use the Competition Postcard, making it a huge success.

Surabhi TV hosts Siddharth Kak and Renuka Shahane read postcards received from viewers.

On October 9, we celebrate World Post Day. But throughout this month, we’ll be sharing the many stories postcards tell : from satirical and artistic expressions to War-time tales; landscapes, historical episodes and greetings to art movements and fashion trends, & of course…the iconic Air India ones ! Stay tuned!

As museums digitise and transcribe letters & postcards, one thinks of how these have survived centuries. And yet, this email, despite its technological privilege (sent to you with as much love), might not live as long as these postcards. 

News Flash : 📝 Do you have a story to share? You can now send us drafts through Twitter! Compose a twitter-thread and type in “@theheritagelab publish” as your last tweet. It will be submitted to us and you will be notified once published! See an example.

Photo of the Week

  • A photo by Elliott Erwitt 1999 for the Lavazza Calendar. The story of Lavazza using photography to communicate the “coffee culture” is a story we love. From their sensual, erotic photos (1993-1998), the Italian coffee brand shifted focus to “culture” spotlighting countries like India, Turkey and Ethiopia. 
  • See pictures

That’s all for this week 🙂 If you spotted something fascinating from a gallery, museum, archive or library, tell us about it! Whether it is a link, image, or story, we’d love to hear from you at [email protected]Thanks for reading!

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