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The Pleasures of Picture Postcards

I recently visited my neighborhood chain drug store to purchase picture postcards to send to friends. I purchased my previous batch there perhaps two years ago. After searching to no avail, I was informed by the clerk that the store no longer carried picture postcards. Apparently the space devoted to that one rack of postcards proved more lucrative selling something else.

The vanishing picture postcard should not be a surprise. The advent of communicating electronically has decimated communicating by mail and the postcard is one of the victims. For a generation that has never received one, picture postcards must seem completely outmoded.

I have a one word response to such thinking: baloney! In truth, no e-mail or text – even one accompanied by a photograph – offers the pleasures of a good old-fashioned picture postcard.

Begin with the messages. The postcard – picture or plain – is the most public of written communications. The message is there for everyone to see and no postcard is sent anonymously. Only a cretin would send a mean-spirited picture postcard. Since almost all picture postcards are mailed to family and friends, the messages are cordial and informal. They also are brief; only so many words fit in a box roughly three inches square.

Then there are the postcards themselves. Pictures of places visited. Pictures of places lived. Local and national landmarks. Scenic views. Great shots by top photographers. Many are beautiful. Some are meaningful. All are personal.

A fair number also are historic. Picture postcards have been with us for more than a century and offer a window to the past. Indeed, Images of America, a series of local history books, depends on picture postcards for a significant percentage of its illustrations.

Early Anderson Valley picture postcards include the usual subjects: the high school, various lumber mills, Hendy Grove, and local inns and resorts. More unusual subjects also appear, including rowboats on Anderson Creek(!).

Anderson Valley Unified High School near Boonville, circa 1928 (R Parker Collection)

Today I am sure at least a couple of local stores and a fair number of wineries in Anderson Valley offer postcards. If they don’t, they should. Back in the 1950s and early 1960s, Italian Swiss Colony Winery in Asti – arguably Sonoma County’s largest tourist destination at the time – provided free postcards to visitors. It even mailed them for free (to be fair, postage was only two or three cents back then). Smart promotion, then and now.

My own quest for picture postcards eventually took me to the internet. It is amazing how many unused vintage and not-so-vintage postcards are available, often at surprisingly reasonable prices. I bought a bunch, because I’ve decided to send multiples to family and friends over the next year.

Boonville Hotel in Boonville, circa 1907 (R Parker Collection)

Which card to which person? It depends. A friend dealing with memory problems received a card depicting Yosemite Valley, one of his favorite places. A family member received one of Monterey, where we vacationed years ago. Another received one of the Mendocino Hotel in Mendocino that probably dated from the early 1960s (the Greyhound bus sign was a clue). My preschool grandniece and grandnephew received one of the Bay Bridge, near where their grandma and grandpa live. The picture on the card probably is less important than the card itself, but it is nice to send one that fits.

El Rancho Navarro near Philo, circa 1949 (UC Davis University Library, Eastman Originals Collection)

The responses have been surprising. One recipient called me to say how much she appreciated the card – our first conversation in months. Another reciprocated with a card showing the town where she lives in Montana. There is something very cool about sending and/or receiving a picture postcard, something that moves people in ways no other communication can.

Do I expect picture postcards to make a huge comeback? No. The best I can hope for is more people sending and receiving them. Picture postcards offer a kind of magic and we need magic now more than ever.


  1. ColnectorElena January 31, 2019

    I love postcards with pictures of places I’ve visited or would like to visit :) Usually, I send them to my home address when I travel. I even made a small collection.

  2. George Hollister February 1, 2019

    Old picture postcards have a great deal of value to local historical societies around the country. A real concern for people who own these is who in their family will value, keep, and preserve these treasures in the years ahead? All it takes is one caretaker in the future to throw these postcards out. Speaking for my family, this is a real possibility. So I have done what I can to send these little items of historical value to historical societies that would appreciate them. And appreciate them they do.

  3. Julie St. John July 22, 2019

    A couple of years ago I began sending picture postcards to my grandsons from each place I was visiting on business-a way to show them the world as well as let them know how much I miss them. They have saved them too-and I hope to take each of them to those places some day.

  4. Todd L February 12, 2020

    I just found a post card the other day sent to me by your parents. I love reading the stories about El Rancho Navarro or Philo. I hope all is well.

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