When was the last time you sent a postcard? If you’re like me, it’s been a few years (if you can remember at all). But in the late 1800s, postcards were a wildly popular form of communication, used to commemorate everything from Franco-Prussian battles to a trip to the Eiffel Tower.
A new exhibit at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts takes a closer look at the humble medium, revealing an amazingly broad visual history of the 19th and 20th century therein. The Postcard Age is anchored by the 100,000-card collection of Leonard A. Lauder (son to cosmetics magnate Estée Lauder), who according to the New York Times, started his collection as a little kid, buying postcards with his five-cent allowance. Now almost 80, Lauder recently bequeathed his collection to the MFA, which will exhibit roughly 7% of them until April 2013.
The MFA likens postcards to the email or Twitter of the 19th century–a cheaper, faster, less formal way to communicate with one another. Although there’s some debate about who came up with the idea, the Austro-Hungarian postal service introduced small cards as a less expensive alternative to letters in 1869. They “exploded” across Europe, with over a billion postcards passing through the German postal service in 1903. “They were a truly democratic art form, accessible to a wide audience for just pennies, and provided a new arena for artistic experimentation,” explain the MFA’s curators. “In addition, they chronicled social change and served as a vehicle for commerce and propaganda.”
Lauder’s collection is a real pleasure to look at, including cards designed by Wassily Kandinsky and other emerging talents of the early 20th century. Many of them are satirical or artistic depictions of current events, ranging from Italian politics to World War I–“nearly every fad, fashion, social concern, artistic style, or political event of the era found its place on a postcard,” explains curator Benjamin Weiss. Others depict the lumbering race cars of the early 1900s, or the excitement of electric fans.
The Postcard Age joins a number of other books and exhibitions that pay homage to “low brow” visual culture, ignored by many historians. Another great example of the trend comes from Graphic Design Before Graphic Designers, a collection of visual artifacts made by commercial printers before “graphic design” was a profession. Lauder sweetly dedicates his collection to the memory of his wife, who often called it his “other mistress.” Indeed, adds curator Lynda Klitch, “Postcards were the people’s art and excited such passion that postcard collecting was often referred to as an addiction.”