Cartes postales du bagne

Postcard #3. A short history of the postcard

As subsequent posts will explore, my understanding of the postcard as philosophical trope for thinking about incarceration and its aftermath draws heavily on Jacques Derrida’s La Carte postale: De Socrates à Freud et au-delà. In the extended preface ‘ENVOIS’, described as the preface to the book he hasn’t written, Derrida refers on various occasions to the history and technology of the postal system. In his evocations of the fax machine, the computer and the telephone, Derrida posits the postcard and the post, more generally, as an obsolete form of communication. Yet it is one he cannot abandon.

The history of the postcard in France and elsewhere is useful for understanding this ongoing attachment to its format. Ironically, perhaps, the early history of the postcard in France seems, at least retrospectively, to involve a failure by the French government and its postal service to appreciate that the success of the postcard as a mode of communication lies in the simplicity of its format. Its basic form and fiscal value underwent multiple, often unnecessarily complicated changes during the 1870s and 1880s with the hybrid ‘carte-lettre’ being introduced in 1886.

The first printed and patented postcard was produced in the United States in 1860. The first official European use of the ‘postcard’ as a form of correspondence took place in Austria in 1869 and the first ‘souvenir’ postcard is said to have been produced there. According to Georges Brunel in his history of the French postal system written at the end of the 18th century, during the first month 500,000 postcards were sold in Austria. While Brunel suggests that there was opposition from the French Minister of Finance, France followed suit in 1872 with the creation of their first postcard which went on sale in January 1873. However, the use of cards to send correspondence at regular postal rates seems to have occurred much earlier. The earliest known example is the picture card Theodore Hook sent to himself in London in 1840. The first known example of a postcard with a printed image dates from 1870 and was created by Léon Besnardeau at Camp Conlie, a training camp based in France during the Franco-Prussian war. Postcard collectors and historians seem to debate whether the card produced by Besnardeau really constitutes a ‘postcard’ since there was no space for stamps and it is unlikely it was ever sent without being first placed in an envelope thus defeating the purpose of the postcard as we have come to appreciate it. Derrida also talks of sending his postcards in envelopes, an open acknowledgement perhaps that he is cheating here. The most famous early picture and souvenir postcards were the 300,000 copies of ‘La Libonais’, a postcard (in 5 variations) featuring an lithographic image of the Eiffel Tower produced for the 1889 Exposition Universelle.

The first official French postcards were not franked but consisted of an ornate border, designated space on the right hand side for two 5 centimes stamps with the centre of the card reserved for the recipient’s address. The reverse was reserved for the message.

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In 1875 the printing of postcards was opened up to general industry with the following conditions. The postcards had to have dimensions of 12cm x 8cm and weigh between 2 and 5 grams. In 1878, the postcard acquired its own fiscal value. Many of the previous indications on the front of the card disappeared so that it just read:

CARTE POSTALE

Ce côté est exclusivement réservé à l’adresse.

Two lines were given for the writing of the address and the rest of the front was left blank.

During the early 1890s, the card on which the postcards were printed underwent a series of tint changes: lilac, ochre and pale green. Brunel laments the awfulness of the lilac tint but also points out the failure of the green postcards, produced using a paste that made writing on the cards very difficult.

In 1879, postcards with a ‘paid response’ or ‘cartes-réponses’ were introduced by the French postal system (Union postale). Brunel indicates that these were effectively two cards with one left blank by the sender. Brunel points to the paradox whereby the ‘cartes-réponses’ were valid across the Union postale whereas stamps were only valid in the country from which they were sent.

In subsequent posts, I will look briefly at the development of the postal service in French Guiana as well as the production of postcards within the space of the penal colony.

References

Brunel, Georges, Le Timbre-poste francais. Étude historique et anecdotique de la Poste et du timbres en France et dans ces Colonies francaises (Paris: Librairie Ch. Delgrave, 1896).

Cartolis. Conservateur Régional de la Carte Postale, ‘Histoire de la carte postale’, https://web.archive.org/web/20110718170635/http://www.cartolis.org/histoire.php. Accessed 7 June 2018.

Derrida, Jacques, La Carte postale: De Socrates à Freud et au-delà (Paris: Flammarion, 1980).

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