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POSTCARDITIS

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In the first two decades of the 20th century, a craze for sending and collecting postcards swept the nation. A confluence of events created perfect conditions in the U.S. for the spread of “postcarditis,” as some journalists called the craze. First and foremost among the contributing factors was the Post Office Department’s creation of a national network of daily, free home delivery of mail.

The Department first experimented with home delivery of mail in the countryside — called “rural free delivery” or RFD — in 1896. Rural delivery brought mail directly to farms; previously, farmers had to make lengthy, periodic trips into town to pick up their mail. The delivery network grew rapidly, and mail volume grew right along with it. The peak growth years of rural delivery — 1901 to 1909 — coincided with the postcard craze.

Women especially benefited from rural delivery — they sent three times as many postcards as men, and received four times as many. Holiday postcards, which emerged around 1903, became so popular that Post Offices struggled to keep up with delivery. In February 1907, The Chicago Daily Tribune reported that “the valentine mail … is the greatest in the history of the local post office,” with one-third consisting of “pictorial postal cards bearing cupids, hearts, flowers, and lovely maidens.” The next month, The New York Times reported on a “perfect flood of Easter mail.”

Postcards were also embraced by travelers and tourists. In the summer of 1908, The Washington Post reported that postcards were “daily received by home-staying government employees from fellow clerks who have gone on vacations to cooler climes.” Arctic scenes were popular, including “cards portraying polar bears calmly riding through cool waters on the top of giant icebergs.”

During the height of the craze, most postcards sold in the United States were made in Germany. To protect American manufacturers, Congress increased import duties on foreign-made postcards in 1909.

The postcard craze peaked around 1910. Some historians credit the 1909 tariff act and World War I, which interrupted the flow of high-quality, low-cost imported cards, with ending the fad, but it may have been that the fad had simply run its course. Shortly after RFD connected the nation, telephone lines began crisscrossing America, offering an alternative form of quick communication.

Read more about the history of postcards and stamped cards at Our History: Stamps and Postcards.

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