Thursday, December 6, 2012

Harry Potter's Penny Postcard

Let's do something only 3% of consenting adults are brave enough to do....

In the change-the-oil-yourself-sort-of-lower-middle class household I grew up in, a special dinner would have been hotdogs wrapped in Kraft American cheese singles and inserted into crescent rolls. Did you boil the hotdogs first? Probably, and with lots of salt, then maybe the rest got finished in the oven. You wanted the cheese gooey but without burning the rolls. We were stylin' then, any occasion when we planned to have such fancy food.

Looking back, of course, I am amused by it, and while I have yet to find a passion for caviar or escargot, I am now a bit more up market, and I do now know my way around Trader Joe's. One middle class tradition that my parents did indulge in (and in this, we were perhaps a bit more ambitious than our neighbors) was to take car trips to other states. We stayed in motels, not just with relatives or at a campground, and while we generally ate at least one picnic meal a day to save money, we did go to lots of coffee shops and state parks and curio shops. My mother brought her address book on these trips and unfailingly mailed off the obligatory postcards to the folks back home, and, when those relatives traveled, they traded the same back to us.

Although postcards as picture spaces are more post-World War II, the tradition of postcards themselves goes back to the very start of the 20th century. Initially, images were colored by hand and produced in color lithography.

After World War II, postcards were usually cheap (five cents or a dime), as was postage (comparatively speaking). Now lost from American English, there used to be a sort of generic term, like "email" today ---- the so-called penny postcard. It could have been purchased with a printed stamp directly from the post office, or else one used a one or two cent stamp on one's own note or card. Even though rates had gone up, the term stayed in use.

In the 1950s, with the rise of post-war travel and the availability of cheap color printing, picture postcards were produced in the tens of thousands. In the words of Wikipedia, "These still photographs made the invisible visible, the unnoticed noticed, the complex simple and the simple complex."

I still collect and send postcards, but I think it's the end of an era. According to The Guardian, a newspaper in London, this year only 3% of Britons will send back postcards from their vacations.

Now we have Instagram and Facebook, so writing a solo card to a solo recipient seems dreadfully inefficient, plus we can't include ourselves in the picture. Who needs postcards?

I will miss them, once they're gone completely.

This postcard of Wisconsin, with its "photo no-no" middle-of-the-view horizon line, diminutive silos, and hideously cold looking landscape, wants to celebrate the Wisconsin-ness of Wisconsin. I bought this recently (just in the past few years), and I suspect what I see in the postcard (mainly, a view of a climate and lifestyle I am glad to be separated from) is probably not what the designer intended. For one thing, unless it's intended ironically, we could almost use this in an art appreciation class as an example of what NOT to do when designing a composition. For another, if they're hoping to attract settlers or even tourists, this ain't doing that either. Still, its lack of pretension and its folk charm does make it authentically "Midwestern."

Postcards were normal and abundant up until very recently. It was like pay phones (every gas station had one) or a DMV office open all the days of the work week except maybe Christmas. Postcards were a fact of life. This postcard below of a jet I also got not that long ago --- handed out free by Lufthansa on board a flight, as a branding give-away. I assume the practice was discontinued shorted after I picked this card up.

One reason I love postcards is their ability to be inexplicable. Here's a card I bought in Namibia, which formerly was a German colony. This postcard shows a procession of Himba tribal people filing past the graves of the German soldiers, at least one of which has the date of 1908. What anniversary is this? Why are they here? Why still in complete tribal clothing? (Some more European-dressed people are at the end of the line.) It's a great mystery. When I was in New Guinea in 1984, the government had just stopped allowing a postcard to be sold showing a woman breast feeding a pig. Pigs were used to pay dowries, and an orphaned one was a valuable family asset. I am sure now those postcards go for absurd amounts of money to fetish collectors. Here is the Namibia postcard:

Many of us can still remember staying up all night at Barnes & Noble when the next Harry Potter book was due to be released. Less easy to remember were the ways those books were advertised. Here's another free postcard that was given out at hip places like bars, indy movie theaters, and boutique bookstores. Note the date printed on the card.

It seems an impossibly long time ago. In my family we all looked forward to the next book equally, kids and adults alike. Another "blast from the past" is this card, which, frankly, I never thought would become a past-tense memory. Once upon time, under the direction of then-faculty member Mike Traina, we had an Antelope Valley Independent Film Festival. It ran 13 years and premiered films from around the world. Here's a publicity postcard. The festival may yet come back (maybe next fall), but once Mike Traina left, it has been difficult to revive it. This card almost feels like an invitation to a funeral.

Morbidity and postcards often dance in unintentional partnership. From the doomed Robert Falcon Scott expedition to the South Pole, here's a base camp shot. None of the horses survived that trip. The postcard shows a vintage wet plate photograph from 1912, but the card is more recent: this is from a polar study center in Cambridge that I have done research at. Sort of sad, though, to feature doomed men and dying horses on a postcard? Just as morbid is the comment rarely said out loud but more or less true --- had Scott come back alive from this trip, given that World War I started in 1914, he and the other officers would probably have died in that great mess.

Maybe it is just my own morbid nature, but I have been to a number of human catastrophe sites. When I went to Treblinka, a Nazi death camp site in Poland, no souvenir postcards were for sale, but at "ground zero" in Hiroshima, I bought several things, including this elegant shot of a backlit monument. What the text says in Japanese I do not know.

A lot of debate about the atom bombs arose later, though at the time, it was (in America) universally praised. Anti-Nazi propaganda centered on Hitler or the Nazi party, but in the Pacific side of W W II, we demonized the Japanese people universally, separate from leadership or party affiliation. This is a scan from a book on war memorabilia, and it shows a postcard one could buy during the Second World War. The text says, "Here hangs the pelt of a Jap / Who mistook a Yank for a sap / He never deserved to be preserved / So we just kept his hide and his cap." This racist doggerel (as vicious as anything you would have found in Germany, denouncing Jews) was perfectly acceptable: you could buy this card at the dime store (the precursor to Target) and send it through the U.S. Mail to Aunt Bessie or maybe your favorite Sunday School pastor. A card like this reads like a time capsule or an x-ray of white America's narrow view of humanity. If you're a person of color or foreign or not a member of the Elks Club, we will skin you like an animal and then laugh about it.

Let us hope that in another generation or two, after we have had not just a Black president but a gay one and a mixed race one and a Mormon one and a blind one, that a postcard like the World War Two anti-Japanese one will be so distant it will be almost impossible to explain.

Here is a recent card (less than a year old) that I got in Iceland. It's part of a tourism campaign to preserve and celebrate Icelandic folk expressions. First, the card itself.

That is not a typo: "skyr" is a kind of sour yoghurt served with sugar and cream." Several people have tried to explain this card to me. Do note that it is in English. Here is a picture of what modern Icelandic looks like, when written out.

So, yes, I for one am glad the card is in English. Once at a gas station the self-serve pump's software was glitzy, and instead of bilingual options, I had to gas the car up only using Icelandic direction. I still don't know if I got premium unleaded, diesel, or perhaps a tank full of skyr. Anyway, back to the card itself. This folk saying apparently says one thing but means another. At the literal level, if you own the skyr, of course you get to gobble it so fast you splash it all over. But according the note on the back of the card, it means something more like "people [ especially politicians ] who live in glass houses shouldn't throw the first stone." In America, we speak of pork barrel politics, that is, Washington politicians who make sure that needless projects in their home districts get funded, to ensure their own reelection (at the expense of the national debt). Maybe we could adopt something from the Icelandic people --- speak not of how much pork is in the next appropriations bill, but how much curdled yoghurt.

Here's a card that like the Icelandic one uses a literary phrase (in this case, a line from a poem by the late Charles Bukowski) but also manages to be a scenery card, too, at the same time. Take that, Wisconsin! In this instance, the card itself is sold by the Huntington, since they own Bukowski's papers. (The image itself is credited to his widow. I assume the billboard appeared after he himself passed away.) I never went to hear him read when I was in college; at Glendale College and later Northridge, I usually worked two jobs and sometimes three. I went to as many literary events as I could, but sometimes I didn't have the gas money to drive across town, or else I had to work and couldn't get off. The one that I nearly did attend, Bukowski was so drunk he was nearly incoherent. That may seem hip and cool and Bohemian, but if you grew up around men like that, there's not much romance in it up close and personal.

The next postcard for my collection almost certainly will have an alligator or an orange tree on it, or maybe a manatee. Once grades are in after finals week, I will be leading a small birdwatching tour in Florida, home of cheesy alligator farms and even cheesier postcards . . . or at least it used to be. If Florida no longer has postcards then the world really is coming to an end. Or maybe it's all just evolving. According to The Guardian, there's a new service starting in England, where you can email a photo to a printing company, and they will convert that into a real postcard and mail it to somebody's whose address you supply.  It costs about $3 in US cash --- the ever increasing cost of a penny postcard.

The AVC blog is curated by Charles Hood, Language Arts. He can be reached at