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The first postcard was copyrighted in the U.S. by John P. Charlton in 1861. (Photograph by Tyler Metcalfe, National Geographic Travel)

The Postcard Project

“Are postcards obsolete?” asked a recent article in the Washington Post Travel section. Well, it depends on who’s answering.

I’ve been collecting postcards since I was a little kid—keepsakes from my own travels as well as postcards friends and relatives have sent me. In fact, they’re the only thing I collect—aside from half-used hotel toiletries—when I’m on the road. That makes me, I found out, a deltiologist.

I file the postcards more or less alphabetically by state and country in a sturdy green plastic carrying case that used to hold collectible wildlife cards that I would get every month in the mail as a grade schooler.

Leafing through my collection, I tab past a postcard of Krakow, Poland, to one from Pennsylvania’s Omni Bedford Springs Resort. I have a postcard dated 1979 showing the scene inside an Atlantic City casino from a family friend (“Please send money immediately. Ha! Ha! Arm is very tired.”) and one from Grenada that I picked up last September.

Yet even I have to admit I rarely send postcards anymore when I travel, much less receive any.

I still buy them for my collection, if I can find them, but mailing one in an actual post office? It’s easier to upload a pic on Facebook.

The Post reported that sales of postcard stamps in the United States have declined significantly; the U.S. Postal Service processed 770 million stamped postcards in 2014, down from 1.2 billion in 2010 (though those numbers are likely skewed by promotional postcards).

The fate of the postcard is also suggested when visiting the places that used to sell them. And where they are still to be found, the variety of the cards on offer seems to be taking a nosedive.

All signs point to the imminent death of this iconic form of correspondence.

But a recent visit to Washington’s Sackler Gallery gave me reason for hope.

A section of “The Traveler’s Eye” exhibit featured vintage dispatches from the turn of the 20th century to the 1920s—the golden age of postcards.

I was intrigued to learn that postcards have served multiple purposes, beyond being pretty souvenirs, over time. Tinted scenes showing exotic, nonthreatening—and newly French—Algeria helped market the country to prospective European settlers. An onboard scene with Mount Fuji in the background advertised the S.S. Mongolia cruise ship.

There were postcards in the exhibition depicting a camel caravan in Iraq, a jinrikisha driver in China, a man being carried in a sedan chair in India. “It’s amazing how many postcards dealt with modes of travel,” Sackler curator Nancy Micklewright told me.

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A jinrikisha driver totes two young girls in China in a postcard from early 20th-century China. (Photograph by Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery Archives)

Others were particularly poignant in light of contemporary events, bearing witness to places and things that no longer exist or are in danger of being destroyed, like the citadel in Aleppo, Syria.

Across oceans and decades, postcards have proven more often than not to be as relevant now as when they were first dropped in the mail.

They’ve also been consistent sources of elation and wonder at the world throughout time. Who doesn’t smile when they receive a postcard in the mail, especially in this day and age?

It may be easier to upload a pic on Facebook. But, as Nancy Pope, a senior curator at the National Postal Museum who still sends postcards to friends and family with enthusiasm, notes: “It’s not the thing that you pull out of your mailbox and pin to the wall.”

Maybe postcards aren’t on their way out. I sure hope not. In fact, I’m resolving here and now to rekindle the childlike joy in sending and receiving postcards by paying it forward myself.

Who’s with me?

Mail us a postcard from your travels or even from your hometown for a chance to be featured in National Geographic Traveler magazine or online.

Include your full name and where you live in your note, along with a short paragraph about what makes wherever you are unique. The more specific (and surprising), the better!

Finally, use hashtag #postcardproject to spread the word or to share your postcard on Twitter and Instagram!

Send to:

National Geographic Traveler
c/o Amy Alipio
1145 17th St NW
Washington DC 20036.

Amy Alipio is features editor at National Geographic Traveler magazine. Follow her on Twitter @amytravels and on Instagram @amyalipio.