Wish You Were Here

Postcards depicting travel scenes and inscribed with cryptic messages are a dwindling form of communication.

C’mon, fess up. When’s the last time you bought a postcard and mailed it to someone?

“Dear Mrs. A. Here we are in the sunny South. Summertime in January, Flowers are all around. Roses, poinsettias, oleanders in gardens. Markets and cemeteries very quaint, Am taking pictures. So many historical places. Never dreamed New Orleans was so full of history, Went to a reception Wed. and met some writers and musicians. You would enjoy it so much, Hope to stay until April. Love to Cece, 1601 Esplanade Ave. Lillian F. Beales.”

This handwritten postcard with a picture of the New Orleans waterfront with steamboats, paddle wheelers and bales of cotton was postmarked in New Orleans, Jan. 25, 1909, and mailed with a 1-cent stamp to Mrs. Eva Mills Anderson in Manitowoc, Wisconsin.

Postcard circa 1930 showing Antoine's restaurant in New Orleans
From the author’s personal collection is a postcard circa 1930 from Antoine’s Restaurant on St. Louis Street in the French Quarter in New Orleans.

Postcards, a semi-endangered species in today’s social media world of cellphones with cameras, Instagram and Facebook, takes us time traveling to New Orleans over a century ago. The weird and wonderful messages crammed into a small space were a forerunner to Twitter in that the messages were limited and much less than 180 words.

They provided weather reports. They told of hotels and hotel rooms where they were staying. Cemeteries were also prominently mentioned. Not surprisingly, they talked about restaurants. A postcard with no dated postmark from later in the century says: “Hi! Having a good time. Nightclubs are beautiful. It is 90 degrees today. Moscas are really showing us around. We’ll see you soon. Love, Dom & Jen.” It was sent to Mr. & Mrs. Lee Castelli in Chicago Heights, Illinois.

According to the Library of Congress, the Detroit Publishing Co. by the late 1890s had accumulated a large stock of negatives and prints that were used to sell calendars and prints suitable for framing, The company also offered tourist views of hotels and resorts and landscapes such as Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone Park.

Privately printed postcards began appearing in Europe and the United States. The first American “postcards” were souvenir mailing cards sold at the Chicago Columbian Exposition in 1893. No writing was permitted on the backs of these cards so they were not very popular. When the “Greetings from ...” caption became available, they still weren’t well accepted because writing was forbidden on the address side, the message offered no privacy and postage was 2 cents — the deal breaker.

Without putting everyone to sleep with postalese reasoning, in 1896 the U.S. Postmaster General finally OK’d writing on the back of the cards and a reduced 1-cent postage. The first postcards as you know them today appeared in 1898. Today that same postcard rate is 36 cents.

The New Orleans scenes on the postcards are predictable, but many are altered today. The old Brulatour Courtyard is now part of The Historic New Orleans Collection Museum. The vine-shrouded gateway to Metairie Cemetery has given way to the I-10 Expressway. The waterfront at Jackson Square is now the Moonwalk.

Luckily, Pirate Alley is still Pirate Alley. The Napoleon House still serves a thirst-quenching Pimm’s Cup, the venerable Antoine’s still has its famed baked Alaska, Arnaud’s still features oysters Bienville and Commander’s Palace’s tour de force is turtle soup.

New Orleans still beckons. C’mon down and buy a postcard and mail it to someone.