An Introduction to Courtship Postcards
As postcards emerged in the latter half of the nineteenth century, they started to expand into a large variety of subcategories; one of these genres was courtship postcards depicting romantic images and pick-up lines. Some of these postcards were overtly flirtatious, but people didn’t exclusively send them to romantic interests. Oftentimes the handwritten notes on the back had nothing to do with the image on the front, revealing a disconnect between the medium and the context in which they were sent. It was common to see a romantic postcard sent between friends or cousins for comedy, and some would even send postcards depicting the pitfalls of relationships to their significant other as a lighthearted joke.
What exactly are Memes?
The term meme was originally coined in 1976 by Richard Dawkins to describe an idea, practice, or text that is meant to be imitated. You may have heard the term in recent years to describe social media or internet memes, which are typically jokes depicted by images paired with a caption. Oftentimes, memes go viral for their humorous and relatable content; internet users can copy, edit, remix, and repost popular memetic images with their own captions! This scale of reproduction has never been seen before, making memes one of the most popular and relatable forms of communication across social media platforms.
What do Postcards and Memes Have in Common?
The combination of an eye-catching image and a comedic caption on these early 20th century postcards may look familiar; modern internet memes share the same format, and the two mediums are more alike than they may seem. Many courtship postcards were flirtatious, jarring and even scandalous, but were often sent between friends and family as a form of lighthearted humor— the same way we communicate with memes today. With both postcards and internet memes, the added message and the relationship between the sender and recipient completely change the context of the artifact. This places both mediums within the larger narrative of new media; as the artifact is reproduced and shared, the original meaning is transformed.
Similar to other sections of the exhibition, this collection illustrates how postcards serve other functions than merely to share travel locations. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they led a push for new media that resulted in mass-production of cheap, accessible and efficient channels of communication. The limitations placed on postcards—printing costs, materials and transportation—do not affect internet memes, as they possess the opportunity to be duplicated, edited, and redistributed like no other medium.
As you look at these postcards, consider how both the caption and the added writing on the back alter the context of the image. Would you send these postcards to a romantic interest, or just to joke around with family and friends? Can you think of any memes with a similar disconnect between content and context?
This postcard is dated to around 1910, definitely pre-WWI, as this macabre humor would be deemed highly inappropriate during or after the war.
It depicts two young men (soldiers) and a young woman on a U.S. battleship. The caption is actually a song lyric, as this postcard was part of a “song series,” perhaps to promote a music publisher or song release. Song lyrics are often used to caption popular memes!
This postcard is from 1906 and the original caption was written with poetic themes in mind, however the handwritten caption contradicts the tone. The handwritten note from Paul to Gayle is meant to be fun and flirtatious, something modern memes are used for as well. The contradiction of moods between the two captions is also a characteristic of modern memes as they often delve in “dark humor”.
This 1914 courtship postcard is flirtatious, but also would have been scandalous at the time. During a period when women were expected to always don full dress, this woman is wearing the 1910’s equivalent of underwear. The sender and recipient were likely family or committed partners — at the turn of the century, you probably wouldn’t have sent something this risqué after the first date.
Postcards give us the unique opportunity to view the nuances of communication of the past. This look into our societal history can help us better visualize the past and connect us culturally. People often view the past with a disconnected and dull lens as a result of the way history is taught to us when we are young. Seeing pictures, illustrations, and personal written letters of the time period allows for better conceptualization.
Media and culture are constantly fluctuating and progressing, and the only way it can evolve is if we remember the past. Being able to connect through humor like we do with internet memes is only possible because people did it first with postcards. It is reassuring to see that no matter how difficult times get, humor always endures.
Shifman, Limor. “Meme.” In Digital Keywords: A Vocabulary of Information Society and Culture, edited by Peters Benjamin, 197-205. Princeton; Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2016. 197.