Before Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, there was the postcard. The younger among us may never have sent one to anyone. Communication today is mostly instant, and mail is derogatorily called “snail mail” by the digital crowd. Since the world’s first picture postcard was sent to London-based writer Theodore Hook in 1840, the postcard has enjoyed much popularity as a means to share images and thoughts across regions and cultures. In recent times, that popularity has rapidly declined, mostly due to the rise of mobile phones and social media. Sending a postcard takes more time and effort than sending an email, or a message on social media, which makes postcards even more meaningful than they were when there was no instant alternative.
Writing a postcard requires you to slow down and give your full attention, and receiving one feels far more personal than receiving a message on an electronic device. A postcard is a tangible token of acknowledgement, and there is something magical about knowing that the piece of paper you hold in your hands has traveled a long distance and passed through the hands of many people to deliver to you the thoughts of another person. While “likes” are often given without much thought and hardly rise to the level of meaningful engagement, writing a postcard is an exercise in patience and mindfulness, and it shows that you really care – enough to buy a postcard, write on it, and go to the post office to buy stamps and send it.
In 2005, the love for postcards of then-university student Paulo Magalhães from Portugal led him to create the Postcrossing project. Postcrossing is an online platform that transcends geographic and political boundaries and connects people from across the globe. The idea is simple: for each postcard you send, you will receive a postcard. Anybody can join, regardless of age, gender, race, or belief.
To join and become a Postcrosser, all you need to do is go to www.postcrossing.com and create an account. Once you have an account, you can request to send a postcard. The website will provide you with the address of a random stranger as well as a unique postcard ID. You then send a postcard to that address. As long as you keep it friendly and polite, you may write whatever you like. You can share a curious fact about where you live, an anecdote from your life, or a poem you wrote. Be creative! Importantly, though, you must include the postcard ID. The recipient of your postcard will use that ID to register the postcard on the website once he or she has received it. You will then be notified that your postcard has reached, and yet another Postcrosser will be tasked with sending a postcard to you.
Currently, the Postcrossing community consists of close to 800,000 mail enthusiasts. They have to date exchanged more than 55 million postcards, which have traveled a combined 282,450,922,702 kilometers. As the website notes, that is “7,048,057 laps around the earth or 367,389 return trips to the moon or 944 return trips to the sun!” At any given moment, hundreds of thousands of postcards are traveling. So far, most postcards have been sent from Germany, more than eight million, followed by Russia and the United States.
If Africa was a country, it would rank between New Zealand and Slovakia. Close to 200,000 postcards have been sent from there, by about 3,000 Postcrossers. The majority of them, close to 1,900, live in South Africa and account for 134,722 postcards, placing the rainbow nation at rank 44 out of a total of 248 countries and territories. I have spoken to three of South Africa’s most active Postcrossers, Cecile from George, Jayne from Cape Town, and Charmaine from Pretoria.
Cecile wrote her first letter when she was six years old and in hospital. It was addressed to her grandfather. Ever since, she is fond of writing, be it letters or postcards, which is why she signed up for Postcrossing the moment she came across it while surfing the internet. “I have always wanted to communicate with people who lived in faraway places. Postcrossing offered a once-off communication with somebody unknown; yet the possibility to become pen pals later on, if so desired, was there.” To date, Cecile has sent 1,660 postcards, more than any other Postcrosser in South Africa.
She has received postcards from places as far away as Macao, Estonia, Uzbekistan, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, and South Korea, and throughout the years quite a few interactions on Postcrossing have developed into friendships. Cecile puts much effort into personalizing the postcards she sends, writing only after carefully studying the recipient’s profile, and likely leaving “a very small, funny line drawing of a cat, mouse, or something else.” She is always on the lookout for interesting new postcards and colorful stamps. To her, “the whole process of sending a card is magical, as you will be making indirect contact with somebody who does not know you or even realize that there is a card on its way from the southern tip of Africa!”
One of Jayne’s fondest childhood memories is of receiving postcards from her father whenever he was traveling abroad for work. There was no internet, so it “was a rare moment to connect with him and hear how he was doing.” Unsurprisingly, Jayne grew up to develop a liking for sending postcards herself, and joined Postcrossing immediately after hearing about it from a friend who was already a member. “I loved receiving interesting postcards from my friends who traveled abroad, and I loved the idea of making these micro-moment connections with strangers from all over the globe.” When people hear about her unique hobby, they are intrigued and ask many questions. “It is always an amazing conversation starter.”
One of the postcards Jayne treasures the most is one she received when living abroad. “I was undergoing a very traumatic time in my life, and this Postcrosser put immense care and thought into a postcard for a seeming stranger. They drew the most exquisite doodles all over the back that made the back its own artwork. When I received it, the care put into it provided me with a moment of joy. In fact, that whole period I lived abroad was transformed by the amount of postcards I received. I covered my walls in them, and it made the time there feel as homely as possible.” Even though it has been more than six years since Jayne joined Postcrossing, she says opening her mailbox and having postcards pour out of it still fills her with sheer delight.
Charmaine first learned about Postcrossing from an article she found browsing through a local magazine on a family trip to one of South Africa’s national parks. “The idea of receiving mail from all over the world, getting to know more about other countries, especially people, was an exciting thought. As I am passionate about South Africa, I could not wait to tell the world about our beautiful, unique Mzansi and all its interesting people and different cultures.” Sending postcards evokes feelings of nostalgia in Charmaine. It reminds her of the days when she was a young girl and writing letters and postcards was still a popular form of communication. “Birthday cards from family members with some money in it used to be the order of the day, so waiting for the postman to spot your name on an envelope kept children everywhere excited. We were taught to write and address letters in school, never realizing that the art of letter writing would soon be a thing of the past.” Charmaine’s favorite part of the Postcrossing process is sending postcards. “The mere anticipation of where your next postcard will be going keeps me buzzing. More than this, I enjoy browsing through the person’s profile and selecting a card that they would like.” Last year, she helped establish a South African Postcrossing group on Facebook, and she is planning to arrange a meet-up sometime this year, hoping to make friends who share her hobby. Postcrossing, she says, has taught her that people everywhere are kind, and it is the little things, like “getting a random Happy Birthday or somebody sharing a secret,” that make it all worth it to her.
Postcrossing brings people from different backgrounds together, promoting intercultural understanding and friendship, and bringing smiles to all corners of the world. The simple joy of finding a postcard in one’s mailbox is as pure and precious as little else, which makes it so very special.
Dr. Rainer Ebert is a Fellow of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics. He lives in Texas and can be reached at www.rainerebert.com.