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Wish You Were Here: The Holiday Postcard

Vancouver postcard 1990s

Pop up Vancouver

Does anyone send holiday postcards any more?

One of my old holiday rituals was to pick the perfect postcards for friends and loved ones. For years, I even held a competition with my friend Dave to see who could send the tackiest!

Today, social media is king, and the humble postcard is dying a death. Writing these old-fashioned ‘greetings’ from abroad has been superseded by Instagram photos and social media videos.

But have we lost something special? A travel message with a personalised touch?

Bayeux Tapestry postcard

Bayeux Tapestry – the cultural postcard

In lockdown times, I’ve spent a lot of time blowing the dust off old boxes of family archives. Imagine my surprise when I found a huge pile of old postcards.

Why did I keep them? Perhaps I’m sentimental? They are definitely a historic record of how we used to live in the days before cheap flights, unlimited travel and Instagam.

It’s a good thing to reflect on during these lockdown times when we can’t travel abroad. Here are the stories behind a few of the postcards in my collection…

French Leave

Enghien les Bain 1970s postcard

French lessons  – Enghien les Bains

My first choice is a postcard from a French exchange trip. It speaks volumes about how holidays have changed since the 1970s. Back then a trip to a Spanish resort like Benidorm was seen as ‘exotic’. France was for ‘middle class folk’ and low budget school trips.

These days, school trips usually involve building a clinic in India or taking a mountain trek to a remote village in Peru. Or there’s the compulsory backpacking ‘gap’ year for kids who can afford to spend 12 months jet-setting around the globe.

In the 1970s, school trips were a simpler affair. This French card was sent on my solo trip to stay with a French family in the suburbs outside Paris. I was 15, shy and unsure of myself. But they welcomed me with Gallic charm and great patience, particularly as my French was pretty bad.

France postcard

Iconic French chateau

They took me to sophisticated restaurants in Paris, chaperoned me around the city’s iconic tourist sites, and gave me a taste of ordinary French life. In between sightseeing, we hung out in their local town, once a fashionable spa resort. It was an ordinary suburb with not much going on but it had a charming French vibe.

We visited a beautiful French chateau with a rose garden. I bought a postcard to send to my parents because they liked gardening. But I never sent it.

Weirdly, I chose a postcard from Enghien-Les-Bains (see above) where I was staying rather than the archetypal French chateau. Perhaps I felt it was more authentic? Or maybe it made me look like I had integrated successfully into the French lifestyle? By the end of my trip, my French had improved dramatically and I’d developed a taste for smelly cheeses.

Spanish ‘Package’ Postcards

Spanish holiday postcard 1970s

Fabric postcard – Ibiza – 1970s

My next holiday was to Spain with my parents who were latecomers to the popular ‘package’ holiday of the time. We’d always done ‘cheap and cheerful’ holidays, staying in B’n’Bs, small hotels or caravans in Wales, Scotland or The Lakes.

When I arrived in Ibiza as a teenager, I didn’t like the island much. I was too young to enjoy its noisy club scene and international DJs. It was too touristy, too full of beer swilling Brits, and too darn hot!

I wanted to impress everyone back home that I wasn’t simply lounging around on a beach. Too boring!

The postcard features a woman with a real silk needlepoint and a fabric skirt which amazingly didn’t get crushed to smithereens in the post to the UK. It screams out, “Hey guys, I’m discovering  authentic Spanish culture and flamenco”.

The reality is that the flamenco night was a highly sanitised version for a coach load of English tourists.

Fancy Designs, Fancy Aspirations?

Dutch holiday postcard 1980s

Going Dutch – hexagonally

As holidays became more sophisticated, sending an unusual postcard back home to England became de riguer. I would choose cards in unusual shapes, unconventional sizes or with a special visual effect, designed to be a bit different from the obvious choice of holiday cards.

I sent this Dutch postcard when I was a broke student on a cultural trip in 1978. I was determined to send something different. I avoided the obvious – a charming canal scene in Amsterdam or my visit to the cheese factory in Gouda.

A hexagonal postcard felt like the perfect choice. Perhaps there was a bit of inverted snobbery going on!

Best and Worst Postcards

A decade later, I picked a hi-tech card to impress the family when I went to Florida on my first USA trip. Here’s the space shuttle being launched at the Kennedy Space Centre in a 3D visual extravaganza. The picture changed to another view as you tilted it up and down.

Florida postcard 1980s

To Infinity and beyond in 3D

Funnily enough, it was around this time we held a ‘worst postcard’ competition at work to tie in with a TV feature on bad holiday cards.

We sent in a postcard of an overcrowded beach at ‘Golden Sands’ resort in Bulgaria, complete with Soviet era pictures of ‘organised’ herds of tourists. It looked complexity grim.

Strangely, our card was voted one of the winning ‘worst postcards’. But I felt a little guilty. Perhaps postcards bring out the worst snobbery in us?

They’re not simply sending a message of “Wish You Were Here” but “Here I Am”. Today’s Instagram photos often carry a similar cachet – ‘Look How Cool I Am” or “Here I Am in the (expensive) Galapagos Islands”. One-upmanship was definitely at play here.

The Great British Holiday

Wales postcard 1970s

Welsh welcome – 1969

Right at the bottom of my archive box, I found this small postcard sent by a school friend from Conway in North Wales in 1969. It speaks volumes about the type of holidays people went on during the Sixties

‘The Smallest House in Britain” was an impressive sight if you were young and hadn’t travelled very far. But it’s also a charming reminder of how we should value holidays near home much more.

Conway was just a short drive from Manchester where I lived back then… but a trip to Wales felt like a trip to a different world with its own language and culture. It was our early version of an ‘exotic’ cultural experience. The friend who sent it also bought me a holiday present – a miniature Welsh hat like the one worn by the woman in the picture!

Lake District postcard

The romance of the Lake District

I also discovered this very ordinary postcard to my parents when I was on a trip to the Lake District in 1973. It’s typical of the pictures we used to send back then. It’s not very Instagrammable!

I wanted to capture the romance of the Lakes, a popular getaway from gritty Manchester where I lived at the time. The Lake District seemed otherworldly, a place for poets and artists where you could lose yourself in the peace of the countryside. It couldn’t have been more of a contrast to where I was living.

It has a strangely meditative quality. It’s ironic that a sailing boat features on the card because this has become a big family hobby, something I never anticipated when I was 16.

The Joy of Flight

Canadian Airlines plane postcard 1980s

Flying in style – Canadian Pacific 1980s

By the 1980s, The Lake District was seen as a holiday best suited to hikers and outdoor types. By now, holidays had become more sophisticated and often involved flying off to faraway, foreign lands.

I kept this free postcard from my first ever North American flight in the 1980s when you could fly direct from Newcastle to Toronto on Canadian Pacific Airlines. If only that route still operated… it was brilliant.

It was my favourite flight ever. We were given fabulous, free Canadian Pacific shoulder bags, ate steaks served on porcelain plates, and drank fabulous wine, even though we were only in standard class.

You’d never get that service today unless you spent a lot of money. With that level of generosity, perhaps it’s no surprise that Canadian Pacific no longer exists as an airline.

Florida John Wayne Airport

Welcome to the Airport!

When long haul flights became even more affordable in the 1990s, travelling to Australia, Canada or the USA was easier and cheaper than ever before. Sending postcards of airports was not uncommon, if you were a first time traveller.

I’m not joking… I have a box full of these postcards including one featuring John Wayne Airport in Los Angeles. Perhaps people sent them because everything seemed so much bigger and brasher on the other side of the Atlantic?

And what better symbol is there of that American brashness than cowboy John Wayne?

In my case, I was just grateful that I’d survived the 11 hour flight… and the airport represented my ‘arrival in a new land’.

Asian Adventures

Japan postcard 1980s

Japan postcard 1980s

In the 1990s and 2000s, anyone who loved long distance travel was jetting off to ever more exotic locations. Thailand, Japan, Sri Lanka and China were added to the list of destinations to see “before you die”.

A British Chinese friend sent me this card from Tokyo in 1988, the first person I knew who’d made a three week tour of China, Hong Kong and Japan.

He described the holiday as a huge ‘culture shock’. The message on the back of the card read, “Tokyo – interesting place but full of people in a giant urban sprawl. Everything very expensive. £3 for a cup of coffee”.

I love the artistry of this card and couldn’t bear to throw it out… it reveals so much about Japanese culture, and the message still makes me laugh.

Discovering the Wilderness

Vancouver Island postcard 1990s

Going wild in Canada – 1990s

Eco-tourism grew dramatically in the 1990s and 2000s, fuelled by a growing interest in wildlife and the environment. Seeing wildlife in its natural habitat saw me heading to Canada, the USA and Australia for ‘wilderness holidays’.

From kangaroos and koalas to bears and bison, I wanted to share pictures of these fantastic creatures with those who weren’t lucky enough to see them.

I sent this 3D pop-up postcard of Vancouver Island to my parents to show them the amazing creatures I’d seen on my vacation.

Today, I’d probably be posting a live video of the Orcas I’d seen on my whale-watching boat trip.

Back in the 1990s, there was often a lengthy time lapse before a postcard arrived back home. My Canadian postcard arrived two weeks after I got back from my trip!

Saucy Postcards

Saucy postcard

Saucy postcard c/o Donald McGill Museum

We’ve sent postcards since the late 19th Century. The first British postcards date back to 1894 when the Royal Mail gave publishers permission to send postcards through the post

Saucy postcards became popular in the 20th Century, especially at British seaside resorts, but sometimes they were too racy for the authorities.

The Donald McGill Museum in Ryde on the Isle of Wight has loads of great examples of smutty humour on postcards.

Postcard censorship

Postcard censorship Photo: Donald McGill Museum

The seaside resort of Blackpool had its own ‘Postcard Censorship Board’ dating back to the early 1900s. Its job was to weed out “grossly offensive” cards, especially those with the worst “double entendres”.

The Blackpool committee in the early 1950s included a vicar, landlady, bank manager, solicitor and a stationer. It wasn’t disbanded until 1968.

By 1954 there were censorship bodies in Hastings, Cleethorpes and Brighton. Nearly 18,000 postcards were seized and destroyed in Brighton in 1953, again with sexy, titillating cards being the main culprits.

In France the risqué postcard featuring a scantily clad or naked woman was also popular, often more arty and erotic in style. I tried to send a reproduction of one of these from Paris back in the 1980s but it never arrived at its destination. Could it have been censored – or swiped by the postman?

First and Last Postcards

Uniforms of london post card

Uniforms of London – 1960s

I’ll end back at the beginning of my postcard collection… This large-format 1960s postcard of my first London trip is still one of my favourites. Although the subject is bonkers, it reminds me of my first independent trip to the big city.

By the 2020s, I was sending very few postcards, except to elderly relatives and the occasional friend who enjoys old school tourism. Most friends had dropped them completely, often in favour of social media.

Postcards might lack immediacy but they have  a special place in my heart. I do feel that we’ve lost something special – a personal form of communication which reveals a snapshot of a place and its culture.

They can also be unintentionally funny. This strange card defines the 1960s when people were obsessed with concrete shopping malls and consumerism. Who thought this was a winning holiday postcard?

Canberra postcard

Canberra’s amazing 1960s mall

Unlike Instagram and Facebook, they aren’t shared with hundreds of followers, like a chain letter. They are carefully chosen for each individual and crafted to reflect their interests… usually with a bit of humour.

Often they’re laced with a dose of realism. Comments like “the hotel doesn’t look like the brochure”, “we had a nightmare flight” or “the weather outside is frightful” are honest reflections on a less then perfect holiday.

Postcards may feel ridiculously quaint and old-fashioned, but perhaps they’ll become cool again? They could be set for a comeback like retro vinyl records!

Postcard from latvia

2 replies »

  1. Luv this, especially your Enghien-Les-Bains account of a French exchange. And The Lakes and ‘being too young for Ibiza’!
    Oh and Vancouver eco tourism. What a nice read and, yes, I’m a postcard hoarder too!

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