Any mermaids? Early postcard mobilities
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Any mermaids? Early postcard mobilities book
We shall argue that the early-twentieth-century postcard can be seen as an astonishing instantiation of an era of revolutionary change in mobilities and that the study of them can contribute to enriching understandings of a mobilities paradigm. The postcard phenomenon we focus on burst into being in an extremely dynamic period of cultural change. During the second half of the Victorian era and the succeeding Edwardian period the population of Britain was beginning to move around in large numbers as never before, with new patterns of trade, leisure and fast-paced changes in transport; the railway system was at its zenith (Pooley et al. 2005). Existing notions of space and time were ‘annihilated’ according to prominent commentators (Schivelbusch 1978: 31). At this point of rapid technological change came what we can term a ‘new communications landscape’ (Kress 1998) with parallels to the contemporary digital revolution, as we shall show. Yet, as Urry (2007: 157) has argued: ‘the study of travel and transport within the academy has been largely conducted separately from the analysis of communications, as though these were different and unrelated systems’. This chapter contributes to the development of mobile methods through exploring the truly remarkable phenomenon of the early postcard. We contrast interactions around postcard mobilities in the present day as well as their original heyday and in so doing offer a new exemplar of mobile methods. The focus of our interest is the period from 1870, when the first British postcard was issued by the Post Office on 1 October, to the end of the Edwardian period in 1910. The introduction of the postcard created what How (2003) termed a new epistolatory space, for, in comparison with letters, postcards were perceived as less formal, shorter and cheaper, and therefore in some way as having the potential to alter how people could deal with the networks of relationships in the world. Especially significant is the period after 1902 when the plummeting price of paper, innovations in colour-printing technology and most of all a new accessibility to rapid communications at extremely low cost created a remarkable ‘tipping point’ (Gladwell 2000). As with the tipping point in 1990 identified by Urry (2007), instantiated with the sudden growth in use of the fax machine in offices, so in 1902 the combination of material conditions and a new ruling of the Post Office created the right condition to facilitate an explosion in use of the postcard. A cultural shift in everyday communications practices
ensued; our investigations of the Postmaster General’s reports lead us to calculate that almost six billion of these cards were sent in the UK in the Edwardian age (the equivalent of 200 cards per person). With up to ten deliveries a day in major cities, rapid responsivity was enabled in a simple, exceedingly cheap way that simply did not exist for written communications in the era between the First World War and the introduction of emails and SMS messages, save for the telegraph, a medium that demanded very short communications and which was very expensive. We shall start by introducing our methods of investigation by exploring the contrasting circulation patterns between cards today and in their heyday at the beginning of the twentieth century. Second, we examine the massive take-up of the card and how it may exemplify a revolutionary moment in communications, and we shall outline the material, technical and social factors that led to its emergence. Third, we shall suggest three aspects of the phenomenon that have some resonance in the light of today’s ‘digital revolution’. Finally, we consider how tracking the early postcard through space and time generates insights as to the interrelationships between communications media, transport communications and new social networks.