Financial History 141 Spring 2022 - Page 10

Postcards mailed during the Golden Age of Postcards in the United States , with postmarks spanning from 1908 – 1911 .
Smithsonian Institution , to identify the source of the Post Office ’ s good fortune in 1911 . His cautious conclusion was , “ It is the ‘ millions upon millions ’ of postcards sent by real people , ‘ greater in the rural districts than in the city ,’ that deserves at least some of the credit for the fiscal transformation of the Post Office Department between 1909 and 1911 .” Pynes stated Gifford ’ s conclusion more succinctly : “ What happened ? In a word : Postcards .”
The picture postcard craze began in the late 19th century in Germany , soon spread throughout Europe and eventually became a worldwide phenomenon . For a variety of reasons , the fad was relatively late in coming to the United States , hitting our shores in about 1905 . Historian David Henkin contends that , “ There was from the start something elegant , not to mention convenient , about cards that bore their own one-cent postage and could travel anywhere in the country . And since postcards supplied a built-in excuse for being brief , they further lowered the threshold for mail exchange .”
According to postcard authority Dorothy B . Ryan , “ The sheer numbers of postcards sent through the mails at the
Collection of the Museum of American Finance
height of their popularity is staggering .” She noted that in 1906 , the United States consumed 770.5 million postcards . Postcard consumption includes both cards purchased for collection and cards purchased to be mailed . Over 667 million postcards were mailed in the US in the fiscal year ending June 30 , 1908 . According to Gifford , “ that would be seven postcards a year for every man , woman and child in the nation .” By 1913 , according to Ryan , annual postcard mailings in the US exceeded 968 million .
Postcards were also popular during the holidays . Ryan found that , “ More than a million postcards passed through the Baltimore post office during the Christmas 1909 season ; in a single day that Christmas , the St . Lous post office handled 750,000 postcards , and they weighed two and a half tons .” During that same Christmas season , The Boston Globe reported , “ It is but a few years ago that an utterly insignificant proportion of the pieces of mail handled at Christmas time were postal cards .” The article later stated , “ Now that the Christmas sentiment is conveyed by the picture postcard the holiday avalanche of these souvenirs is most decidedly a
National Postal Museum force to be reckoned with . Millions upon millions of those cards are transmitted every December not only between different destinations in the United States but from America to nearly all quarters of the globe .”
Gifford cited a 1910 article in The Washington Post by Frederic J . Haskin to support his contention that postcards led to Post Office profitability . According to Haskin , “ Trade authorities estimate that 2,300,000 post cards are sold every day in the United States . Not all of these are mailed , but it is probable that the postoffices [ sic ] every day sell $ 20,000 worth of one-cent stamps to be used on post cards . It requires an average of 120 post cards to weigh a pound , and thus the Postoffice [ sic ] Department receives $ 1.20 a pound for carrying post cards , as against an average cost of transportation of 9 or 10 cents a pound . The post card business is very profitable to the postoffice [ sic ].”
Gifford also found that in the United States , “ postcard use skewed in favor of rural and small-town Americans .” Evidently the rural population sent more postcards than it received . According to Gifford , “ The overlay of the fiscal turnaround of the Post Office Department did not just match the postcard fad generally . The timing of the transformation between 1909 and 1911 corresponded to the actual peak — the commercial apex — of one of the greatest postal-based phenomena of the 20th century .”
Gifford was able to identify one postal official who may have understood the role postcards played in returning the Post Office to profitability : Fourth Assistant Postmaster General Peter Voorhees DeGraw . DeGraw , who oversaw RFD , noted that postcards were in large part responsible for a 96 % increase in RFD mail during the 1909 fiscal year . Gifford noted the irony in the 1909 annual report , which blamed RFD in part for the deficit , while at the same time reporting that postcard mailings had nearly doubled the amount of RFD mail .
It is unfortunate that the Post Office never made a serious attempt to identify the source of its 1911 turnaround . Had it developed a systematic approach to
8 FINANCIAL HISTORY | Spring 2022 | www . MoAF . org