Vacation postcards can deliver fond memories


The Garcias never figured they'd care that much about a pile of postcards.

"It started because we were always forgetting the camera," explains Marie Garcia, who has three children and lives in White Bear Lake, Minn. "We'd buy a postcard wherever we went and write a little bit on the back about our day."

Soon, the Garcia kids got an album for their cards. When they filled it, they got another one. They enjoy looking at their postcards so much that now they keep the albums in the car, building their collection wherever they go.

The Garcia postcard collection is small compared to that of a serious collector such as Howard Woody, who teaches art at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. "I've been at it for 40 years," he says, adding he isn't sure how many cards he's got -- somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000.

Mr. Woody started collecting as a teen-ager. He and his friends tried to get a postcard from every state, then every country, sending them to one another wherever they went.

The others eventually quit. But Mr. Woody's collection has "followed me closet to closet ever since. . . . It's affordable and you can tailor it to your own life."

Los Angeles pediatrician Jeff Fireman agrees. He's got vacation postcards dating back 30 years or more to his childhood in suburban Chicago. "It's fun to look at them," he says. "You take them out and get the feel of the place again." Dr. Fireman still buys postcards wherever he travels.

So do millions of Americans. Sending and collecting vacation postcards has become such an American tradition that the Smithsonian Institution's year-old National Postal Museum in Washington is planning an exhibit for next year tentatively called "Are We There Yet?" (For museum information, call [202] 633-9360.)

A current display at the National Postal Museum chronicles the history of postcards and our continuing love affair with them. The card craze started in Europe in the late 19th century and soon crossed the Atlantic, says Nancy Pope, the museum's postal-history curator. By the first decade of the 20th century, families were having contests to see who had the most postcards: they would hold postcard "showers" to exchange them, and have family portraits produced on them.

In the early years, when newspapers didn't publish many photographs, postcards also had significant news and historical value, especially after a disaster. "There were 100 postcard views of the [1906] San Francisco earthquake," Ms. Pope says.

As Americans began to travel more, postcards became the preferred way to show friends and family where they'd been -- "that cliched 'Wish You Were Here' message," Ms. Pope says.

Now a new generation has discovered how much fun sending, receiving and collecting them can be. "It's an icon of the past and also the present. Postcard collecting is really popular now," says Faith Ruffins, a historian at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History and an authority on the subject.

"We live so far from those who have meaning in our lives. Postcards are a way of giving evidence to people of what our lives have been about," says Bernard Beck, a Northwestern University sociology professor who studies popular culture.

Collecting anything and everything is popular now, Mr. Beck says. Postcards offer tangible evidence that we've been somewhere and done something.

For children, too. Often they get bored traveling because parents expect them to appreciate places from an adult perspective. Sending and collecting postcards might be a good way to sustain their interest, and "it might keep them out of mischief," Mr. Beck suggests.

Ms. Ruffins, who has two young children, agrees that the hobby is still a good bet for kids. "Postcards are visual," she says. "They're portable and they're cheap."

Buy the kids multiple copies of a card. They can send one to a friend, keep one and have one to use later for an art project or school report.

After Shell Hoskinson's grandmother and friends visited, he gave them each a postcard detailing the highlights of their stay. That way, he says, they could better recount their adventures when they got home.

"Any time they couldn't remember what they did, they pulled out the postcard from their purses and continued on with the story," adds Mr. Hoskinson, a motel manager from Wilsonville, Ore. "Each of my grandmother's friends called to thank me."

So maybe we should all stop using the video camera so much on vacation and write a few more postcards. Dr. Fireman, for one, figures he'll be enjoying his collection long after those vacation videos have disintegrated.

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