Did you know that people have been sending SMS since 1873?

Today French people send an average of 7 postcards each year but in the late 19th century they sent them on a daily basis. Postcards revolutionized communication by enabling people to send meaningful messages using only a few words and abbreviations … Does that sounds familiar? It must! As curious as it may seem, postcards could be considered an early form of SMS (Short Message Service).

Let’s go back to 1873

The concept of postcards was introduced in France for an economic reason. Louis Wolowski, a French economist understood that postcards could generate a lot of reserve for the French government. He convinced the government to pass a law and on the 15th of October 1873 the postcard was officially introduced by the French postal service.

The historical context was very favourable to the emergence of postcards. The development of railways enable the postal system to be more and more efficient. Circulation of correspondence was faster, allowing up to 3 deliveries per day. Each village welcomed its own post office. Thus, the distribution and the proliferation of postcards were facilitated.

Simpler, cheaper: what a great invention !

Postcards quickly become an alternative to the letter. They were cheaper, easier to write so everyone could have access to them. The postcard only cost 10 cents whereas the letter cost 25 cents. Even a member of the working class, who in 1913 earned a mere 3 ½ francs per day, could easily afford it.  The postcard was a democratic way of communication thanks to its small price and simplicity. At the time, access to education was reserved for « the bourgeoisie ». Yet, letters required good spelling, grammar and syntax. They frightened people from other social classes. Therefore, postcards remained a great alternative.

They became a new and popular mode of communication. People used them in much the same way that we use the SMS today.

New way of communication = new rules

Surprisingly, people did not really know how to use postcards at the beginning. The lack of space was a big issue and the fact that there was no envelope also bothered many people. There are many old postcards on which the message appears in the space reserved for the address. Others feature strange patterns, such as the spiral text in the accompanying illustration. People were trying to preserve the intimacy of their communication by making the text hard to read.

People generally did not write the same kind of message on postcards as in a letter. French people even created a rule which said that postcards had to be used only for business affairs. This rule was of course not at all enforced, except by the bourgeoisie. This social class was, in fact, able to write letters to express more confidential contrary to the lower classes.

Funny fact

In any case, it remained a solution for the bashful ones: the stamps’ code! It replaced phrases as smiley replaced text in sms today. This new kind of discourse made communication easier and facilitated the use of this written medium for everyone.

People in the late 19th century adapted to this particular form of communication much as people, in the 21st, have adapted to the mobile phone. Our actual postcards are SMS, condensed messages which do not respect spelling, syntax or even grammar. They were also invented to save money and time. The preoccupations do not differ from 1970s… Quite the contrary!

At that time, people had the option of paying half price if there were only 5 words on the postcard. Thus,  they adopted a codified language which was not grammatically correct. Despite this,  it made sense to users, just as the abbreviations used in text messages made sense to people today.

Also, just like the “pre-written texts” available on mobile phones, there were pre-written texts for postcards for all kinds of situations. The main classics were intended for professional discourses, for example: “currently impossible to help you”, “your invoice not accepted”. Others more playful were for personal correspondence as “I’m loving you in secret”, “happy not to be your husband”.

carte instantanée
« The instantaneous postcard »

In addition, “instantaneous correspondence postcards” enabled people to simply join together a series of phrases to express their feelings. The name of this type of postcard is very revealing of the social consciousness of the late 19th century. People thought about postcards as a way of corresponding “instantaneously”. 170 years later with current instant messaging, it can seems quite ridiculous. In spite of the mail was delivered 3 times per day, the postcards took hours to arrive in the recipient’s letter box! And yet, as strange as it sounds nowadays, there was a time when people used to refer to postcards as IM (Instant Messaging).

Was the postcard the first form of social networking ever created?

As they were cheap and accessible, postcards created a new type of relationship between people. On one hand, postcards allowed people to expand their social network to other cities. On the other hand, postcards became a sort of substitute for the physical contact. People were able to exchange daily news without being face-to-face. Before the postcard, meetings were the only way to preserve friendships.

Today, this similar paradox subsists because of all our new forms of social networking. With SMS, Facebook, and Twitter people are continually interconnected with each other in a virtual way. These tools have multiplied our social relations just as postcards did in their time. As Lorrain Goury, a president of one of the first philocartist associations precised:

« By exchanging postcards we become less isolated, we found friendship beyond the borders and acrosss the seas, and we meet other people who thought like us without any gulf between us. »

In the past, postcards occupied an important place in everyday life just as social networks do today. People sent and received postcards everyday just as we use SMS and email now.

Materiality vs virtuality

One difference remains…  People used to collect postcards as precious object. People seem to have lost this form of materiality with SMS or emails. At the time, postcards were a reflection of sociability. The more postcards you received, the more friends you had! The postcard album became a very important social object. People did not miss the minor occasion to share it with anyone who was visiting them, in order to demonstrate to them their “popularity”.
Today, people don’t really collect SMS or emails. Although, they do, in a certain way accumulate virtual friends, on Facebook for instance. The number of facebook friends can be considered as a measure of people’s sociability.

From the golden age to the dungeons?

The invention of the telephone had a major impact on the utilization of postcards. People stopped sending them everyday as they could use the phone to transmit information instantaneously. There were not anymore dependent on the postman’s delivery schedule. The telephone definitively provoked a shift regarding the postcards’ usage. People began to send it exclusively for particular occasions. Postcards became a special way to wish greetings and a touristic object because of the development of tourism at this period.

Despite the popularity of phone, Facebook, Twitter and so on, 350 million postcards continue to be sent even year in France. Postcards remain part of our habits and still have its best days ahead !


Bénard, Daniel and Guignard, Bruno. La carte postale, des origines aux années 1920 .2010
Frère, Claude and Ripert, AlineLa carte postale, son histoire, sa fonction sociale. 1983



Votre commentaire

Entrez vos coordonnées ci-dessous ou cliquez sur une icône pour vous connecter:

Logo WordPress.com

Vous commentez à l’aide de votre compte WordPress.com. Déconnexion /  Changer )

Image Twitter

Vous commentez à l’aide de votre compte Twitter. Déconnexion /  Changer )

Photo Facebook

Vous commentez à l’aide de votre compte Facebook. Déconnexion /  Changer )

Connexion à %s

Ce site utilise Akismet pour réduire les indésirables. En savoir plus sur la façon dont les données de vos commentaires sont traitées.

%d blogueurs aiment cette page :