Postcards: My window to the world

For a change, this is not part of my New York Corona diaries, and I’ve decided to start a new section on postcards, after having returned to active trading again in the past few weeks. (Avatar coming.)

I started collecting postcards when I joined the International Youth Service back in high school in the early 80s. That was before the time of the internet, when there was no email, and people communicated with letters and the post office and Hallmark was kept busy.

Sadly, IYS was a casualty of the internet age. We signed up for penfriends by paying for a match with fellow students across the globe. We used International Money Order to pay for the membership, and I found my world open to some great friendships, one of which has lasted to today. (Thank you, Clara.)

Postcards

It was through these penfriends and the exchange of letters, photos and gifts, that I got into postcard collecting. Until then, postcards were occasional mementos I would come across among my mom and dad’s things, but never really something I was interested in. I remember National Bookstore had shelves of them among the greeting cards they imported and eventually printed in association with Hallmark, but I never really paid attention.

But in the course of introducing my country to these newfound friends, I found myself scouring those shelves eventually, to introduce them to the Philippines. As a result, I got postcards in return.

Back then, I was pretty much confined to the Philippines and did not really leave the country until I had started working. International travel wasn’t quite as accessible as it was to everyone back then, and my family had other priorities, so my vacations were month-long stays in Baguio. Postcards were my window to the world. I found myself fascinated with the postcards I received. And then a friend who had left for the US (Caloy) during high school sent me a postcard from California. That remains to be one of my first and most cherished cards in my collection, because it was one of the cards that kicked off this now life long passion.

I got most of my postcards with the letters, so they were unwritten on and unstamped. Because of the many penfriends I signed up for through a period of maybe 4-5 years, I was also able to start a stamp album, along with the stamps from projects an aunt who was a public school teacher in Bulacan had her students do. Sadly, that stamp album disappeared before I entered law school. That’s another story for another time. Disheartened by that loss, I gave up collecting stamps and stuck with postcards. (I would eventually return to collecting them for mixed media projects, that’s why I have a modest stash of modern stamps from all over right now.)

I was eagle eyed everywhere I went, collecting some unusual cards most people would not pay attention to. This postcard from the then fashion entrepreneur pioneer Sari-sari store was one I picked up as I checked out. (For the younger crowd, Sari-sari was one of the pioneering multi-label umbrella concept store where various brands had their space in a stylish spread.). It wasn’t exactly a postcard with a mailing backing, but it was a card you could definitely send out, with interesting photography of one of the cutlery they sold under the label.

Postcards

I attended a fashion show in the 90s featuring Asian fashion designers from all over, and the souvenir, instead of a printed programme, was a fold out map on one side, and the other side divided into postcard panels devoted to one designer with their bio. (The panels were perforated for easy tearing.)

When I went into bookstores or hotel gift shops, my eyes immediately searched for the postcard rack and I would grab several of each design for trade. After maybe 4-5 years of doing this, I started realizing that I should be keeping one of each for my own collection. At that point, some of the postcards were already out of print. Still, I managed to buy postcards and save what I could for my personal collection and still do, every time I go home.

I used to collect anything and everything. I guess when you are a novice collector, you tend to be less discriminating and just marvel at sheer volume instead of looking at what truly appeals to you. My collecting interests were refined through the years, and currently stands at maps, lighthouses, vintage and modern Philippines, New York and Paris.

I managed to save one of the iconic Philippine map postcards that was available until NBS stopped printing it. (Please bring it back!). Other map postcards that followed were more stylized and not quite as impactful as the one that started it all. I am hoping to one day come up with a map postcard I can print in association with a friend’s company who is engaged in the printing of maps and cartographic materials. That is a dream.

When I moved to New York in 2000, I found myself encountering vintage postcards of the Philippines which were a source of fascination for me. I had a postcard store sending me cards to review and buy, there was eBay and the occasional antiquing. Bring me to an antique store and the first thing I ask about are postcards and ephemera. I would go through postcards in boxes one by one — and picked out some prized possessions. I eventually figured out that there were postcards of the Philippines here because Americans back home sent them to family and friends in the US during the early 1900s. Although I had decided early on that I would focus on vintage Philippines, New York and Paris, there were irresistible vintage postcard lots for sale that meant getting the above would come with others I wasn’t particularly interested in.

I have enough vintage postcards that I was able to complete an album of postmarks from 1901 on, and I am continuing to organize the other categories. One of my favorites is the postcard of the Little Church at the Corner in Greenwich Village, which I have at least 3 copies of, and the 4th of which I had gifted to a young postcard friend. (That postcard deserves its own blog post.. soon.)

Postcards

Moving to New York also exposed me to various postcard trading groups which traded through the old style message bill boards (again, something the younger generation would not be aware of), snail mail round robins and postcard lists, etc. (Again another blog post.). This was the point where I found myself drifting towards collecting maps and lighthouses — postcards I traded for with the same or stadiums, cityscapes and other NY-related postcards. When I started out, again, I failed to save one of each of the postcards I sent out, and only started that after around two years of being a New Yorker.

I keep telling newbies not to forget that, because through the years, landscapes change — and the cityscape of New York is one of the most dynamic skylines in the world. Saddest of all was 9/11, which completely changed how downtown looked. I have a special section in my collection for the postcards that depict that part of the city. Recently, I was amazed that I actually found three postcards I sent to Carlos, my young friend, which showed downtown before 9/11, after 9/11 but before the Freedom Tower was built, and then now as it looks with the Freedom Tower standing proud. History in postcards.

Postcards

I stopped trading actively for around 5 years, but have continually sent out postcards to friends who collect as well, and have never stopped buying cards to add to my collection. New York is a treasure trove of postcards of all sizes, shapes, price and kind. From the 10 for $1 tourist postcards to the lenticular or holographic postcards priced at $5 up, and the postcard booklets or sets that go for anywhere from $5-$25, this is postcard heaven. Travel stops, museums, bookstores, airports are also a constant source of additional cards. And now the postcard groups from Yahoo are on Facebook, and there’s Postcrossing and Swapbot. (Yes, I’ve tried them all.). But postcard sources are not always obvious. Some of my most unusual acquisitions were from even more unusual sources. (Which I will write about separately, again.)

Many of my postcards have lain dormant and untended in boxes that I am just getting back to now. I have come to realize that those postcards that don’t fall within my collecting interest need a new home. Some of them have yellowed or have gotten crumpled through the years, because they were not special enough to be kept in the boxes where I have the lighthouses and maps. Still, I am surprised at how some have remained looking like new as the day I received or bought them, perhaps on a trip while passing through that state or country. I also need to take better care of the postcards I do collect and which were recent acquisitions and find the boxes where the rest are. (Somewhere up in my attic.)

Through the years, I have made a practice of sending postcards home to myself, addressed to my son, to chronicle trips or vacations. Depending on where I was, and of course, the availability of postcards, that was a travel diary of anywhere from 3 to 20-something postcards. Yes, even when we go home to Manila every year. It was disappointing that during my last trip to Bicol where my mom hails from in 2019, there was not a single postcard of Mayon Volcano or of the Cagsawa ruins which i visited then for the second time, in the National Bookstore at SM Legaspi. (Shocker.) I ended up getting those postcards from Manila, and writing about the trip belatedly. I’m not too picky about postmarks if it can be helped, but I have sent a whole bunch of postcards to the post office manager of one of the states we visited with the stamped postcards enclosed, and they were promptly mailed back to me.

The other day, my 16 year old son (who has no interest in postcards, Starbucks mugs or the autographed books I collect) were going over the older New York postcards I was scanning to post in my IG account, @postcard_storyteller . We were reading the scribbling on the back and inspecting the postmark and the postcards themselves. Some were from before 1910 and some in the 1950s. The stories these postcards tell. It made me wonder how things were back then — and what was it like sending that postcard, and how was it for the ones who received them.

Postcards

I have also started segregating the postcards I had gotten through the years from fellow postcard collectors in the Philippines. Going through one of my folders from the office, I stumbled upon a postcard from a friend who had passed away recently after a years long bout with cancer. I had met her when she was in remission in 2016, and we had constantly surprised each other with postcards through the years. I knew she wasn’t well, but she had even requested a postcard from me, one of those times I announced a give away in our postcard group for Philippine postcrossers as I started getting back into trading last year. Her postcard was stamped and addressed, just waiting for my scribbling. (I do take the time to write, more so when it’s someone I know.). then I heard she was gone. And just recently, the postcard from way back popped up from that folder, and to me, that was her hello from heaven.

Postcards

Letter writing has always been something I enjoyed immensely. That’s why I have tried so hard to get back into the tradition of sending Christmas cards. (Yay for 2019 and 2020!). Now, I’ve returned to writing and trading postcards, not just for my own collection but to add to others.

When I go through the cards I had acquired through the years, I remember the people and places associated with those postcards. For those acquired during trips, I am brought back to those places again. And even now as I’m weeding out the postcards I do not intend to keep, I marvel at how they continue to give me a window into worlds I would otherwise have not seen. Whether forward looking or retrospectively towards a distant time in the past, these are priceless snippets that these cards have gifted me. So next time you walk past a postcard rack, stop a while and see if a card calls out to you and grab it. Then even if you only have yourself to send it to, try and capture that moment, put a stamp on that card, and send it on its way.

For postcard collectors:

Please leave a comment here (all comments are moderated) or leave me a message on my IG account, postcard_storyteller