Minus digital technology and the Internet, Twitter has a surprising ancestor: early 20th-century postcards.
Postcards didn’t exist in the U.S. before1898. That year, the government made it legal to print and send “private mailing cards.” Stamps were a penny. Messages were permitted only on the front of the card. The back was reserved for the address. The limited space required messages to be brief, telegraphic, “tweet-like.”
In 1907, the “divided back” was approved. Half of the back was for the message, half for the address. With this expanded format, postcards boomed. New printing technologies made postcards cheap and widely available. Many were beautiful hand-colored photographs of local buildings, street scenes, landscapes, and recreational areas. Over 800 million postcards were mailed in the U.S. in 1908. This was ten times the population of the entire country. Postcards were the e-mail, the text messaging of the era.
A 1908 postcard from my collection in the above slide show was sent by Aunt Susie K. of Presque Isle, Maine. She writes to Dora, her niece, in Nebraska. To personalize the card, Aunt Susie pastes a picture of herself next to the image of a nearby lighthouse. (Early Facebook?)
Postcards ushered in direct mail. In 1907, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company sent customers a postcard showing a state-of-the-art workplace.
Researchers at Rutgers describe Twitter as a “social awareness stream (SAS).” Eighty percent of “tweeters” use the medium to communicate what they are doing, how they are feeling, what they are thinking. The intent of early postcards, to “only connect,” was the same.