A picture postcard depicting elephants with their mahouts.

THE postcard celebrates its 150th anniversary this year. During our lifetime, a majority of us may have received at least one of these double-sided rectangular cards bearing greetings from loved ones or acquaintances through the post and could very well have reciprocated the gesture when we are away on vacation.

Unlike letters, which are usually destined for the bin once they are read, most postcards are spared that fate because of their picture-perfect illustrations. They are either kept for sentimental reasons or as an inspiration to visit the places in the future.

The postcard that we know today looked different when it first came into existence in the mid-19th century.

Tracing its origins is difficult as the postcard was not invented but, instead, evolved in tandem with the development of the postal service, as well as advancements in printing technology and photographic capabilities.

A rare postcard showing the sultan of Selangor’s palace.

The earliest known form of postcards are postal cards that were privately produced by Hymen Lipman in March 1861.

Lipman is also the founder of the first envelope company in the United States and inventor of the lead-pencil and eraser.

However, the start of the US Civil War a month later made people forget about the Lipman Postal Cards and they were not used until almost a decade later.

In Austria-Hungary, Dr Emanuel Herrmann, an economics professor from Vienna, wrote an article in the Neue Freie Presse, said too much time and effort were invested in writing lengthy letters.

He suggested that a more practical and cheaper method should be implemented for shorter and more efficient communications.

These recommendations prompted the Austrian Post to publish the Correspondenz-Karte, the world’s first official postcard, on Oct 1, 1869.

This economical and functional communication method quickly became popular, with Switzerland, Luxembourg the United Kingdom and German states issuing postcards in quick succession, less than a year after the initial launch.

FIRST MALAYAN POSTCARD

A decade later, the authorities in Penang, Melaka and Singapore, which were collectively known as the Straits Settlements, jumped on the bandwagon and issued their first postcard in 1879.

The 1880s saw the introduction of small sketches and designs on the message side of the otherwise plain-looking postcards to make them look more appealing. With the advancement of chromolithography, colours were added to these drawings, which were initially produced in monochrome.

This novel technology, which was dominated by the Germans, eventually brought about the advent of the popular picture postcard, which featured illustrated views on various genres and had sufficient space for the sender to pen a short note.

A 1902 postcard produced by German photographer August Kaulfuss showing a Penang rickshaw puller with his passengers. PIX COURTESY OF ALAN TEH LEAM SENG

A decade later, the use of photography in postcards took its increasing popularity up a notch.

All matter of subjects were photographed with topographics, which include urban street scenes and general views, becoming the most popular subject types.

Among the first photographers in Malaya was Scotsman John Thomson, who worked in Penang in the 1860s.

The 19th-century photographer led an itinerant life, travelling around the peninsula with his equipment and built up a sizeable photograph stock, which was popular with local European residents.

The technology then was unwieldy and Thomson regularly travelled with two trained Indians from Madras (now Chennai), who helped carry the heavy, portable dark-room apparatus and processed the photographic plates on site using the wet-plate collodion method.

As most parts of Malaya were largely undeveloped at that time, the process proved to be a challenge as it required pure water, which was not always easily available, as well as delicate handling of the fragile glass plates, which had to be treated with potent chemicals, such as cyanide amid dark surroundings.

The popularity of picture postcards allowed Thomson and his peers in Penang, like Christen Schjellerup Feilberg, who established a branch of the Singapore-based Sachtler & Co, and J.A. Moniot, wife of a pharmacist, the opportunity of having their photographic studies of urban life, natural scenery and all other sorts of subjects, published and admired by people.

SIMPLIFIED METHOD

In an age before personal cameras were affordable enough for the public, picture postcards were the cheapest and most widely-circulated photographic images.

When abroad, people no longer had to tear themselves away from the joys of travel to write laborious descriptions to friends back home.

They merely bought picture postcards at each stop along their travels, scribbled a few words and dropped them at a post office or postal agent.

The allure of picture postcards gave birth to the proliferation of postcard collecting clubs and a new breed of collectors, who included prominent world leaders, as well as members of royalty, like Queen Victoria.

Interestingly, postcard collectors are identified with different terms based on their nationalities.

In England, they are known as cartologists, while in the US and France, collectors are called deltiologists and cartophilists, respectively.

By the turn of the 20th century, some four decades after its
official inception, it was estimated that more than five billion cards had passed through the post.

Postcards in the 19th century were mostly plain and unattractive.

It was the golden age of picture postcards, which lasted until the outbreak of World War One in 1914.

The craze, however, placed a toll on the postal services. With multiple daily pickups and deliveries, up to 12 times per day in large cities in the UK, postcards were the text messages of their time.

Postcard obsession reached its peak during Edwardian times with billions sent annually.

Postcards printed at that time had undivided backs and senders were not permitted to write more than a brief greeting on the picture side with nothing except the address on the reverse.

This strictly-enforced ruling caused a majority of senders, who aspired to write more than just a short sentence to voice dissatisfaction.

RULE CHANGE

In response, the post office changed the rules in 1905 and allowed longer messages to be written on one half of the side normally reserved for the address.

This act paved the way for the divided back postcard era.

This improvement, however, had hardly any effect on postcard collectors, whose singular vision was to acquire as many different cards as possible at the least cost.

Those enterprising enough discovered a loophole in the postal services where cards that only had addresses written on them and did not bear any messages qualified for the uniform 1 cent rate to all parts of the world!

When this oversight was discovered, postal authorities in Malaya, as well as their counterparts worldwide, began steadily raising rates to offset costs.

By the dawn of World War Two (WW2), the fee had escalated to 8 cents.

Looking at the various postcards in my collection, it is obvious that a majority of those sent prior to WW2 were destined for Europe.

These were most probably sent by travellers who wanted to impress friends and family members with the sights they saw when their ships called at ports like Penang, Port Swettenham (now Port Klang) or Melaka.

Others were probably homesick officers, merchants and prospectors who were in Malaya for the first time in their lives, as well as foreign residents who regularly sent news, good wishes and seasons’ greetings to their loved ones in Europe.

Back then, postcards were generally retailed on ships, at railway stations, in hotels and stationery shops.

To further an already lucrative business, postcard publishers hired touts to promote their products at the harbour, town centres and places of attraction usually frequented by tourists, like the Snake Temple and Kek Lok Si in Penang.

PROMINENT POSTCARD PUBLISHER

The most famous and prominent Malayan postcard publisher was undoubtedly August Kaulfuss. The German photographer, who arrived in Penang in 1883, established the oldest European studio on the island at 9 Farquhar Street in George Town.

Like Thomson in the 1860s, Kaulfuss had a penchant for travel and traversed extensively on foot the whole of the peninsula, from Province Wellesley (now Seberang Prai) in the north to Johor in the south, during the period when there were a few decent roads and cars. It was also a time when the railway had yet to make its presence felt.

Kaulfuss even explored beyond the northern Kedah border and prospected for minerals while visiting Bangkok in Thailand along the way.

As his fame spread far and wide, he was appointed as royal photographer to Kedah monarch Sultan Abdul Hamid Halim Shah in 1896.

Despite his varied interests and busy schedule, capturing and promoting images of Penang was always treated with the utmost importance.

The fruits of his labour were realistic and depicted contemporary developments around George Town, such as harbour and shipping activities, newly unveiled buildings and amenities, as well as modes of transportation and municipal advancements.

Thanks to his extensive travels, Kaulfuss produced cards with scenes from Selangor, Melaka. Perak and, to a small extent, Kedah.

The intrepid entrepreneur died in 1908, at a time when picture postcards bearing his name were at their most popular.

OFFICIAL COURT PHOTOGRAPHER

Another court-appointed photographer of the same calibre as Kaulfuss was his fellow countryman, Gustave Richard Lambert, who established G. R. Lambert & Co., a photographic studio in Singapore’s High Street on April 10, 1867.

Postcards, produced as a side business by Lambert, were filled with panoramic landscape and architectural views of Singapore, as well as stunning studio portraitures that enjoyed a strong following among his many loyal customers.

Lambert left for Europe a decade later and the firm was left in the care of another German photographer, Alexander Koch, who expanded the business by establishing studios at Gresham House, Battery Road and Orchard Road.

During its heyday, the company maintained regional branch studios in Medan and Deli in Sumatra, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok. The studio gained immense prestige upon its appointment as official photographers to the courts of Siamese King Chulalongkorn and Sultan Abu Bakar of Johor.

Demand for professional photography went on a gradual decline when improvements in photographic technology made amateur photography possible. G. R. Lambert & Co. officially closed its doors in 1918.

A postcard showing places of interest in Penang.

The postcard business experienced a total collapse during the Japanese occupation and only began to show signs of life after Malaya was liberated in September 1945. The post-WW2 years saw local publishers stepping up to the plate to fill the void left by their foreign counterparts, who either exited the country before the arrival of enemy forces or simply gave up the trade after surviving their internment as prisoners of war.

LOCAL POSTCARD PUBLISHER

Among the prolific publishers in the 1960s was P.M.S. Mohamed Noordin. His well-produced picture postcards featuring famous landmarks in Malaya are much sought-after and highly valued by collectors today.

The exact location of Mohamed Noordin’s place of business in Penang had remained a mystery to me until the recent chance purchase of a 1966 calendar, which gave his address as (next to) 16, Beach Street.

The two words in parenthesis gives the impression that it must have been a small side stall next to the main building, which was at that time Whiteaways Laidlaw, Penang’s first and largest departmental store.

Further details in the calendar reveal that Mohamed Noordin was an enterprising person who doubled up as moneychanger, stamp dealer, tobacconist and book seller.

Like many other forms of traditional communication, postcards began losing their appeal among mainstream customers with the introduction of the smartphone and its instant messaging applications.

Then, just when all was thought lost, a knight in shining armour came in the form of a Portuguese software engineer, whose strong desire to continue receiving postcards from people all over the world prompted him to code a website during his leisure hours.

Postcrossing, which started off as a small Internet project by Paulo Magalhaes on July 14, 2005, quickly became a worldwide sensation, shared by many postcard enthusiasts.

With over 52 million items exchanged through this Internet platform and thousands more on the way, it looks like our love affair with the alluring postcard will be here to stay for a long time to come.