The Vain and Trifling Whim

Postal Card First

“The vain and trifling whim of a corrupt and extravagant Administration vainly seeking for some plaything to amuse the people with, while it steals away their liberties.”

So one politician described the penny postcard, which prior to its introduction in 1873 was hotly debated, largely because the Administration was that of Ulysses S. Grant and the opposition was made up of bitter Southern congressmen who disagreed with everything Grant said or did. The phrases “corrupt and extravagant” and “steals away their liberties” were widely used from approximately 1850 to 1900, the latter even having been used to describe Napoleon’s methods, so we cannot credit this particular critic with originality, but “vain and trifling whim” seems to have been his alone.

In 1876, a newspaper in Cleveland quoted the charge above, but added:

“It seems, however, that the people take to this whim. During the past seven months the government sold 90,000,000 post cards… The fast mail service, the spread of education, the newspapers, the constantly widening circle of men, women and young people in the United States who look outside of their immediate circle and feel and interest in what is going on in the world, these are influences which underlie the fact which shines out in the statistics of the Postal Department of the Government.”

* * *

My thanks to Alvin Harlow’s Paper Chase: The Amenities of Stamp Collecting (1940) for the original quote.

There’s a much more complete piece on the first postcards here, with a piece from 1888 on how postcards are made.


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