What postcards written over a century ago showed me about quality and value
A few days ago, I stumbled on a bookstore near my house that sells old postcards for almost nothing. Digging through the bins, I held cards that were sent over 100 years ago to soldiers, old friends, and Valentines. As I arranged the cards chronologically, I watched as the messages on them changed from a few personal words to longer travel descriptions with the passage of time:
1900: “From, Your Baby”
1908: “Dear Kit, I may possibly get home over next Thursday. Our school does not close until June 30, or July! You will be a graduate before then, won’t you? Yours, Maurice.”
1911: “Meilleur Souvenir. -Kate”
1958: “Dear Judy, Hi! We arrived here this morning by plane. I just bought a rule cute straw purse. Everything is real interesting. Write soon.”
1977: “Hi, this is neat country- I could stay here forever- business has been good. See you soon. Love, Bill.”
The cards from recent decades were Kodachrome bright and filled with words describing various tourist sites. But it was the older cards that held my attention because the loops and clear lines of the cursive writing were just so beautiful. The cards often had only two to three words, but they were well-chosen and looked like works of art framed by the blank card. In sum, the further back in time I went, the less people wrote and the more beautifully they expressed it.
The postcards made an especially strong impression on me because of a trip I made to Marshalls a few days earlier to buy a duvet.
I walked to the back of the store with one goal that evening: to find a cotton duvet for my bed. When I got to the bedding section, I noticed a dozen duvets spread out, flashing competing signs: “Robins Egg Luxury Duvet- Ralph Lauren,” “Rural Homestead Family Quilt,” “Hypo-allergenic Medically Recommended Duvet,” among others. All 100% Polyester. All $19.99. All made in China.
After a few minutes of shopping, I was completely exhausted. All around me were eye-catching signs with stories generated by marketing departments using every tactic possible to sell me the same plastic material. I left frustrated and angry. All I wanted was to have something natural, real, that doesn’t need clever marketing to be appealing. I didn’t want something that was “reminiscent of a simpler time,” I wanted something actually simple. I wanted something that is now defined as artisanal: an item made in a traditional or non-mechanized way using high-quality ingredients.
The experience reminded me of a passage by Richard Weaver in his book “Ideas Have Consequences.” Already half a century ago, Weaver pinpointed the trend of declining quality and linked it to the replacement of ideals with utility and profit-maximization:
“The names have been detached from the things and can be bought and sold. They were established by individuals who saw an ideal of perfection in the tasks they undertook, and they were willing to be judged by their fidelity. In this way does utility drive out the old-fashioned virtue of loyalty to an ideal, which is honor…The world is being starved for value. We are being told bigger lies and we are being fed less — this is the substantial fact flowing from the degradation of the ideal. A genuine article of fine material, put together by that craftsmanship which is oblivious of time, is almost certain today to be in the super-luxury class, if indeed it is not already a museum exhibit.” -Richard Weaver, Ideas Have Consequences (Weaver, 142)
Nowadays, those who choose to produce something simple of high-quality are the exceptions and not the norm. As Alice Waters shares in her book, “Chez Panisse Vegetables,” “We flew to the East Coast with boxes and boxes of absolutely fresh, organic, hand-picked seasonal greens from which we prepared a simple salad. One famous chef looked at our contribution and remarked, with mock censure and perhaps a little envy, ‘That’s not cooking, that’s shopping!’” Of course, Waters doesn’t have to apologize for this. High-quality ingredients and simple preparations have made Chez Panisse one of the most famous and highly regarded restaurants in the world.
Like Waters, artisans in all fields are seeing a resurgence. Food producers now regularly use statements like “only two ingredients!” in their marketing and farmers are more vocal about what they don’t do to their animals than what they do do. Whether these are just clever stories in and of themselves is often hard to tell, but it shows the modern craving for something simple and real.
The postcards were a reminder for me that artisanship isn’t reserved for individuals like Alice Waters or those who can afford luxury goods. Artisanship comes through in the smallest of details: handwriting, beautiful braids, hand-made cards, or a few bright flowers carefully planted in a garden. And though these things were once the norm, they are now rare, which makes them more breathtaking when we find them. And if you take the time and effort to make something beautiful yourself, however small it is, it may outlive you. That someone a century ago wrote “Meilleur Souvenir” in beautiful calligraphy and it now adds beauty to my room is proof of that.