Living on a Postcard

By Ashleigh Brilliant   |   April 23, 2020

My home, since 1973, has been almost literally a stone’s throw from an area so celebrated for its beauty that calling it “picturesque” would be an understatement. In one sweeping panorama, you have the ocean, the mountains, a lovely rose garden, tall gracious trees, and a broad green sward leading up to the cloistered front of one of the most famous buildings in California, the Old Spanish Mission of Santa Barbara.

Although its founding goes back only to the late Eighteenth Century, in this part of the world that makes it equivalently venerable to Stonehenge or the Pyramids. And, as with those other hallowed structures, religion has been a principal element in this setting.

But this is the age of the Tourist – a phenomenon which began not long after the Mission Era was at its height, when travel became relatively comfortable, safe, and cheap. And, keeping pace with improvements in transportation – and sometimes outstripping them – was the increasing ease and affordability of communication – of which a prime example was the postal service. We owe the concept of inexpensive pre-paid postage, using adhesive stamps, to one man – an energetic British reformer named Rowland Hill. His efforts led to the first stamps (bearing the likeness of the young Queen Victoria) which were issued in 1840.

But it wasn’t for another half-century that what we know as “picture postcards” began to appear, giving tourists a way of sharing what they were seeing with the folks back home, while their travels were still in progress. It was these attractive types of images, usually photographic, often in color, on single mailable pieces of sturdy paper, which one saw for sale in great variety, frequently on large revolving racks, wherever visitors to an area abounded. But the images appeared only on one side. On the other, there was space for a message, an address, and a postage stamp – besides, perhaps, some printed information.

Living in a tourist Mecca like Santa Barbara, and especially being, as I have been for half my life, virtually next-door to a shrine like the Mission, I hope you can understand my feeling that I live on a postcard.

But, in a completely different, and perhaps somewhat ironical, sense, I had already been living on postcards for some years before I came here. In fact, after starting out as a teacher, I had invented a career founded on the postcard as a new form of literature. Instead of a scenic image, each card bore a brief illustrated epigram. Occasionally, they were place-related. Since this started in San Francisco, one my early messages (which is still popular there) said, “There may be no Heaven anywhere – but somewhere, there is a San Francisco.” And I do have one for what eventually became my hometown: “Once, the whole world was beautiful – Now, there’s only Santa Barbara.”

But, I was not making picture-postcards in the conventional sense. The only connection with a specific place was a short sales message on the back, offering a catalog, and giving my address. [If I may share a trade secret, this was the key to my business success, because the cards, by their very nature as a means of communication, went everywhere, and thus advertised themselves.] People bought them, not because of the locality, but because the words gave expression to their own feelings. For example, among the very first ten, there was one showing a man leaning over a counter, and saying, “No – Life isn’t what I wanted. Haven’t you got anything else?”

The question of illustrations was always a vexed one. Although not a trained artist, I started out doing all the art myself. Some attempts were more successful than others, but, for me, such work was drudgery, and my hope was always to meet some artist whose talents meshed with my own. This, however, never happened, and instead, for better or worse, I developed a technique of utilizing a variety of copyright-free materials, thus calling into being a new skill – that of matching illustrations with words they were never intended for. (My words always came first.)

When my wife and I moved to Santa Barbara, we brought the business with us, and, for a few years it flourished. Then came email, and the postcard boom was over. But the concept of illustrated epigrams is still alive, and, in that sense, if I’m no longer living on a postcard, you can at least say that I’m still living on an epigram.


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