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180 years of Ukrainian postcards


On a postcard the prominent Ukrainian writer Mykhaylo Kotsyubynsky sent to his wife from his trip to Italy, he wrote: Greetings from Vesuvius  I kiss you, my beloved.

This surviving postcard is a witness of the times when travellers used to send postcards with the views of the places they visited, to their families and friends. Often enough it was not necessarily a major city or a world-famous geographical landmark  it could be a tiny town where one happened to stop while travelling or on business.


Weather gorgeous. Having a wonderful time. Thinking of you. Where else could this message be contained but in a postcard? This mode of correspondence, created at the turn of the 20th century, has given rise to a terse, sometimes entertaining style all its own.

For most of human history, the primary means of communication across long distances was not the computer, telephone or telegraph, but the letter. In the 18th and 19th centuries, although newspapers were common, letters continued to be the primary source of information on politics, social conditions, and even natural disasters. A series of innovations, including the invention of the lead pencil in the 18th century and the steady reduction of postal rates in the 19th century, affected not only the length and content of letters, but the frequency with which they were sent. But few developments changed written communication as much as the introduction of a simple product: the postcard. At the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the postcard became a fad in many countries of the world.

Postcards were first developed in the 1870s as promotional advertisements for hotels, resorts, and other businesses. The use of postcards rose steadily, from millions to almost billions. Manufacturers sprang up to meet the demand. Postcards were more than a means of communication. Like stamps, they became collectors items to be bought, sold, and traded. Many people used postcards to acknowledge the receipt of letters and to promise a quick response. They also became a means for travellers to update friends and family on how a trip was progressing  or to offer a photographic glimpse of their destinations.

But postcards also had an important effect on how people corresponded. The limited space on these cards promoted a brief and direct method of writing, a distinct break from a more discursive style of letter-writing. Like greeting cards, another form of short correspondence developed at this time, postcards were in keeping with the accelerating pace of life, as new emphasis was placed on speed in all aspects of life.


The first postcard mailed in Ukraine is dated to the year 1893. It made its appearance in Halychyna, a western region of Ukraine which was still under the Austrian-Hungarian rule then. Several months later, postcards began to be mailed in eastern Ukraine as well.

Incidentally, a postcard in Ukrainian is lystivka  a small letter  which sounds very much like lastivka  the word for a swallow. Probably because of this phonetic proximity, which, consequently led to the association with the swallow, that is a harbinger of spring, the Ukrainian lystivka acquired a status quite different from that of a letter. Lystivkas were mailed to describe briefly the senders impressions (What a gorgeous view!), the senders state of health (Im fine, and I hope youre doing fine too), to remind of something (remember, we expect you next Thursday at two), to declare good feelings or affection (Missing you so much; Sealed with a Kiss), and to say so many other likely and unlikely things one wishes to say when one is away from the loved ones and friends, travelling. Also, the postcard being an open letter, was not a proper vehicle for expressing malice, ill-feelings or saying lies and other things which could be expressed in sealed letters, hidden from those whom it does not concern.

Postcards carried views of architectural and natural landmarks, reproductions of paintings, drawings (sometimes crude), which were supposed to be sentimental or funny; postcards congratulated on the occasions of birthdays, religious holidays or anything else that may be celebrated. Postcards were issued in small towns and in large cities. The printed inscriptions on them were mostly greetings and good wishes: Greetings from Kyiv! Greetings from Poltava! Kisses from Lviv! The most beautiful Dnipro greets you! Best wishes from Symferopol! Take care! Stay healthy! Enjoy life!

The texts on the back side varied but little, the most typical being greetings, best wishes, kisses, exclamations and impressions, expressed in a succinct manner.

More elaborate postcards were printed abroad  in Vienna, Paris or Stockholm. Looking at the postcards of old you get a glimpse into some aspects of life in Ukraine as it used to be a hundred years ago  which seems to be so long ago and yet so recent.


By Viktor Kyrkevych

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