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Wish you were here: Some travel traditions are quickly and quietly fading away

But the US Postal Service stopped printing aerograms in 2006; the Royal Mail, in 2012. They’re among many travel traditions that have quietly succumbed to the unremitting march of progress, all in just the last few decades.
“You can go back and read them and they add up to a journal,” he said.
Alden Gordon still has the letters he wrote home on the thin pages of pre-stamped aerograms at the start of his seven decades of traveling.
And that, said the Trinity College history professor, is indisputably a loss.
“I don’t think the collected e-mails of today are going to be the same kind of artifact,” Gordon said wryly.
Technology and changing tastes have also speeded the demise of picture postcards, paper maps, traveler’s checks, phrasebooks, and other once commonplace objects long associated with life-changing journeys. Some have become collectors’ items and the stuff of museums.
And while, without them, travel may have become a little simpler, it’s also gotten less exotic, said Benjamin Weiss, Leonard A. Lauder senior curator of visual culture at the Museum of Fine Arts, who oversees the MFA’s collection of 130,000 picture postcards.
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“There’s something very magical about this physical object wending its way from someplace very far away and landing in your mail slot,” said Weiss, coauthor of “The Postcard Age.” “It almost underscores that the world is a very, very big place.”
Postcards were a phenomenon when they were introduced in the late 19th century. By 1913, there were 900 million being sent just within the United States, at a time when the population was still under 100 million.
“There are tales of postmen whose backs were thrown out by the giant stacks of postcards they were carting around,” Weiss said.
People bought postcards to keep for themselves and paste into albums, too, which encouraged manufacturers to issue sets of them. “It was like collecting baseball cards or stamps. You wanted to have all of the cathedrals or all of the kings. There was such a deep market for postcards, they could put almost anything on them and find a market.”
The practice of mailing home a picture postcard withstood the advent of long-distance calling and the portable camera. But it couldn’t survive the rise of e-cards and e-mail in the 1990s and social media in the 2000s.
The US Postal Service processed 413 million stamped postcards last year, including picture postcards. That was down from 2.7 billion in 2000. One of the biggest postcard manufacturers, the British company J Salmon, shut down in 2018. And the Post Card Distributors Association of North America changed its name in 2008 to the Souvenir Wholesale Distributors Association and stopped holding its annual trade show in 2020.
“There will always be that desire for the piece of paper ephemera” as a keepsake from a trip, Weiss said. “But the idea of the postcard as a piece of communication rather than an object of memory — that’s definitely over.”
Rand McNally official 1920 auto trails map. Leventhal Map & Education Center at the Boston Public Library
So, largely, is the era of the paper map, which has been so overtaken by GPS that one in seven millennials say they’ve never used one.
They lose out by seldom looking up from their screens to get their bearings, as they’d have to do with paper maps, said Garrett Dash Nelson, president and head curator of the Boston Public Library’s Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center.
Wandering the wrong way and having random encounters can make a trip, said Nelson. “The experience [with maps] is about getting lost and then finding yourself again.”
Staring at a paper map can also invite locals to stop and help, he said. “It positions you as someone who is not familiar with the space and trying to figure out how to get around.”
In a surprising way, what’s old with maps is new again. The first maps, used mostly on ships, were like GPS, showing only narrowly defined routes. “They were point-to-point navigations for sailors,” Nelson said: “‘Sail from this port to this port and then around this island.’”
When cheap printing intersected with an explosion of middle-class travel starting in the 19th century, paper maps came into widespread use, often produced by hotels, railroads, and other businesses that catered to tourists.
Modern road maps followed the ascendance of the car, which could go almost anywhere. So maps got bigger, culminating in the iconic Rand McNally Road Atlas. Then came AAA TripTiks, familiar to generations of kids whose parents took them on road trips, with routes highlighted on narrow pages bound in plastic rings.
GPS has largely replaced the paper map. xreflex –
TripTiks stopped being produced in 2017, replaced by digital versions, though AAA still prints paper versions on request.
“There was some pushback when we made that transition,” said Chuck Nardozza, managing director of travel sales for AAA Northeast. “There’s definitely nostalgia.” Even now, when he asks applicants for jobs what they know about AAA, he said, “outside of road service, TripTiks are the next most popular answer.”
Time moves on, however, and technology makes travel more accessible than it was in the heyday of these things, said Vanessa Schwartz, a professor of history at the University of Southern California and author of the new book “Jet Age Aesthetic: The Glamour of Media in Motion.”
“There’s no way I would have been able to go to Japan and not be guided around if there weren’t cellphones, because I couldn’t read the paper maps” in Japanese for instance, Schwartz said. “The real question is: Is the activity gone or just transformed?”
She likens the debate to the one between Phileas Fogg and his sidekick, Passepartout, in Jules Verne’s “Around the World in Eighty Days”: Fogg wants to go fast, while Passepartout wants to slow down, see the sights, and meet the natives.
Other travel traditions are still clinging to life. Although it’s way down from the peak of $10 billion, a surprising $1.7 billion a year in traveler’s checks continue to be sold, even though many businesses and even banks no longer take them.
Other things that may have seemed imperiled actually survive and even thrive.
Travel guidebooks have had their peaks and valleys, but sales rebounded last year by 40 percent, the analytics firm the NPD Group reports. Falcon Guides
Travel guidebooks have had their peaks and valleys, but sales rebounded last year by 40 percent, the analytics firm the NPD Group reports. Travel agents have rebranded themselves as “travel advisers,” but the experience of pandemic cancellations and the continued unreliability of travel has given them a boost; 81 percent report an increase in sales this year, according to the ASTA (formerly the American Society of Travel Agents).
Rand McNally even just came out with a printed collector’s edition of that road atlas in time for its 100th anniversary next year, although the publisher has also added features that are only available online, and has branched out into the digital mapping business.
Postcards, however, have become an object for collectors. And that hobby — it’s called “deltiology” — shows signs of falling off.
A search for postcards on eBay returns 7.6 million results, but among those are entire lots being liquidated by their aging owners. The annual Card-O-Rama postcard show, this year on Sept. 23 at Memorial Hall in Melrose, has seen the number of dealers and attendance steadily decline, said Arthur Bennett of the parent Bay State Postcard Collectors Club.
There’s still demand, said Bennett, a collector himself who specializes in postcards of baseball stadiums; he just sold a batch of historic postcards of Melrose to a former resident who moved to California, for example. But “it’s dying out.”
There is growing interest in the picture postcard from new audiences, often as a work of art or for its historical relevance. Most of the postcards at the MFA, given by cosmetics billionaire Leonard Lauder, are “postally unused,” meaning they were never mailed but instead collected for their images. Antique postcards depicting national parks are being used to study environmental change.
“The story you can tell with postcards is basically the whole story of the 20th century,” Weiss said.
More conventional postcards have been making their way to the Spellman Museum of Stamps and Postal History in Weston, where the widows, widowers, and children of collectors sometimes bring them. They will often pull some collection items out to keep, as much for the messages as for the pictures, said Joseph Mullin, who appraises them for the museum.
“I really am somewhat of a therapist,” quipped Mullin, “because these cards are telling the story of the collector. And that will never really disappear.”
Jon Marcus can be reached at



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