Return to Sender
Text by Diana Budds
Illustrations by Jim Datz
The Eames Collection contains hundreds of postcards ranging from marketing materials Ray and Charles created for the Herman Miller Furniture Company to souvenirs they bought during their travels and items printed by third parties featuring their exhibitions and furniture.
This ephemera represents a cross-section of the world of the Eameses—their designs; their family, friends, and associates; and the fandom that surrounded their work—all told through a few square inches of paper.
Correspondence dates back millennia, but postcards originated in the mid-19th century as a less expensive and more casual alternative to letters—the equivalent of sending a quick text or a DM today. These short notes represent a democratic form of communication. Postcards began as very simple designs, with one side reserved for an address and the other for a message, which was either handwritten or pre-printed. Beyond a way to keep in touch, postcards became collectible souvenirs in the United States after the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, when publishers realized the millions of visitors were eager to buy memorabilia from their trips to the pavilions. The format we recognize today, with an image on the front and address lines and a message field on the back, was permitted by the postal service in 1907, which ushered in a “golden era” of postcards that lasted until WWI. Postcards made during that time featured illustrations of political messaging, cartoons, advertisements, mundane objects, and spectacular monuments and landmarks. By some estimates, 200 billion postcards circulated during the early 20th century, creating what the historian Lydia Pyne describes as the first social network: a global exchange of images and messages. At the time, image-based media was still rare—even in newspapers—and postcards offered a glimpse of the world. As photography became more accessible commercially in the 1930s, photochrom prints replaced drawings; eventually full-color photography replaced photochrom in the 1940s. The availability of more images, plus WWII, paved the way for another postcard craze as they were free for soldiers to send. Postcards still enjoyed popularity during the second half of the 20th century, even as cameras grew to be popular consumer items. Starting in the 1990s, as email started to rise, postcards began to decline in use for personal correspondence. And each time we post a photo and caption to Instagram, we’re effectively making our own postcards. Still, postcards are far from obsolete; they’ve just taken a different form, mostly bulk political mailers and advertisements.
Communication is a fundamental aspect of Ray and Charles’s work, from their films to exhibitions and lectures. They frequently spoke of the importance of “the language of vision,” a concept artist and design educator Gygory Kepes introduced in a 1944 book to describe how images are capable of disseminating knowledge and messages more effectively than any other medium through form, color, scale, and subject matter. “Visual communication is universal and international; it knows no limits of tongue, vocabulary, or grammar,” Kepes wrote. We can study the postcards in the Eames Institute’s archive through a similar lens, as one snapshot of Ray and Charles’s language of vision.