The oldest and most renowned British postcard manufacturer, J. Salmon, has formally announced that the company shall close-up shop. The official statement noted shorter holiday trends negating the postcard culture, alongside the lack of heirs to take over the management and ownership. Nevertheless, the advancing footfall of social media, and of emails that preceded it, is acknowledged to carry much of the blame. With Instagram’s pre-eminence in the market of filtered photo frame reality, against a backdrop of ‘selfie mania’ among younger generations, there is a dying art of bread and butter letter-writing in the age of instant communication. However one looks at traditions like writing, an amalgamation of factors appear to have put the nail in the coffin to tangible tokens of affection to loved ones and friends.
End of an era?
With heavy heart, Charles and Henry Salmon have announced closure to their lifetime enterprise in December this year, after it served British households and foreign visitors for 140 long years. For granting us the possibility to shock, thrill, awe and move our loved ones the world over, we are duly grateful.
A Sign of the Times
Still, it is all too easy to lament technological progress as the destructive winds that have reduced modern society to a mere fleeting gratification of an instant message; a society in which clarification can be sought out instantly and words lose their meaning with careless irreverence for the recipient. Written expressions of fondness and affection have been our reflection in their absence for centuries. Careful refction with each pen stroke that carried with it the gravity of hope and promise in their wake. From sonnets that gave rise to eros, ludos or philia, to the fluttering sensation that someone, somewhere is thinking of us out there in the big wide world.
Instant communication at the expense of solicitude and meaning.
Traditional arts: condemned to the dust of history?
Is the decline of postcards a decline of long-standing traditions? Perhaps consumer preferences and advertising of modern expediency are to blame. Disruption has been around for centuries. Gutenberg was criticised in 1440 when launching the first printing press by staunch Conservatives, antagonistic to any form of change, who believed it would simply kill off writing and creativity.
Books for artists is one such instantiation of a niche trade in 2017. Books that are bound with love and attention by hand with glues and pastes, pigments and paper. Often adorned with gold leaf along the paper’s crest. Sometimes, skilled craftsmen and librarians will engrave or etch a drawing or message across the page edges as they are flicked through.
So long as we have rare and collectible books in our libraries, and we do not succumb to the book burnings of Germany under the Third Reich, trades will have a place in society. That is, unless censorship returns with the same vehemence as 1643 England, which drove John Milton, one of the greatest poets of our time to respond with, “He who destroys a good book, kills reason itself.”
Milton would turn in his grave were he to see requests for banned books in American libraries in recent years. From sexism to uses of the "N-word", a common complaint lodged against Mark Twain’s classic novel Huckleberry Finn, keyboard warriors are out in force to push their views onto others. All in an skewed attempt to demand conformity to their outlook on society and the world around them.
Britain is a nation of DIY addicts, spending billions on home improvements and projects. One would therefore be swift to assume the young are queuing up to take the mantle. Yet, this is not the case. Instead, trades and ancient skills passed down the generations are dying out. It were not so long ago we were blessed with specialists in every trade and craft under the sun. Formalised guilds of stonemasons, carpenters and glass strainers were commonplace.
Ironically, this DIY and heritage preservation fixation is ingrained in the public mindset as indicative of our culture and identity. Recent years, especially the transition into the baby boomers generation appears to have divorced the father to son, generation to generation passing down of skills through families. The baby boomers were quick to don suits and ties and head to offices for their new 9 to 5 culture.
Salvaging a dying breed
It bears smacking of television advert appeals to donate and save an endangered species of Siberian tiger or Ibis; however, the task of keeping old traditions alive holds proof in the pudding. Put straight, young people need convincing that crafts and apprenticeships are worth cementing a future in. And either government, private heritage and preservation companies may well benefit from sponsoring these in this modern austerity bound era.
Making things is important for the soul of mankind. It will never go away entirely, despite a capitalist production agenda, wherein mechanisms worship coercive inter-capitalist competition, impelling technological advancement and organisational improvements at whatever cost. The blinkered worldview of self-valorisation of value we pursue leads us to become bound in by cognitive commodity fetishism. As the Cubans tossed their gold into the sea in a vain attempt to deter the Spanish Conquistadors as a prime instantiation of fantastical materialism. Albeit a case prior to the Anglo-Dutch Protestant Capitalist roots of 300 years ago. Traditional methods will have a place, however, niche writing a letter or postcard, to crafting wood in a workshop, may become in future.
However, traditional crafts are up against it with their divorced status from daily life, meaning fewer people encounter them in a way they would learn them and integrate these skills as hobbies or paid work. The practitioners and artisans are ever fading, yet there will be a time when much of society does not know of their presence among us.
Madeleine L’Engle has been attributed with a memorable contemplation, “The great thing about getting older is that you don't lose all the other ages you've been.” Although the artisans and specialists of old are long gone, their trades and skills remain, albeit as though a socially recounted familiarity and consolation, framed in faint , yet foggy nostalgia for a bygone era. When man's metal was cast in iron and steel, his worth judged by the sweat of his brow, and hard work meant more than an indivisible, sedentary office job.
Traditional arts and crafts reflects this melancholy inertia for a time when change may have come slower and more predictably. Yet, the skills and trades we once all knew and practised are not lost, but have evolved to exist and adapt in the shadows of modern capitalism.
Photos may capture a snapshot in time. Perhaps a mirror reflection of a far-off land before it became industrialised, or developed into a beach resort, or well-trodden tourist trail. Yet, the dis-consolation of J. Salmon recently announced fragmentation lies in a great loss to English society.
The time, consideration and purposefulness of writing a letter or postcard has the innate and perhaps unique ability to capture and captivate, if only fleetingly, the heart and soul of the writer. And that same joy is beholden by the reader. A unique insight into a holiday, an experience that moved us or perhaps something so simple as a shared glimpse into their life journey. However small this insight, writing is a passage into this amazing and ephemeral land we call our own. One can only hope it evolves and adapts alongside other crafts in the shadow of our whittling immoderations. TMM