The oldest known postcard was sent by a practical joker to himself to embarrass the postal service.
Theodore Hook was the most notorious prankster of Georgian England. I’ll save his most notorious practical joke for another time (although I’m sure some of you are already Googling it – it involved the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lord Mayor of London, a fishmonger, and a dozen chimneysweeps), but he was also apparently the inventor of the postcard.
Up until twenty years ago the earliest surviving picture postcards were thought to be those from France or the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the 1870s, but in 2001 a postcard dated July 14, 1840 showed up in a stamp collection: the so-called Penny Penates postcard.
On the front of this postcard is a caricature of postal clerks wielding gigantic pens; underneath them the words “Penny” and “Penates” are written – in Latin, roughly, “the guardians of the penny.” This makes sense given that postage at the time was one penny. In fact, the world’s first adhesive postage stamp – the famous Penny Black – had entered circulation just two months earlier.
On the back of this postcard, the famous Penny Black itself. Also the address of the recipient, Theodore Hook. It is thought that he sent the postcard to himself as a prank on the postal clerks. It probably tickled him pink to imagine them sorting through the mail only to find a caricature of themselves – especially because every other piece of mail would have been within an envelope.
(When postcards were proposed by a Prussian postal clerk twenty-five years later officials believed that no-one would willingly give up their privacy by writing on the outside of the mail. Just Theodore Hook I guess.)