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It’s actually easy to answer the question “Who invented the postcard?” A lot of historians attribute the invention of the first picture postcard to Theodore Hook, a writer and practical joker, who sent the card in 1840. But the story and circumstances surrounding this is actually much more interesting than just the name and date.
Theodore Hook was born on September 22, 1788 in Bedford Square, London. His father, James Hook, was a renowned musician and frequently created operas with his wife Elizabeth, and their other son, James. Theodore too had a musical gift, studying theater at the University of Oxford and partnering with his father to create The Soldier’s Return and other subsequent comic operas.
After Hook’s considerable success, then Prince Regent George IV took notice of his talents and appointed him accountant-general and treasurer of Mauritius with a salary of £2,000 a year. Theodore Hook’s position was be short-lived, however. A few years after he took office the auditors discovered a huge deficit in the treasury account amounting to £12,000. He was brought back to England to face the criminal charge.
As the investigation of the audit board was underway, Hook started writing for magazines and newspapers. He launched a newspaper, and wrote witty criticisms against the then Queen Caroline. Hook was arrested for the second time after making no attempt to pay his debts to the government. He was confined in a sponging-house for two years, where he started his work as a novelist. His novels were known for their racy stories, (often about his friends) as well as vivid portraits.
Indeed, Theodore Hook is known as a man of letters, an intellectual, but not in the traditional way. His novels do not possess the rigid structure of his contemporaries. Rather, they would be more appropriately described as improvisations, a style that reflects his happy-go-lucky and free spirit.
Theodore Hook’s plentiful novels and compositions are eclipsed only by his reputation as a hoaxer. Hook’s claim to fame (aside from the first postcard) is his Berners Street hoax, a practical joke that made Berners Street the talk of Central London.
Hook is not only a man of letters figuratively, but also literally. He bet a friend that he could make Berners Street famous for a week. To do this, he sent thousands of letters in the name of a Mrs. Tottenham on 54 Berners Street requesting for several services and inviting visitors. According to some sources, Hook knew Mrs. Tottenham and the joke was revenge for a past dispute. Other say that they have no connection at all.
Whatever Hook’s motives though, he succeeded in creating a large crowd of spectators in Berners Street. Onlookers as well as Hook and his friend watched on as a frantic Mrs. Tottenham scrambled to turn away every chimney sweep, pastry chef, tailor, and other tradesmen that came to her home.
The very first picture postcard was the result of another of Theodore Hook’s practical jokes, this time on unsuspecting postal office workers. The story surrounding this legendary postcard was discovered only recently. In 2001, it was found in a stamp collection. The postcard featured a Penny Black stamp, another rarity, which was the first adhesive postage stamp.
The postcard featured a hand-painted design of a caricature of workers in the post office around an enormous inkwell. Rumor has it that Hook, a known hoaxer, created the first postcard to mess with the postal workers. He probably sent the postcard to himself.
Whether he was successful or not was beside the point. I personally want to know how the scribes from the postal office took their caricatured selves. But as the discovery of the first ever postcard was only fairly recent, we may yet know how that practical joke went.
In 2002, the postcard was sold in an auction for £31,750, a record sum at the time.
As for Theodore Hook himself, we are forever thankful. Hook created a colorful history for the postcard. His happy-go-lucky spirit and cleverness inspires us here at PrintRunner to create wittier ways to improve the way we use postcards.