I recently discovered the fascinating world of QSL cards, artifacts of an era before the Internet and iPhones when truckers and ham radio operators employed lines of communication made of tubes, transistors and magnetic coils. While surfing the ‘net, I stumbled upon Michelle Cross’s truly amazing collection of QSL cards. It was a stunning find: Thousands upon thousands of some of the weirdest art I’d ever encountered. It was mysterious and evocative. An underground culture where taboos were broken and secret off ramps lead to hidden worlds where truckin’ met fuckin. Racist, sexist, mucho macho and sometimes satirical, QSL cards were Facebook for the men (and few women) who drove by night. Lonely, restless, jacked-up on greenies and white line fever, looking to connect on the asphalt Interweb, always suspended in a state between here and there.
I asked Michelle Cross to write about her incredible QSL card collection (200,000 and growing) and she responded with enthusiasm. Read and enjoy.
When citizen’s band (CB) radio technology emerged in the early 1960s, operators initially used QSL cards in much the same way as ham operators did, to confirm and follow up on contacts made over the air. As CB radio grew in popularity in North America in the late 1960s and early 1970s, QSL cards became a more creative and freeform hobby, and a community formed around them. Participants would design a card or have one designed for them, get copies printed locally or by mail order, and start trading and collecting.
Not every CBer got involved with QSL cards; to put it in perspective, there were tens of millions of people on CB radio during its heyday, but only tens of thousands making and exchanging QSL cards. Those who did would often make and exchange hundreds or thousands of cards each, often without ever having spoken to one another over the air.
Professional illustrators and printers began to offer QSL card services. Some artists would create collectible numbered series of their work. Enthusiasts would order multiple cards from different artists and printers. QSL swap clubs were started to facilitate collecting and would have dozens and sometimes hundreds of members. CBers would meet up at events, jamborees or what they’d call “coffee breaks” and could trade and order more cards in person. The hobby spread across North America, and had a presence in Europe and the UK as well. It began to decline in the late 1970s and was essentially over by the early to mid 1980s.
I first encountered some QSL cards in an antique shop in the early 2000s. Growing up in the 90s I was really into independent and underground art, media and culture, especially zines, so I’d always gravitated towards obscure printed matter. QSL cards definitely resonated with me on a similar level as zines had, but it took a while to figure out what on earth they were. I did some research and found a few more, but there was almost no information outside of what was contained in the cards themselves and whatever I could find out from people who were originally involved. There was no evidence that anyone had made a systematic attempt to preserve and document them, so I started a website and kept collecting. It’s now the largest known collection of its kind. It currently numbers around 200,000 cards but is by no means complete or exhaustive. Information is hard to come by. Often the original participants have passed away or have forgotten many of the details after half a century, so the history is patchy, but the cards themselves provide a lot of information and insight.
The cards were a form of social media for their time, a snapshot of almost everything going on in society and culture, taboos and all. I like to showcase the cards that hint at strange, underground and taboo activities and themes, but as a whole, QSL cards were never limited to one particular subculture or scene.
QSL graphics range from primitive line drawings to R. Crumb-like stylishness. I have yet to track anyone down who can tell me anything about Michel Dumais and his artist Henry Paul. They designed hundreds of cards and were pretty much the only professional QSL card printer and artist in Quebec. “Runnin Bare” is a man named Jesse from the Pacific Northwest. He was not only an artist but a printer too. His company printed millions of cards designed by him and other artists in the 1970s. He designed a few thousand Runnin Bare cards himself, and also hired a few artists to draw series under his name. Runnin Bare himself was not a very sexy or explicit artist—his cartoons and jokes are mostly tame and lighthearted. Between the demands of the work and a personal tragedy (the loss of a young daughter) he eventually burned out on the caricature cartoon style and gravitated more towards nature drawings by the end.
More QSL excitement after the jump…
Posted by Marc Campbell |
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