In 2004, Frank Warren printed out 3,000 plain postcards. His plan was to ask people to decorate the cards, write down one secret they’d never told anyone else, and mail them to him anonymously.
“I handed them out to people on the streets of Washington, D.C., not really knowing what to expect, but slowly secrets began to find their way to my mailbox,” Warren says. “It was a slow trickle at first.”
As they arrived, he scanned them and posted them online. That first Sunday the blog where he posted the first batch of postcards had 100 visitors. The next Sunday, he had a thousand. The number of visitors to the site soon grew to hundreds of thousands.
“The idea began to spread virally across the country and around the world,” says Warren. “People began to make their own postcards. I started getting postcards with postmarks not just from D.C., but from Texas, Pennsylvania, California, New Zealand, Hong Kong and Switzerland. It was then that I realized I had accidentally tapped into something that had been there the whole time, something I don’t fully understand to this day.”
This week, PostSecret: The Show will stop in Pittsburgh. The interactive, multimedia show brings to life the stories behind several of the postcard secrets. It will feature secrets submitted by the audience, as well as some of the most humorous and arresting secrets Warren has received throughout the years.
“The secrets can be silly or soulful, sexual, romantic or hopeful,” says Warren. “They can be hidden acts of kindness.”
One of the secrets he received was written on a postcard made out of a Starbucks cup. It read, “I serve decaf to customers who are rude to me.” Another written on a postcard with an image of the World Trade Center in New York City read, “Everyone who knew me before 9/11 believes I’m dead.”
“Some have caused the FBI to contact me,” Warren says.
After more than a decade, Warren’s collection of postcard secrets totals more than one million. They were previously housed in the Smithsonian Museum, in Washington, D.C., and last month, they were transferred to the Museum of Man in California.
“My hope is that it allows us to feel a bit more understanding of each other,” Warren says. “I believe when we keep a secret the burden of that can feel like a wall that separates us from others. By finding the courage to let our secrets go, we can break through that illusion and recognize that these stories don’t separate us, they connect us. They’re like bridges.”
By now, it’s clear that the project that started out as a weekly blog has had an impact. In 2011, Warren was awarded the HopeLine Lifetime Achievement Award for his work on suicide prevention and was invited to the White House to work on the issue of mental health. Additionally, PostSecret submissions have been published in five New York Times bestselling books.
“When something like this grabs your life and turns it upside down, there’s usually some reasons you’re aware of and maybe some motives you’ll never really uncover,” says Warren. “In some ways, it was the result of a boring job. But looking back, I think I was struggling with secrets in my own life. There were parts of my past I was keeping secret, and secrets that were keeping me.”