A generation is growing up which may possibly never send or receive a single postcard. And yet, in 1910, 800 million were sent in Britain alone. Today this equates to every man, woman and child sending one every month for a year. And why should they? With texts, chat, photo messaging able to do so much more, so much faster and so much more cheaply, the humble postcard seems to be living on borrowed time.
And, in a way, this makes the lure of postcard collecting all the more appealing. They are a finite historical resource which will only become rarer with time – a window on a forgotten world of etiquette, Empire and seaside sauciness. London’s Postal Museum has mounted a wonderfully informative exhibition of postcard history which is well worth a visit, even an online one. Discover how Victorians communicated (relatively!) intimate messages just by the angle at which they affixed their stamps. Or how the army censored postcards home from the trenches to avoid damaging morale at home. The exhibition runs until January.
As a child growing up in Derby, Rod Jewell was a keen philatelist until the day he realised that the General Post Office had begun producing stamps specifically for collectors like him. Unwilling to fulfil the role of a consumer, at the age of 22 he turned to postcard collecting instead. Over half a century later, his passion now fills a whole room of his house and it is likely that the 30,000 postcards he owns are worth upwards of half a million pounds.
Although Rod initially specialised in local images of Derby and its environs, his passion has encompassed other unusual niches such as Great War propaganda cards and a very rare same day delivery postcard which was carried by hot air balloon from Manchester at the beginning of the century. A similar card can be seen below.
While the advent of email and social media has inevitably displaced picture postcards as most people’s default way of communicating with friends and relatives back home, interest is growing in the medium partly because of its value as a window on the past. While most collectors are primarily interested in a postcard’s rarity or the image it shows, one man is specialising in the personal micro-histories they reveal.
Through his Twitter account https://twitter.com/PastPostcard, Tom Jackson posts a classic postcard from a half century ago which shows just how much, or how little, we have changed. His book of the same name is a compendium of some of the best and is in some ways as good a social history of who we were as you are likely to read. His website is at http://postcardfromthepast.co.uk/
In the same spirit, we’ve sourced a few classics of our own….
While Hogmanay may be a bigger deal in Scotland, the New Year is even more important in two other countries where it’s still marked by a flood of traditional mail in the form of postcards: Japan and Russia.
Last year in Japan for example, two billion New Year’s greeting postcards were sent, an average of 15 for every person in the country. These nenga-hagaki are generally seen as a way of expressing gratitude for all those who have helped you over the past year – hence why it’s so hard to leave any friends or family out! It’s considered a bit rude not to reciprocate the gesture so you can see why people try to cover all the bases.
In Russia, of course, Christmas was banned as a religious holiday from 1929 along with Christmas trees. In 1935 though, (with Stalin’s blessing), they became ‘New Year Trees’ as an alternative celebration when Grandfather Frost brings presents to children. New Year remains the principal holiday celebration in Russia to this day with Christmas a relatively minor affair on January 7th – in line with the Russian Orthodox calendar.
Almost inevitably, the most common theme of Soviet new year postcards is a cosy view of the Kremlin. Some reference Communist achievements in the space race to help Grandfather Frost on his rounds while lots of the more colourful ones are playful depiction of rosy cheeked children or comic hares, the traditional animal of the Russian New Year.
Our final words of the year are just to say a huge thank you to all of the Market’s traders, visitors and supporters who have helped make the best of an extremely trying year. We’ll be back just as soon as we can. Happy New Year to you all!
The historical value of deltiology was in the limelight last month when a 130 year old mystery was definitively settled by a researcher at the Institut Van Gogh north of Paris. The precise location of Tree Roots, the great artist’s final work, on which he was working just hours before his (likely self-inflicted) death by gunshot, is now known – and it’s all thanks to a postcard.
A 94 year old French woman, who lives locally, had lent her collection of historical postcards to the Institute and it was only some time after one of their researchers had browsed through them the connection was made. What was just a hunch became a certainty when Wouter van der Veen went to the scene himself and confirmed it. The Auberge Ravoux Inn, where Van Gogh spent the final two months of his life in 1890 is just 500 feet away. A plaque commemorating the significance of the spot is now in place.
A very useful overlay version of the painting and card can be seen here.
Postcard portraits of pre-revolutionary Imperial Russian soldiers and sailors
For all their straight-backed formality from a bygone age, there’s no denying that really looking into the eyes of someone long dead in photographs like these is still an oddly personal experience. Who was this person? What was going through their mind as they sat motionless for the photographer? And, above all, why didn’t they smile?
Any forces personnel posing in uniform but off duty today would more than likely be sporting a huge grin or at least some indication that they were pleased to be in uniform. Yet these men look at best pensive and at worst downright miserable, an interpretation which might well suit someone who is effectively a ghost.
The reasons were mainly cultural and partly technical.
In the first instance, early cameras required long exposure times and it was considerably easier to maintain a straight face than risk spoiling the frame by having to rest your face muscles. Secondly, since portrait photography was a direct descendant of portrait painting, an expressionless or inscrutable gaze was manifestly the done thing. Another reason, and possibly the one most people might guess at, is that smiling was rather frowned upon in Victorian and Edwardian society. Put simply, smiling was for idiots.
Yet theres is an even more interesting and compelling explanation for why we find the gaze of our ancestors so unsettling. While we might have every other hour of our waking lives documented in a selfie or tagged in a happy group photo with friends, photography was really quite exceptional a century ago. Many felt that it might be the only time in their lives when their likeness might be captured on film. The resulting precious photograph would immediately become a family heirloom, passed on indefinitely to kin they would never meet. This also explains the apparently macabre practice of dressing up and posing the corpse of a family member who had died unexpectedly without having previously had his or her photograph taken.
‘Haunting’ might not be the ideal word to describe the look on the monochrome faces in postcards like these. But then exactly what expression would be on your face if you knew it was one day destined to catch the eye of a casual browser in a London underground car park?
A few days ago we asked if anyone could help to interpret this photograph of two postcards which we know refer to the 1905 Russo-Japanese War. What we didn’t yet understand was how it refers to it. Who is the bell boy on the right? The uniformed horse? Why is he laughing? What does the pump refer to? Russian Reddit users u/sUpport84 and u/agrostis came to the rescue. The explanation below is thanks to him.
First off, these two postcards are part of a set of three as it is taken from a (presumably French) triptych from the period. The whole thing is a mocking take on Japanese ambitions in the Far East.
The bull is Russia, Japan is the frog and the bell boy / servant is Britain. As an ally of Japan, Britain was keen to use her power to curb Russian influence in the region. France, meanwhile was allied to Russia. The artist is poking fun at the pretensions of Japan by referencing the fable of the Frog and the Ox, in which the former tries to inflate itself to the size of the latter and bursts in the attempt. In the postcard the frog asks “Look, aren’t I big enough yet?”. Britain’s reply is “not yet”.
Hailed as ‘unsinkable’ before its maiden voyage on 11 April 1912, the Titanic retains an iron grip on the popular imagination. This is reflected in high prices for any contemporary postcards featuring the ship and, in particular, ones printed or posted before it sank. Most coveted of all is a card written on board and posted at the layover in Cork (then Queenstown) before it left on the ill-fated journey to New York. One such card written by a maid who wrote “I wish you were here, it is a lovely boat and it would do you good. Am just going on deck” fetched £8,500 at auction last year.
Inevitably, unwary buyers (particularly online) can be caught out by fakes but this is the real thing: a Rotary Photo card posted just six weeks after the sinking and is signed by someone we know only as ‘J.H.’. His wry comment “I thought you would like this card” highlights just how dramatic this event was for people at the time and there was a huge demand for Titanic postcards immediately after the sinking. Some studios even used images of Titanic’s sister ship Olympic to cash in on this.
Photographs of the real Titanic show that the lower deck promenade is enclosed along the length of the ship while only the front half of the upper ‘A’ deck (circled) is similarly enclosed.
Two classic French ‘metamorphosis’ postcards from around 1905-1910. Some artists delight in reminding us that, no matter how much fun we’re having, we’re all going to die. Hence the two ladies bidding each other ‘au revoir’ in a sunlit park are oblivious to the shadow of Death who may have other plans for either one (or both) of them. The other card is titled less ambiguously. ‘Tête de Mort’ hints that even the carefree happiness of the two children sledging is overshadowed by the inevitability of the grave.
This device is known as a memento mori – in Latin “remember you will die” and it was a common feature in a great deal of Western art. While the recipient of such cards might well appreciate the skill involved in creating the illusion, it seems pretty grim as gifts go. Most surviving examples are real photograph postcards though so they often fetch good prices. Just remember that you can’t take them with you…
Bad news has always sold well and disasters often feature on early postcards like this one from New York in 1905. Ironically, it occurred on September 11th when a high-level train jumped the tracks killing eleven passengers and one passer by. The driver was held responsible immediately went on the run being arrested two years later in San Francisco.
Accidents involving all kinds of transport are a particularly prevalent theme from postcards in the early part of the twentieth century. The lack of safety features and an arrogant belief in our superiority over mere machinery would provide no shortage of subjects. Any number of picture postcards feature the aftermath of car, plane and shipwrecks, a bemused public gawking at a tangle of metal and scattered debris. Yet some of the more sought-after postcards actually show the ‘before’ picture of notable disasters. Cards featuring the Hindenburg or the Titanic in their pomp have particular appeal.