Postcard Collecting

‘I’ll send you a card!’ a look at postcard history and postcard collecting.

‘I’ll send you a card!’ We all promise that as we go on holiday. Nowadays, postcards from all over the world pour through our letterboxes, bearing brightly-coloured views and exotic foreign stamps.
But, even fifty years ago, foreign travel was a novelty, and the majority of British holidaymakers still spent their fortnight’s annual holiday at a British seaside resort. People stayed in boarding-houses or holiday camps, played the penny slot machines on the pier, rode donkeys on the beach and watched Punch and Judy. Tastes were simpler then.

Going backwards in time, a collection of Victorian and Edwardian seaside resort postcards can be formed very cheaply, with many examples starting at around 75p. It’s fascinating to see the elegant bathing machines parked along the water’s edge, while horse-drawn carriages wait on the promenade. Often the cards are black and white or sepia, which adds to the charm. Many are delicately tinted, while others have silver or gold crests emblazoned alongside the design. Sometimes the views show huge tidal-type waves breaking on the
shore – but you get the feeling that these deluges have been added afterwards, as people  nonchalantly amble along the prom in what must have been a disastrous storm!

In the heyday of the great cartoonists, people such as Donald McGill, Douglas Tempest, Reg Maurice and George Studdy were churning out their designs ready to tickle the fancy of the British public with the British, zany, Carry-On type humour. Donald McGill’s cards are probably the most famous today, instantly recognisable to thousands of us by the rosy-cheeked fat ladies bursting from their swimsuits, weedy little hen-pecked men cowering before their women-folk, or battle-axe-type landladies wielding rolling-pins. Colourful and brash, his cards could be found on every revolving rack outside seaside gift shops.

During the early part of the twentieth century, postcards were often used to send Birthday, Easter and Christmas greetings, and there are thousands of designs to choose from. Many cards featured photographs
of children, flowers and animals. In the 1930s, artist Mabel Lucie Attwell rose to prominence with her postcard designs of chubby-faced tots, but when the idea of postcard design was first suggested,
she was unsure, thinking it wasn’t quite the done thing for a serious artist. Gentle persuasion worked wonders and soon Mabel was producing postcards for Valentine and Sons of Dundee, with whom she worked for fifty years. Everyone seemed to love her adorable drawings of pudgy tots which she captioned with adult sentiments, and the range covered practically every occasion. During her lifetime she produced more than a thousand designs.

Some of the most colourful and eye-catching postcards can be found filed under ‘silks’ in a postcard dealer’s hoard. There are three main kinds – ‘wovens’, ‘printed’ and ’embroidered’, and it’s this last category which is  most plentiful and affordable. The majority of these glorious embroidered postcards date from the first world war, and were sent from the men fighting in France to t heir wives, girlfriends, mothers or sisters back home. Many of these cards are unashamedly sentimental, while others are staunchly patriotic. Some bear regimental crests, while others, perhaps the most poignant of all, depict soldiers, shell bursts and a message which reads ‘Greetings From The Trenches’. An estimated ten million embroidered cards were produced during the war years.

The amazing thing about these vividly-coloured cards is that they were embroidered by hand. Apparently, they were sewn by French women who were pleased to do their bit for the war effort, and at the same time earn some money. The silk embroidery was executed on very fine muslin, which came as a strip approximately six feet long and just under five inches wide, which meant that the same design could be worked along the length about 25 times. When the cards were completed, they were starched to keep the stitches taut, then cut into rectangles and mounted onto a cardboard backing sheet. (These last processes would have been carried out in a factory.) Once mounted, the work measured the standard postcard size of three and a half inches by five and a half.

Many of the embroidered cards had the fabric folded into an envelope shape so that a tiny greetings card could be tucked inside. Often,
these little cards are still in place, and are printed with a picture or a message. The easiest silks to find today tend to be the sentimental greetings type. Next are the patriotic cards. Regimental emblems are dearest of all – they were less popular during the war, as a soldier would obviously prefer to send his wife a pretty card decorated with flowers and lovebirds, than to send her an image of his badge. Woven silk cards are much rarer. They took longer to produce, requiring special looms and a great deal of skill. The most famous producer of these cards was T Stevens of Coventry, whose silk cards are so realistic that they resemble photographs. His range was huge, including flags, ships and clasped hands across the sea.

Perhaps the most interesting of postcard categories is the novelty card. Manufacturers vied to see who produce the most unusual. Animals with moving eyes, appliqué cards, cards which show extra features when held to the light, aluminium cards, squeaky cards or those with attached booklets of photos – the inventiveness was amazing.

Before the war, postcards weren’t just for holiday greetings; telephones were still relatively uncommon, and people relied on a highly efficient postal service for inviting friends to tea, making appointments, passing on gossip and generally keep in touch. The messages on the back are often intriguing, and you can frequently date them from the stamp even if the postmark is illegible. It’s interesting, incidentally, to see how many of the messages were written in pencil. Many people used pencils because ballpoint
pens weren’t invented till the middle of this century, and otherwise it entailed carrying an, often expensive, fountain pen around.

The majority of postcards are cheap to collect and easy to store, which is probably why they are such a popular collectable nowadays.

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