The History of Postcards

It has probably been a while since most of us have sent or received a postcard due to the Covid-19 restrictions across the world. Also, the increased use of smartphones has reduced the need to send “wish you were here” notes in the post when it is easier and cheaper to upload a photograph or message onto social media. Yet, as deltiologists (also known as postcard collectors) will tell you, postcards have an interesting history, which blossomed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many cards purchased as souvenirs in the past are now collector’s items and have appeared in auctions since 1896.

Penny Penates postcard

The earliest known postcard was received in 1840 in Fulham by the composer and writer Theodore Hook (1788-1841). Known for his practical jokes, Hook likely sent the card to himself, either as an experiment or to poke fun at postal workers. The card, which bears a Penny Black stamp, features a hand-drawn caricature of postal clerks holding large pens. They are seated around an inkwell labelled “Official” with the words “Penny” and “Penates” on either side. Penates, or Di Penates, were household deities in Ancient Roman religion responsible for guarding the storeroom. Hook’s illustration suggests the post workers either looked after their pennies or the Penny Black stamps.

In 2001, a collector discovered the Penny Penates postcard and the British Philatelic Association confirmed it is the oldest documented postcard in the world. It is also the oldest card sent with a Penny Black stamp, which was only used between May 1840 and February 1841. In 2002, Penny Penates made history again, becoming the most ever paid-for postcard at auction, selling at £31,750 to a collector in Latvia.

Lipman’s Postal Card

The first commercially produced postcard appeared in 1861 in the United States of America, although manufacturers saw no need to decorate one side of the card with an image. Instead, the card, patented by John P. Charlton of Philadelphia, was plain on both sides – one for the message and the other for the recipient’s address. After selling the rights to Hymen Lipman (1817-93), the man credited for making the first pencil with an attached eraser, they added a border to the message side.

In 1870, commercial postcards began selling in the United Kingdom. These were also blank on both sides but featured a printed stamp, which the Post Office included in the price of the card. Only the Post Office had permission to sell postcards, which they sold in two sizes. The larger of the two eventually fell out of use in favour of the smaller due to ease of handling. Eventually, the Post Office introduced a standard size of postcard at 5.5 by 3.5 inches.

Other European countries adopted postcards slightly earlier than the United Kingdom, although the Prussian government worried about privacy issues. In 1869, the Austria-Hungary post office issued blank postcards, of which approximately 3 million were used in the first three months. When the Franco-Prussian war began in July 1870, soldiers saw the benefits of this inexpensive method of writing to people back home. Soon, post offices throughout Europe and further abroad agreed to the sale of postcards.

The claimed first printed picture postcard

In 1870, postcards began featuring a picture on one side with a small space to write a message. The reverse remained blank for the recipient’s address. Historians continue to debate over the origins of this idea, with the majority agreeing the first picture postcard was created by a soldier at Camp Conlie. Léon Besnardeau (1829-1914), the alleged inventor, resided at the training camp during the Franco-Prussian war, where he developed a lithographed design to print on postcards. This particular illustration featured two piles of military equipment topped by a scroll and the arms of the Duchy of Brittany. In French, the inscription reads, “War of 1870. Camp Conlie. Souvenir of the National Defence. Army of Brittany.”

Meanwhile, others argue the first picture postcard appeared in Germany three days before the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War. August Schwartz, a bookseller from Oldenburg, is regarded as the illustrator of this card, which bears the postmark 16th July 1870. Yet, neither of these cards resemble the souvenir postcards of today, the earliest of which appeared in Vienna in 1871.

North Bay, Scarborough

In the United Kingdom, the first picture postcards appear in 1894 at the beginning of the “Golden Age of Postcards”, which lasted until 1914. The Post Office permitted other publishers to print the cards, which led to a rise in postcards of landscapes and scenic views. ETW Dennis and Sons of Scarborough were the first company to print postcards outside of the Post Office. Edward Thomas West Dennis (1847-1923), a Quaker, saw a commercial gap in the market and began producing postcards for seaside resorts, which consumers purchased as mementoes of their holidays or sent home to friends and family.

Despite permitting others to print postcards, the Post Office provided strict rules about the design. Regulations stated the back must only contain the address, and publishers could print up to five words on the front as well as an image, as long as they left space for the sender to write a message. Society thought it unseemly to write personal messages where anyone could see, so the limited space prevented people from divulging too much information. Nonetheless, some people tried to get around this by writing along the edges of the illustration as well as in the space provided.

When talking about postcards, the historian Steve Hillier likened them to “the text message of their time”. Due to the small message space, households often received several postcards from the same sender. This prompted the Post Office to reconsider its regulations. The outcome, released in 1902, was the Divided Back postcard, which allowed people to write a message on one half and the address on the other. On the front, the picture took up the entire space.

With the rate of sending a postcard at half a penny, many continued to favour postcards over letters. Whilst today postcards are generally received from people on holiday, early 20th-century publishers produced cards for villages and towns across the United Kingdom. For example, in 1910, an inhabitant of the village of Upminster in Essex sent a postcard to a friend in France, asking them if they had recovered from their recent cold. The postcard contains a photograph of The Bell Inn, which dominated the crossroads at the centre of Upminster for 200 years before its demolition in 1963.

During the First World War, postcards helped boost the morale of soldiers, but also remained an effective form of communication with friends and family in Britain. Some postcards contained lengthy updates, whereas others simply said, “meet me off the train at 2 pm tomorrow”, or something equally mysterious. Whilst today we cannot guarantee next-day delivery, even with a first-class stamp, postmen once delivered letters to houses twice a day, providing a near-instant method of communication.

Whilst the war halted the production of seaside and holiday postcards, the industry saw a rise in military postcards. Some of these contained photographs of regiments or individual soldiers, which are now collectors’ items. Publishers also printed humorous cards to keep people’s spirits up, particularly those on the front lines or the injured. These postcards usually featured a cartoon rather than a photograph and saw a revival during the Second World War.

After the end of the First World War, postcard production picked up once more, although it never achieved the popularity of the Golden Years. The price of postage increased to one penny in 1918, then one and a half pence in 1921. The latter caused public protest, so the price reverted to one penny the following year.

The 1930s saw a rise in cartoon-style postcards, many of which were labelled bawdy or saucy. These illustrations shocked those with strong British morals, but others thoroughly enjoyed the innuendos and double entendres. Cartoonists often poked fun at stereotypical characters, such as vicars, large women and unfortunate husbands. They also made inappropriate jokes about the private lives of the average person.

Synonymous with the saucy postcard genre is the English graphic artist Donald McGill (1875-1962), who eventually received a fine for breaking the Obscene Publications Act 1857. His career as a postcard designer began unintentionally in 1904 after drawing a humorous get-well card for a sick nephew. McGill’s family encouraged him to produce more illustrations, and within a year, he had a full-time occupation. He started taking risks with the content of his drawings, noting the more vulgar they became, the better they sold.

McGill earned the title “King of the Seaside Postcard”, but after the outbreak of the First World War, he produced anti-German propaganda postcards instead. His illustration style remained consistent, with bright colours and caricature figures, but the messages focused on bolstering British morale and insulting the enemy. As a child, McGill lost a foot after an accident playing rugby, so he could not physically fight. He saw his humorous postcards as his contribution to the war effort.

Throughout the war, McGill designed approximately 1,500 postcards. His early war illustrations focused on the soldiers but later turned to the Home Front, wives, families, female munitions workers and the Red Cross. McGill often included puns in his work, for example, a soldier hanging up his laundry with the caption, “A blow on the Hindenburg Line!” The Germans built the Hindenburg Line or Siegfriedstellung from concrete, steel and barbed wire as a form of defence, which after several attacks, broke in September 1918.

Whilst the majority of McGill’s wartime postcards involved humour, he also produced sentimental cards featuring poems, which soldiers sent home to their sweethearts. Yet, linking all his postcards together is British patriotism, which inspired other artists and printers to produce similar illustrations.

After the war, McGill began designing postcards for the International Art Company, formed by Robert and Louisa McCrum. For 17 years, McGill produced his usual standard of work, but as time went on, new rules and censorship issues put pressure on the artist. The company prevented McGill from drawing people with red noses or women with exaggerated cleavage, which he found ridiculous rules to follow. Eventually, McGill resigned and worked on a freelance basis for other companies. In retaliation to the censorship issues, McGill’s outcomes became more saucy and shocking.

The outbreak of World War Two in 1939 put a halt to postcard production. With paper in short supply, McGill took a temporary job as a clerk for the Ministry of Labour, but he could not refrain from drawing for long. In 1944, McGill started drawing for D. Constance Ltd, but the newly elected Conservative government of the early 1950s grew concerned about McGill’s immoral illustrations.

Although McGill was not the government’s only target, he was required to attend a trial in Lincoln on 15th July 1954. In his defence, McGill’s lawyers claimed he had no intention of creating innuendos in his postcard designs, of which he produced over 12,000 during his career. They also claimed the “double meanings” needed pointing out to the artist after the production. The court did not believe these arguments and fined McGill £50 for breaking the 1857 Obscene Publications Act. Whilst this does not seem a large sum, McGill also lost his income source because no reputable company wished to print his postcard designs.

Postcards of a similar nature to those by McGill also suffered from the government’s intervention. They issued strict rules about taste and decency in art and literature and censored approximately 167,000 books. Many protested against this censorship and appealed for an amendment to the Obscene Publications Act. In 1957, McGill supplied evidence before the House Select Committee, saying he felt “a national system of censorship would be open to the vagaries of individual interpretation.” The appeal resulted in the Obscene Publications Act 1959, which allowed the printing of McGill’s postcards and the publication of controversial books, such as Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930).

The revival of saucy postcards inspired bawdy films, such as the Carry On franchise, which ran from 1958 until 1978. McGill’s illustrations regained popularity, and by his death in 1962, surpassed 200 million sales. Printers continued producing McGill’s postcards until 1968 after phasing them out in favour of modern designs.

Postcards never regained their post-war popularity but continued to be a cultural aspect of the British seaside. Colour photography replaced illustrations, which allowed souvenir shops to sell depictions of resorts and towns, often in unrealistically sunny weather conditions. Photographers developed their careers in the postcard trade, for instance, John Hinde (1916-97), who found success in Ireland. In the 1960s and 70s, Hinde teamed up with Billy Butlin (1899-1980), the British entrepreneur, to produce postcards for the many Butlin Holiday Camps around Britain. Hinde employed three men, Elmar Ludwig, Edmund Nägele and David Noble, to help capture idealistic views of Butlin locations.

Hinde often enhanced some of the colours in his photographs to create the optimistic tone Butlin desired. He meticulously planned the snapshots to depict images of a fun-filled family vacation. Typical scenes included large swimming pools, amusement parks, recreational activities and indoor dining. Today, these overly bright postcards are considered kitsch by collectors and cost much more than the few pence Butlin’s charged.

Modern seaside postcards usually feature more than one high-quality photograph of the area. Developments in technology allowed photographers to capture realistic images of the resort without the need for enhancements. Postcards are available in most locations and countries, which thousands of tourists purchase to send home to their family and friends. Contemporary postcards have no value in collections, yet in the future, they may prove of some worth.

In the Smartphone Age, holiday postcards are fast becoming something of the past, but printing companies are fighting to keep them fresh and alive. Many online companies allow people to personalise postcards to send on a variety of occasions. People can chose generic images or upload digital photographs and include text in a variety of typefaces. Is this the beginning of a new chapter in the history of postcards?

Postcards from Donald McGill’s era may have no relevance in today’s world, but for deltiologists, they are worth hundreds of pounds. Some consider saucy postcards a form of art, and we can thank the artists for breaking censorship boundaries and allowing us to be more open and accepting of people’s lives. Whilst some people may dislike lewd comments and foul language used in television and literature, the amendment of the Obscene Publications Act has allowed people to discuss sexual health, mental health and other taboo subjects.

So ends the brief history of postcards in the United Kingdom. Who knows what the future holds for this method of communication?


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French Artists in Exile

The story of the artists who fled to Britain to escape the war in France.

On 19th July 1870, Napoleon III (1808-73), the first president of the Republic of France, declared war on Prussia resulting in a six-month battle that became known as the Franco-Prussian War. Otto von Bismarck (1815-98), the Prussian chancellor, had essentially provoked France into conflict and was prepared for the attack. With no hope of winning from the outset, France was officially defeated on 28th January the following year.

Although the war with Prussia was over, France was not at peace. The French Empire had collapsed following the deposition of Napoleon III in September 1870, leaving the country in the hands of a provisional government of national defence. From this moment, until the end of the war, Paris was surrounded by their enemies resulting in a punishing siege that left the city in ruins and its inhabitants starving from famine.

After the war ended, the radical working-class of Paris rose up against the government. This group was known as the Paris Commune and their uprising caused a brief but brutal revolt that was not suppressed until the end of La Semaine sanglante or “The Bloody Week”, which began on 21st May 1871.

Naturally, many citizens tried to escape from Paris during these turbulent times and took advantage of the British Isles and its welcoming attitude toward refugees. Amongst these émigrés were a handful of French painters who became known as the Impressionists. The Tate Britain in London is currently holding The Ey Exhibition: Impressionists in Britain in celebration of these artist’s work, their stories and the network they developed during their time in Britain, whilst also looking into the ways these foreigners perceived London, evidenced through their artworks.

“The horror and terror are still everywhere … Paris is empty and will become emptier … Anyone would think there never were any painters and artists in Paris” – Théodore Duret (1838-1927), May 1871

Thousands of French citizens fled to London, and it is not surprising why given the state of Paris as shown in the first room of the exhibition. The paintings and photographs exhibited here are mostly produced in France during the war and resulting uprising. They are not works of Impressionist art that the exhibition title promises, however, they visually reveal the state the French capital was in at the beginning of the 1870s. Food shortages forced people to resort to eating their pets or zoo animals in order to survive and the streets were not safe places to frequent due to the violence of war. Many monuments and buildings were destroyed, and it is estimated that around 20,000 people died during this period.

The exhibition includes a number of artists who moved to London as a result of the hostilities in Europe. Many of these were Impressionist painters, a movement that had only begun within a decade before the Franco-Prussian war. Like all movements, the artists involved were breaking away from the conventions of a higher authority, in this instance, the rules taught in art schools. Impressionists rejected the large formal, highly finished paintings in preference to works that expressed the personality of the artist.  Traditionally, historical and mythological scenes were the accepted themes of paintings, however, these 19th-century French artists began producing landscapes and pictures of everyday life, including mundane things such as cooking, sleeping and bathing.

Impressionist artists aimed to depict their surroundings with spontaneity and freshness, recording what the eye sees in that instant, rather than a detailed record of appearance. As a result of wanting to capture the moment as it happened, artists had to work on the spot rather than in a studio and use thick paint with quick, messy brushstrokes. Similarly to the adjustment in subject matter, this method of painting was an outright change from the flatter, neater artworks where the brushstrokes could not be detected.

“Work at the same time on sky, water, branches, ground, keeping everything going on an equal basis … Don’t be afraid of putting on colour … Paint generously and unhesitatingly, for it is best not to lose the first impression.” – Camille Pissarro (1830-1903)

Landscapes became the archetypal subject of the Impressionists and introduced the idea of painting en plein air, often with no regard to the weather. The paintings often include bright colours and sketchy brushwork to emphasise the way the sunlight reflects off various surfaces. The constant changing of the sunlight was the main reason why artists had to keep up a rapid pace when producing their work.

Although regarded as a key movement in the art world, Impressionism was never established as a formal group with clearly defined principles. It was a loose association of artists who were linked together by the community they found themselves in, for instance, the French refugees in London. In fact, the group was so indeterminate that their name almost came about by accident. The artists struggled to get their work exhibited because they were generally rejected by art critics, however, Claude Monet’s painting Impression, Sunrise (1872) was latched onto and attacked in an essay by Louis Leroy (1812–85) called Exposition des Impressionistes (25th April 1874), and thus the name Impressionism was coined.

Claude Monet (1840-1926) is one of the most representative Impressionist artists. Initially, he began as a caricaturist, however, a tutor inspired him to turn to landscape painting. From here, Monet started studying at the Académie Suisse in 1859, where he met Camille Pissarro and later, in 1862, entered the studio of Gleyre in Paris where he encountered Alfred Sisley (1839-99), an Anglo-French Impressionist – both feature in this exhibition alongside Monet.

Monet, impoverished and only 29-years old, crossed the Channel with Pissarro to avoid being conscripted into the Franco-Prussian war. With nothing but his painting skills to use in an attempt to earn money, Monet spent time beside the Thames and in the London parks, painting the scenery. Whilst here, Monet encountered the landscape artist Charles-François Daubigny (1817-78), the earliest exponent of en plein air painting who had also sought refuge in London. It is thanks to his connection with the art dealer Paul Durand-Ruel (1831-1922), another refugee, that Monet and the other French Impressionists began to find their feet.

Comparing an early painting by Monet displayed at the beginning of the exhibition with a later painting in the final rooms shows the difference between the style of painting that was generally accepted during the 19th-century compared to the types of impressionist painting the artist eventually turned to. It is without a doubt when looking at Meditation, Mrs Monet Sitting on a Sofa (1871), that Monet was a talented painter, however, his later works, such as Leicester Square (1901), could arguably suggest that the artist is incompetent.

These two paintings by Monet are two extremes and the majority of Impressionist paintings fall somewhere in between. Many French artists focused on painting their impressions of the city they found themselves in, rather than produce something bordering on Abstract Expressionism.

In comparison to the devastating landscape they left behind, the Impressionists were drawn to the open spaces around London. Here, they became fascinated with British customs and culture which was significantly different to their own. The French were enthusiastic about the British sports played throughout the year, particularly regattas and rowing events to which spectators wore a range of costumes.

More importantly, the Impressionists were awed by the teeming crowds and forbidding buildings that made up the cityscape. Coming from a country where monuments and important buildings had been destroyed by armies and rebels, the towering facades were a marvel to the refugee artists. It was during this period that the Palace of Westminster was rebuilt on the north bank of the River Thames, which became a central focal point for a vast amount of paintings.

“Monet and I were very enthusiastic over the London landscapes” – Camille Pissarro

The London fog was also a fascination for the artists, particularly Monet who, around his 60th birthday, returned to London in 1900 to paint the Thames’ atmospheric effects. During this time, he produced multiples of oil paintings showing the same scene but experimenting with the effects the sunlight, or lack of light, affected the ambience of the location.

“I find London lovelier to paint each day,” Monet told his wife Alice in one of the many letters he wrote whilst he completed this project in the British capital. He wrote about his fascination with the mist and sunsets as well as the varying colours of the sky. He notes the difficulties he had in creating his impression of the cityscape in front of him before the sky changed once again. A few of these paintings are on show in one of the final rooms of the exhibition.

Despite titling the exhibition Impressionists in London, the Tate Britain displays more paintings by other artists than the promised examples of Impressionism. The subtitle French Artists in Exile 1870-1904 is a much more accurate representation of the included artworks. Although many artists who sought refuge in London were Impressionist painters, there were others who were not. One of the major artists in the exhibition is James Tissot (1836-1902) whose paintings were a complete contrast to the spontaneous landscapes.

Unlike Monet who fled France to avoid becoming part of the war, Tissot was a supporter of the Paris Commune. He was already an established artist in France but the Franco-Prussian war, and probably his association with the Commune limited his prospects, prompting him to seek shelter on the other side of the Channel.

Tissot received support from the editor of Vanity Fair, Thomas Gibson Bowles (1841-1922), who introduced him to British high society – a complete contrast to the communities Monet and his friends found themselves in. This allowed him to concentrate on scenes he loved best, contemporary life and women wearing intricate costumes.

Tissot’s parents were in the clothing business, which may have influenced his passion for painting the full-length complex dresses that women amongst the middle and upper classes wore. He was also skilled in observing and portraying nuances of social interaction, particularly of a romantic or sexual nature.

Tissot did not restrict himself to London and painted other areas of Britain, for instance, Portsmouth. However, his themes were the same: the fashionable Victorian life. Some critics believed Tissot was mocking British customs and not painting a realistic version of society, but it was more likely that Tissot was focusing on things he found interesting and reflected his early life in France. On the other hand, some critics admired Tissot’s work, referring to its “fashion-plate elegance” and “chocolate-box charm”.

As well as Tissot, other artists that do not fall under the Impressionist blanket are also featured in this exhibition. These include two sculptors, Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux (1827-75) and Jules Dalou (1838-1902), the latter exiled in London as a result of supporting the Paris Commune. For such a popular and crowded exhibition, the rooms containing the sculptures are almost deserted, implying that these were not what people had come to see. Granted, people would not expect to see James Tissot in an exhibition about Impressionism, however, they would be prepared for paintings.

Nonetheless, there are enough examples of Impressionist paintings for the exhibition to be worthy of the title Impressionists in London. The addition of other painters such as Tissot provides a contrast which emphasises the traits and nature of Impressionism. The use of brushstrokes and colour are brought to attention in juxtaposition with the smoothness of other paintings. It is also interesting to observe the differences between the Impressionist artists, each employing a different method.

To conclude the exhibition, the Tate Britain provides yet another contrast, this time being completely unrelated to French exiles. The final room is titled Derain and the Thames: Homage and Challenge and contains three paintings by the French painter André Derain (1880-1954). Although mostly associated with Fauvism and Cubism, Derain was interested in Monet’s Views of the Thames which he saw in an exhibition at Paul Durand-Ruel’s gallery.

“In spite of everything, I adore him. Wasn’t he right to render with his fugitive and durable colour, the natural impression which is no more than an impression, without lasting power, and did he not increase the character of this painting? As for myself, I’m looking for something different, something in nature which, on the contrary, is fixed, eternal, complex.” – André Derain

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Charing Cross Bridge, 1906-7, André Derain

These final paintings were part of thirty canvases that art dealer Ambroise Vollard (1866-1939) sent Derain to London to paint in 1906. In an attempt to imitate Monet’s Views of the Thames, Derain focused on similar landscapes including Charing Cross Bridge and other buildings seen from the Thames. These, however, look in no way similar to the Impressionist’s version, being full of unnatural colour and bold lines – not unlike a child’s drawing.

Although not much to look at, Derain’s work goes to show the changes in the style of art that sparked from the development of Impressionism. For years, art had remained relatively the same, but after Impressionism, the 20th-century saw the most changes within art in history.

Impressionists in London is a huge exhibition that successfully introduces the Impressionist artists that were, in some way, affected by the Franco-Prussian war. For those less interested in the relaxed, impromptu works, the paintings by Tissot and a few others are there to satisfy different tastes.

Despite the designation of “exhibition”, the Tate Britain is doing far more than showing a few paintings. Detailed information is provided about the majority of the artists, but more importantly, the experiences of the Franco-Prussian war and the Paris Commune is expertly expressed. This is a period of history that is usually left out of British education, preferring to focus on events that affected Britain directly. Seeing the paintings that came about as a result of the war, even though they do not necessarily show the incidents, makes the whole account more real, distressing and important.

Often, artists who do not paint realistic images are ridiculed by those who do not understand the art movement or scenario that led to the artwork. As a result, some may deem Impressionists artists who do not know how to draw or paint, however, after coming away from this exhibition, those thoughts will have been challenged and, hopefully, visitors will feel more enlightened and knowledgeable.

The Ey Exhibition: Impressionists in London will remain at the Tate Britain until 7th May 2018. Tickets are £19.70 (with donation) and can either be booked online or bought at the gallery on the day.