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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Havering: More than a Museum

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When London was chosen as England’s capital city it was relatively small compared to the area we are familiar with today. It was not until buildings such as Westminster Abbey were erected that London became a place of importance. Prior to that time, Winchester was reportedly considered as the English capital when the various kingdoms united as one country in 927AD. Now, London is so large that it has been split in half: the City of London and Greater London. The latter has been divided further into thirty-two boroughs, one of which is named the London Borough of Havering.

The main towns that make up the London Borough of Havering are Romford, Hornchurch, Upminster and Rainham; but these were not always the built up areas they are today. On the site of the old Romford Brewery (now a shopping centre) is a small museum devoted to preserving the history of the borough and its original background. Although not of a considerable size and mostly run by volunteers, the museum provides an extensive history of the towns, buildings and important people that helped to develop the initial agricultural area.

Havering Museum is set out so that it is easy to navigate around the display cases and follow the information on a journey through different themes. A common theme of most historical museums is the impact of the First and Second World War. Photographs and found or donated items illustrate the war connections with the borough – although, since the London Borough of Havering did not come into existence until 1st April 1965, all historical mentions are about the areas that would eventually become one borough.

A brief history of each town has been researched and collated to provide short stories about the areas from as early as Saxon times to the present-day. Some of this is synonymous with the rest of the country and therefore is a more general history than specific to Havering. This includes developments in public transport, building material and commodities. Glass cabinets house objects from the past such as children’s toys, broken pottery, ancient coins and unidentified articles.

Throughout the year, the museum holds temporary exhibitions about specific themes or events that either affected Havering directly or would have concerned citizens in the London area in general. For example, between 15th June and 2nd September 2017, a selection of radios were on display, from early models to the more recognisable recent versions. Between the same dates was another display: 1950s Fashion. Until 4th November 2017, the museum is focusing on local men at war, which may interest those who grew up in this area during and after the conflict.

Havering Museum will mostly attract those who have lived in the area for a considerable length of time. It will evoke memories of the past but also explain some of the mysteries and questions people have about their local area. On the other hand, the museum curators have made it suitable for children to enjoy, too. There are plenty of hands on activities including puzzles and games, as well as drawers to open and inspect.

One of the activities for children (or those young at heart) is a brass rubbing of a coat of arms. With the supplied paper and crayons, visitors can create their own print of the coat of arms that once belonged to the Hornchurch Urban District Council that existed from approximately 1926 until the creation of the London boroughs in 1965. The motto “A good name endureth” has been adopted by the football club AFC Hornchurch, and they have also appropriated a similar coat of arms as their logo.

coat_of_arms

The Havering coat of arms

The current Havering coat of arms is remarkably different to the original owned by Hornchurch. To begin with, the colour scheme is a complete contrast, using royal blue and gold as opposed to red. This is because these were the colours of the ancient Royal Liberty of Havering – a royal manor built in the 11th century.

The symbols that make up the logo represent different areas of the borough. The gate house reflects on the old Palace of Havering, which was also depicted on the crest of the former Romford Borough Council. The bull’s head is a reference to Hornchurch and the leafy design points out the boroughs connection to green areas such as Epping Forest and Hainault Forest.

The lower half of the coat of arms consists of a shield with a design to represent the sails on a windmill, for example, the one that still exists in Upminster. The ring, however, has an interesting, and only slightly believable story attached to it. Legend claims that Edward the Confessor (1003-1066) gave his ring to a beggar, who later proved to be St John the Apostle, whilst saying the words “have ring”. Hence, Havering. This may seem a bit far-fetched, but no one can prove or deny it.

The logo of the London Borough of Havering is the simple word “Liberty” which means freedom and independence. The word, however, was chosen as a reminder of the Royal Liberty.

As mentioned already, Havering did not become a borough until 1965, therefore most of the story that the museum is telling is not about the borough at all. The most interesting information is about the buildings, some of which no longer exist in the area, but whose names have lived on in the names of parks, streets and schools. Other buildings are still around today, and their history is just as surprising.

There are many churches in the London Borough of Havering but only a handful date back several centuries. St Laurence Church in Upminster is a Grade 1 listed building whose tower stonework dates back as far as the 1200s. Historians believe that a church has existed on the same site since the 7th century. St Laurence Church’s claim to fame is the first accurate measurement of the speed of sound, discovered through the use of the church bells. Another historic connection is the resting place of Alice Perrers, the mistress of King Edward III, who died in 1400.

Although St Laurence Church is considerably old, it is not the most important in the history of Havering. St Andrew’s Church in Hornchurch also dates back to the 1200s, the first record of it being recorded in 1222. St Andrew’s was once the principal church in the areas that now make up Havering. Hornchurch is an Anglicised version of the Latin Monasterium Cornutum, which translates into English as “church with horn like gables”. This is in reference to the stone bull’s head on the Eastern Gable. This may not be as old as the church itself, but records show it existed in 1384. The significance of the bull is most likely associated with the leather industry that Hornchurch was originally involved with.

Other ancient buildings in Upminster and Hornchurch include a 15th-century Tithe barn, a windmill built in 1803 by a local farmer, James Nokes, now the last remaining smock mill in London, “High House” dating from the 1700s, and Fairkytes, an 18th-century house now owned by Havering Arts Centre.

Romford, as previously mentioned, was home to a large brewery that opened in 1799. It ran for almost two centuries, finally closing in 1997. Although most of the original factory has been demolished, the gated entrance to the brewery still stands. This is where the Havering Museum can be found. The rest of the site, still known as The Brewery, is a shopping and leisure centre containing a number of shops, restaurants, a cinema and a gym.

Romford’s greatest attraction throughout history has been the market place. Since 1247, people have travelled to buy and sell in the centre of the town, beginning with sheep but now selling anything from fruit and clothes to digital gadgets. Henry III granted Romford permission to hold a market every Wednesday. This attracted a great number of people, causing the town to expand. The arrival of Romford train station increased the population further, resulting in the large town it is today – one of the largest in the districts outside of central London.

Within the marketplace stands The Golden Lion Pub. Still functioning today, it has been in business since 1440. Unbeknownst to many people, including the locals, in 1601, Sir Francis Bacon inherited the position of the landlord of the pub. This is not its only claim to fame; apparently, Dick Turpin, the English highwayman, may have spent a couple of nights there.

The history of Havering’s towns does little to put it on the map in terms of a tourist attraction, however, alongside Sir Francis Bacon, there are a few significant names connected with the area. Unfortunately, the majority of these people mean nothing to society today. The elite families that inhabited the manors of Upminster and Hornchurch disappeared along with the demolition of the buildings.

“Famous” People

  • Lady Edna Clarke Hall (1879-1979) – a watercolour artist and poet who produced illustrations for Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. Many of her artworks are owned by the Tate. She lived in Upminster and even painted a miniature study of Upminster Common.
  • Henria Williams – a suffragette from Upminster who died two months after the “Black Friday” disturbance in which she was injured. It is highly likely that other suffragettes lived in the area and records report that pillar boxes in Romford were set alight during one of their protests.
  • Ian Dury (1942-2000) – another Upminster inhabitant, Ian Dury was a rock-and-roll singer, songwriter and actor who rose to fame during the 1970s. His second solo studio album was titled Lord Upminster.

  • Joseph Fry – the son of the English prison reformer Elizabeth Fry, lived in Fairkytes between 1870 and 1896.
  • Francis Quarles (1592-1644) – a Romford-born poet. This is presumably where the Quarles Campus of Havering College got its name. Beware of him that is slow to anger; for when it is long coming, it is the stronger when it comes, and the longer kept. Abused patience turns to fury.”

There have also been connections with royalty throughout the past centuries. Harold Godwinson often went hunting in the forests nearby, resulting in the names of two of Havering’s smaller towns: Harold Wood and Harold Hill. Edward the Confessor gave Havering Palace to Harold, which then got passed down the royal family throughout the following centuries. Havering Palace was situated in the Havering-atte-Bower area, however, it has long since been demolished. It is believed that Elizabeth I enjoyed staying there during her reign.

It is disappointing that these buildings were not preserved for posterity. So much of our history is very quickly erased. It is only with thanks to historians and volunteers, such as those at the Havering Museum, that any information about this London borough has been retained.

Most people would travel to central London or other important towns and cities around the country when looking for some historical details. What gets forgotten is that everywhere, regardless of how big or small, has some history attached to it. It is surprising what gets dug up when people put their minds to it.

Those wanting to know more about Havering and its past must take a trip to the Havering Museum. It is open from Wednesday to Saturday between 11 am and 5 pm. It only costs £2.50 to enter and is worth the price.

Regardless of whether you live in Havering or not, think about looking into the history of the area you are from. Museums in central London will provide general details about the city, but the meaningful information will always be closer to home.

Havering Museum is a Heritage Lottery Funded project and an independent Museum run by Havering’s volunteers and supporters. Registered Charity No. 1093763