Author Omar Khan explores how the postcard was one of the first accessible formats that allowed people to send and receive text and images globally.

A postcard showing an illustration of a royal palace, with the text 'Royal Palace, Bangalore' printed below this. Handwritten on the postcard are the words: "I do not wish to exchange any more post cards with you."

Postcards were the Instagram of their time. It was just before 1900, and the “infesting modern microbe, the picture postal”1 was spreading across the globe. The “picture-mad age” we still live in had just begun. Billions of postcards exchanged hands between 1898 and 1903; for the first time, image and personalized text travelled together much like on digital platforms today. Postcard production in Germany went from under 100 million to almost 1.2 billion in a handful of years. By the time the golden age of picture postcards (1892-1918) was over, by one estimate, 200-300 billion postcards had been produced.2 It involved more people more quickly than the rise of any other media form and the world was pulled together by the “poor man’s phantasm.”3

The picture-postcard was originally a German-speaking thing; an Austrian invented it, and Germany would become the largest producer during the Golden Age, even of postcards of India. By 1897-98, they had become immensely popular in Central Europe. Great Britain came a little later to the game, but in India, British-run photographers and publishing houses were already producing postcards in the late 1890s for local audiences. In this case, the edges of Empire were a little ahead of the heartland, and postcards from these publishers started making their way back to Britain, which finally accepted the standard slightly larger European-sized postcard and the “divided back” allowing for messages on the address side of the postcard in 1902. That was when they really started becoming popular.

A closeup of a postcard showing a painted scene of people beside a river. The words 'Mar Nala, Srinagar, Kashmir' are in the corner of the card.

Postcards were “to the Edwardians what film and television are to us today” claims one writer.4 Postmen of the British Empire: Mail Carrier and Guard, Oudeypore, India was part of a series celebrating the conquest of the world by this revolutionary new communications medium. Revolutionary not only because of the image on one side, but as like with social media today, the message was open to the world at large, not just the recipient.

A closeup of an illustrated postcard showing two men in turbans carrying swords. The words printed at the top of the postcard say: 'Postman of the British Empire: Mail Carrier and Guard, Oudeypore, India.'

In the early 1900s, a single postcard image could move thousands of miles in many directions before reaching its destination, more than almost anyone at the time would travel in a lifetime. A photograph would be sent to Dresden by a local studio, postcards were struck from it and shipped back to Jaipur a few months later, then sold outside the Hawa Mahal palace to a tourist, who mailed it to London or New York for arrival in three weeks, a minor miracle for a few annas or pennies.

A closeup of an illustrated postcard showing a crowd of people in the centre of an open square, with cows carrying carts and two elephants standing amidst the crowd.

One of the very first British-based publishers was Frederick Hartmann, an indigo dealer at 22 Great Tower Street in London who found that he had spare time once indigo trading was over between November and February each winter. He decided to print and publish postcards he saw becoming popular across the channel, based on images from photographers in India, and by December 1902 was advertising his “Best & Newest” collection of “India Views, Types and Scenes” in trade publications. Some of his early images included this studio shot of “A Bhutia Coolie” from Darjeeling, from a photograph by Johnston & Hoffman, a leading photography studio in Kolkata. He soon was to offer colour postcards, like this view of a famous canal in Srinagar, Kashmir. Note how nicely the stamp and signature have been placed on the front of the card sent to a Miss Marcineau in France by one Ernest L. on July 22nd, 1909. In fact, the stamp’s position could also conceal a message, with a head up saying “I love you” (while the same stamp, heads down, would spell “I am not free”).

Hartmann’s advertising and rapid product evolution indicate how much postcard marketing was driven by fashion and consumer taste, the latest selling best. Collectors abounded, and many of these from the very beginning in Europe and Britain were women (the ratio of cards sent to women vs. men in my collection from India is about 2:1). It was typically women who put postcards into albums carefully preserved until they made their way to dealers who empty their content into online stores. Postcards were a business from the start, with new technologies driving prices down, businesses betting the farm on a huge consignments or sets of cards, topics and fads. Hartmann’s in fact may have gone too big too fast; the firm found itself bankrupt by 1907. Nor did all collectors, frantically exchanging cards across the globe to build their collections, farewell, as the missive on the front of Royal Palace, Bangalore makes clear: “I do not wish to exchange any more postcards with you. F. Terry”.

Hartmann was probably also done in competitively by Raphael Tuck & Co., “arguably the most important picture-postcard publisher in the world.”5 Tuck’s used well-advertised competitions among the public to popularize the medium with thousands of pounds in prize money distributed among winners, most of whom were women, some with collections of over 20,000 cards (all Tuck’s, naturally). The firm published over 1,000 postcards of India, many of them in their famous “Oilette” format was described as “a miniature fac-similie oil-painting produced directly from the original. It is therefore always a work of Art.” There is no doubt that Oilettes represented a highpoint in the development of postcards, as examples like Jeypore. The Chowk and Hawa Mahal or Fakirs suggest. They also came with captions on the back, helpful to recipients around the world who may not otherwise have known anything about what they were seeing.

A closeup of a postcard showing a painting of a man un a turban, and a young woman in a long red dress.

Actually, most Oilettes were derived from photographs, cleverly marinated and marketed. That said, some of the later Oilettes like A Belle of Northern India, made by the painter Mortimer Menpes following an eventful trip to India, show how rich a postcard could be in color and style.

A closeup of a photograph showing a painting of a young woman, wearing bangles, earrings and a large white scarf over a red dress.

Postcards spawned bridges and misperceptions between peoples. Global products par excellence, they were among the first social objects to help dissolve longstanding geographical, social and psychological boundaries and reinforce unfortunate stereotypes. Nonetheless, postcards are barely collected today by institutions, and subsist mostly in the hands of private collectors, families, and increasingly online exchanges. Postcards are being flushed out of albums and attics, and the interactions that ensue have made finding and analysing them a novel window into history for modern researchers. Skipped by most historians because they have been so inaccessible, these tiny puzzle pieces play off that unique connection between image and word, one still carrying the other across a century-wide gap in human history.

– Omar Khan, Author


Omar Khan is the author of Paper Jewels: Postcards from the Raj.


[1] Katharine Perry, “Tirade a La Carte,” Putnam’s, 3:336, reprinted in, Dec. 1907.

[2] Bjarne Rogan “An Entangled Object: The Picture Postcard as Souvenir and Collectible, Exchange and Ritual Communication,” in Cultural Analysis 4 (2005): 1, quoted in Daniel Gifford, American Holiday Postcards, 1905-1915 Imagery and Context, Jefferson, North Carolina and London, UK, 2013, p. 203.

[3] Malek Alloula, The Colonial Harem, University of Minnesota Press, 1986, p. 4

[4] Daniel Gifford, American Holiday Postcards, 1905–1915: Imagery and Context (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2013), p. 10.

[5] J.H.D. Smith (Ed.), The Picture Postcards of Raphael Tuck & Sons, IPM, Colchester, 2000, p. 3.