Postcards

2020 marked the 150th anniversary of the British Postcard.

Created in 1870 the postcard shot to popularity as a means of cheap, quick communication. This, along with a craze to collect, sparked the height of postcard sending from the early 20th century through to the First World War. Since then, postcards have predominantly been reserved for holidays and are increasingly eclipsed by newer forms of digital communication.

Introduction

What did the world’s first postcard look like? Initially postcards had no images and strict rules dictated where you could write on them.

Austria-Hungary Postcard

The first cards were issued by Austria-Hungary in 1869, a proposal by Dr Emanuel Herrmann, though he was not the first to suggest the idea. They were produced in two languages – German and Hungarian – and were extremely popular.

Example of early Austrian Postcard.

Example of early Austrian Postcard, 1872, PS005/21.

First British Postcard

Postcards were introduced to Britain in 1870. They were produced in two sizes and drew heavily on the Hungarian design. Commissioned by the British Post Office, the cards included an imprinted halfpenny stamp that covered the price of postage and was half that of a letter. They were only printed on one side allowing the message or business correspondence to be printed on the other side.

The postcard was a postal innovation, allowing quick, punchy and cheap correspondence without the formality of the letter. In 1871 around 75 million postcards were sent in Britain and volumes increased vastly to numbers over 800 million a year by the end of King Edward VII’s reign in 1910. Postcards could be written and sent quickly, with numerous postal collections and deliveries per day.

First issued British Postcard, 1870, PC.01.02b
First issued British Postcard, 1870, PC.01.02b
Postcard with pre-printed business correspondence (front), 10 Jan 1893, PC.02.31a
Postcard with pre-printed business correspondence (front), 10 Jan 1893, PC.02.31a
Postcard with pre-printed business correspondence (back), 10 Jan 1893, PC.02.31a
Postcard with pre-printed business correspondence (back), 10 Jan 1893, PC.02.31a

Postcard development

British Empire Postcard

The design of British postcards changed over time, with new cards being added for international postage. Postcards sent within the former British Empire featured an image of Queen Victoria based on a painting by Heinrich von Angeli from 1885. This design would become the only British stamp to depict the Queen both in old age and standing.

Private Postcards

Whilst most of us associate postcards with pictures, illustrated postcards produced by private publishers were not accepted by the Post Office until 1894. In these designs, one whole side of the card was used for the address and the stamp, whilst the message had to be squeezed alongside the picture.

Divided Back Postcards

It wasn’t until 1902 that the message could be written on the same side as the address. Then we begin to see the postcard with a divided back, where the address is written on the right and message on the left.

First example of the British Empire postcard, 8 Jul 1889, PC.03.07b
First example of the British Empire postcard, 8 Jul 1889, PC.03.07b
Postcard of Chase Farm School, Enfield with a message written around the image, 9 Jan 1903, PH38/45b
Postcard of Chase Farm School, Enfield with a message written around the image, 9 Jan 1903, PH38/45b
Example of an early divided back postcard, 2 Dec 1903, PH64U/29b
Example of an early divided back postcard, 2 Dec 1903, PH64U/29b
Morse code used to hide open message, 1912, PH118/13b
Morse code used to hide open message, 1912, PH118/13b
Code used to hide open message, 1906, E11885/32
Code used to hide open message, 1906, E11885/32

Romance

Postcards in the early 1900s allowed couples to speak of love, back and forth, for as little as half a penny.

Romance not only appeared within the message but influenced postcard design, with images of couples embracing and quotations from Shakespeare’s romantic sonnets.

Language of Stamps

Unlike the first postcard design with a printed stamp, illustrated postcards by commercial publishers required the sender to buy and stick on a stamp. Postcards were sent without an envelope, so anyone could read the message. To get around this, secretive Victorians developed the language of stamps to send coded messages. By angling the stamp in different directions, writers could send various hidden messages like ‘Have you forgotten me?’ or ‘I love you’. The secret language of stamps code allowed a private message to be sent within a very public form of correspondence.

‘Language of Stamps’ Postcard, 1915, 2005-0082/7
‘Language of Stamps’ Postcard, 1915, 2005-0082/7
Postcard of a soldier and his sweetheart ‘Beyond control of the censor’, Feb 1918, 2016-0023/47
Postcard of a soldier and his sweetheart ‘Beyond control of the censor’, Feb 1918, 2016-0023/47
Postcard of a couple kissing with a Shakespeare quote, 28 Jan 1910, PH64W/13
Postcard of a couple kissing with a Shakespeare quote, 28 Jan 1910, PH64W/13
Illustrated postcard with poem ‘You ask me why I love you’, 28 Jun 1906, PH39/10b
Illustrated postcard with poem ‘You ask me why I love you’, 28 Jun 1906, PH39/10b
Postcard of a women collecting post from her soldier sweetheart, 6 May 1916 © Donald McGill, PH115/28c
Postcard of a women collecting post from her soldier sweetheart, 6 May 1916 © Donald McGill, PH115/28c

Sweethearts

The First World War separated couples and left many companionless. Postcards featuring images of women and their soldier sweethearts were very popular and frequently sent between couples throughout the war. Romantic postcards were a token of love and an image to treasure throughout their separation.

The Story of Harry and Olive

Olive Durst married Henry (Harry) George Daniels in 1914. During their courtship Harry illustrated the postcards he sent to Olive, writing about friends, their love of cycling and when they could next meet.

The language of stamps was used throughout Harry’s postcards. Many times, he said ‘I love you’ or ‘I’m faithful to you’ by angling the stamp in different directions.

The postcards are a window into their relationship. However, many of the messages do not make sense to us as Harry frequently carries on conversations started in person and refers to their ‘in jokes’.

Postcard featuring the recipient’s name in decorative lettering, 22 Jan 1909, 2014-0038/13
Postcard featuring the recipient’s name in decorative lettering, 22 Jan 1909, 2014-0038/13
Reverse of Harry's postcard to Olive: “I hope you won’t think this one is a rather big advertisement of yourself to send so publicly! I haven’t an envelope at hand that will fit or I would have sent it under cover.”
Reverse of Harry's postcard to Olive: “I hope you won’t think this one is a rather big advertisement of yourself to send so publicly! I haven’t an envelope at hand that will fit or I would have sent it under cover.”
Postcard of a man cycling along a country lane, believed to be our sender, Harry, 14 Apr 1908, 2014-0038/34
Postcard of a man cycling along a country lane, believed to be our sender, Harry, 14 Apr 1908, 2014-0038/34
Postcard of a young couple looking up at the moon, 24 Jun 1908, 2014-0038/32
Postcard of a young couple looking up at the moon, 24 Jun 1908, 2014-0038/32

Even though Harry and Olive lived just a 15-minute walk away from each other Harry regularly created these beautiful cards for his sweetheart.

Sadly, their relationship was cut short when Harry lost his life in 1917 during the First World War. However, their love story remains in the beautiful illustrations and messages of their postcards.

First World War

Communication was a lifeline for people separated during the First World War. A postcard could leave Britain one day and just two days later be handed to a soldier fighting in France.

On Active Service

Quick communication boosted morale and allowed friends and family back home to know their loved ones were safe. A simple ‘O.K.’ was enough to soothe worry. Soldiers were encouraged to send mail home and were given free postage.

On Active Service Postcard. 22 Oct 1918, PH64I/30a

On Active Service Postcard, 22 Oct 1918, PH64I/30a

Censorship

A huge concern for the war effort was the leak of information to the enemy. Soldiers’ postcards were censored to prevent leaks and to catch possible spies passing on secrets. Pictorial postcards also had their captions struck through to hide the location of the sender.

To help with censorship the Field Service Postcard was introduced in 1914. This forced the soldier to select from certain messages which limited the amount of information they could reveal. Postcards with any additional text could be confiscated by the censor.

Postcard with location censored, 29 Apr 1918, PH30/30b
Postcard with location censored, 29 Apr 1918, PH30/30b
Breaking the Field Service Postcard rules, 22 Dec 1915, 2014-006
Breaking the Field Service Postcard rules, 22 Dec 1915, 2014-006

Images of War

Humour is so embedded in British culture that even in wartime people used it to make light of difficult and dangerous situations.

Trenches, troops and territory were all documented on postcards during the First World War. These images acted as propaganda showing those at home the strength of the British Armed Forces. Many of these scenes were an idealised representation of life on the frontlines.

Northumberland Fusiliers Postcard, 1916-1918, 2014-0023/06
Northumberland Fusiliers Postcard, 1916-1918, 2014-0023/06
Comic German Soldier Postcard, 29 Mar 1916, PH117/29a
Comic German Soldier Postcard, 29 Mar 1916, PH117/29a
Bruce Bairnsfather Postcard, c.1917, 2015-0075
Bruce Bairnsfather Postcard, c.1917, 2015-0075

Prisoners of War

Prisoners of war endured extreme isolation and loneliness. During the First World War all countries agreed that captives held abroad could send mail free of charge to their home countries.

Prisoner of War Postcard from Harry Brown in Bayreuth, North Bavaria, 22 Sep 1917, PH11/14
Prisoner of War Postcard from Harry Brown in Bayreuth, North Bavaria, 22 Sep 1917, PH11/14
Bucks. Hussars Postcard, 17 Jun 1915, PH116/20b
Bucks. Hussars Postcard, 17 Jun 1915, PH116/20b

Conscientious Objectors

Not everyone agreed with the war. Conscientious objectors refused to fight due to religious, political, humanist or personal beliefs. Thousands of men were sent to prison enduring solitary confinement and hard labour. The conditions of the prison were captured in the postcard below.

‘A Souvenir of C.O. Settlements 1918’. 1918, 2014-003

‘A Souvenir of C.O. Settlements 1918’, 1918, 2014-003

Seaside

For many the postcard is synonymous with the seaside. The holiday postcard is a chance for the sender to tell someone what a lovely time they are having and perhaps incite a touch of jealousy.

British Holidays

The British seaside holiday became more accessible with the expansion of the Victorian railways. More lines reduced journey times and made trips cheaper. This allowed more and more people outside of the upper classes to venture around the country. With the later introduction of the Holiday Pay Act in 1938 people could take time off work without losing pay.

The British postcard documents quintessential seaside views. Images of piers, deckchairs, donkeys and bandstands frequently appear, transporting the recipient of the postcard back to their own past holidays.

For many people, buying a postcard that best shows off their holiday destination and posting it back home is still an important part of the experience.

‘N. Side of Capstone Hill, Ilfracombe’ Postcard, Early 1900s, PH39/20b
‘N. Side of Capstone Hill, Ilfracombe’ Postcard, Early 1900s, PH39/20b
Cross Written Postcard, Reverse of Ilfracombe Postcard, Early 1900s, PH39/20b
Cross Written Postcard, Reverse of Ilfracombe Postcard, Early 1900s, PH39/20b
‘On the Pier, Folkestone’ Postcard, 5 Oct 1920, PH64T/13b
‘On the Pier, Folkestone’ Postcard, 5 Oct 1920, PH64T/13b
‘Alexandra Gardens, Weymouth’ Postcard, 18 Jul 1909, PH64ZG/7c
‘Alexandra Gardens, Weymouth’ Postcard, 18 Jul 1909, PH64ZG/7c
: ‘Down by the sea at Minehead’ Postcard, 27 Jun 1907, PH41/10
: ‘Down by the sea at Minehead’ Postcard, 27 Jun 1907, PH41/10

Bamforth and Company Ltd.

James Bamforth set up business as a portrait photographer in 1870, moving into the production of postcards in 1903. His postcards were extremely successful and by 1910 there were Bamforth offices in London and New York.

The Bamforth Company’s early postcards used scenery sets from their photography work until they saw a market in the seaside trade. They became famous for their saucy and innuendo driven postcard designs.

Saucy seaside postcards were illustrated, using caricatures to make these rude themes more acceptable to the public.

However, the designs still needed to be appropriate for public sale. Seaside censorship boards were set up to pass judgement on which designs could be printed. Bamforth and Company would send their initial concept sketches to the Blackpool Censorship Board. If the committee considered them appropriate the finished postcard designs could then be sold at seaside resorts around the country.

Lady in a deckchair Postcard artwork, c.1960-65 © Bamforth & Co, on loan from Kirklees Museums and Galleries, E16368/07
Lady in a deckchair Postcard artwork, c.1960-65 © Bamforth & Co, on loan from Kirklees Museums and Galleries, E16368/07
‘No washing ironing or cooking’ Postcard artwork by Arnold Taylor, c.1960-65 © Bamforth & Co, on loan from Kirklees Museums and Galleries, E16367/06
‘No washing ironing or cooking’ Postcard artwork by Arnold Taylor, c.1960-65 © Bamforth & Co, on loan from Kirklees Museums and Galleries, E16367/06
Sketch of recently married couple not approved by the Blackpool Censorship Board, 14 Aug 1958, © Bamforth & Co, on loan from Kirklees Museums and Galleries, E16367/01
Sketch of recently married couple not approved by the Blackpool Censorship Board, 14 Aug 1958, © Bamforth & Co, on loan from Kirklees Museums and Galleries, E16367/01
Disapproved stamp on reverse of sketch, 14 Aug 1958, © Bamforth & Co, on loan from Kirklees Museums and Galleries, E16367/01
Disapproved stamp on reverse of sketch, 14 Aug 1958, © Bamforth & Co, on loan from Kirklees Museums and Galleries, E16367/01
‘Censor or no Censor’ Postcard by Donald McGill, 1956, © Donald McGill, on loan from the Brown Family, E16361/05
‘Censor or no Censor’ Postcard by Donald McGill, 1956, © Donald McGill, on loan from the Brown Family, E16361/05

Collecting

Collecting a complete set can become an obsession.

Companies such as Raphael Tuck & Sons produced sets of postcards with serial numbers. This encouraged people to collect not only an image but an entire set. Messages often refer to postcards as ‘P.C.’ and suggest the recipient should add the postcard to their album.

Many cards were never sent but collected purely for their image. Pictorial postcards depict a wide variety of scenes – from railway disasters to chickens.

Postcard message referring to their album full of 125 postcards, 9 Jul 1906, PH64ZF/25b
Postcard message referring to their album full of 125 postcards, 9 Jul 1906, PH64ZF/25b
Postcard message thanking sender for the ‘P.C.’ (postcard), 24 Apr 1906, E11885/50
Postcard message thanking sender for the ‘P.C.’ (postcard), 24 Apr 1906, E11885/50
Postcard of Chickens by Raphael Tuck & Sons, 12 Jan 1909, PH64T/39a
Postcard of Chickens by Raphael Tuck & Sons, 12 Jan 1909, PH64T/39a
Postcard of the Shrewsbury Train Disaster, c.1907, PH64S/3
Postcard of the Shrewsbury Train Disaster, c.1907, PH64S/3

Postcard Fairs

The hobby of postcard collecting (deltiology) was reignited in the second half of the 20th century when many of these Edwardian collections could be purchased at postcard fairs around the country.

The images and messages featured on old postcards offer a window into the past. For a small price collectors can carry on the life of these 2D treasures.

Souvenir

Small, portable and cheap, the postcard is a great souvenir to take home – a tangible reminder of an enjoyable experience.

Museums and Attractions

Visitors to museums and attractions have been buying souvenir postcards since the early 1900s. Today, you can purchase postcards featuring some of the most important and recognisable artworks in the world. Many of these cards will never be used, however each time you find one holding your page in a book you’ll be drawn back to the memory of an experience.

In 2019 we sold 3,241 postcards at The Postal Museum to visitors young and old. This is nothing compared to the National Portrait Gallery who in the same year sold 67,000 images of their permanent collection. The family of Tate galleries across the UK went even further, selling an astonishing 1.2 million postcards.

Postcard of a painting of Napoleon in the Wallace Collection, 28 March 1904, PH40/37b
Postcard of a painting of Napoleon in the Wallace Collection, 28 March 1904, PH40/37b
Postcard of the Armoury in the Tower of London, 1910-1936, 00382/16
Postcard of the Armoury in the Tower of London, 1910-1936, 00382/16
Postcard of a Cheetah at the Gardens of the Zoological Society of London, Regent’s Park, September 1905, PH64ZD/30
Postcard of a Cheetah at the Gardens of the Zoological Society of London, Regent’s Park, September 1905, PH64ZD/30
The Postal Museum's most popular postcard featuring the Post Office Railway by Edward Bawden.
The Postal Museum's most popular postcard featuring the Post Office Railway by Edward Bawden.
The Postal Museum Nightmail postcard by Pat Keely.
The Postal Museum Nightmail postcard by Pat Keely.

Decline

Can anything be popular forever? At the peak of its popularity over 900 million cards were delivered per year in Britain. So why did the picture postcard fall out of favour?

Cost

Postcards gained popularity as a cheaper means of communication, initially costing half the price of sending a letter. This ended in 1968 when the two-tier system was launched, introducing 1st and 2nd class postage but removing the cheaper postage rate for postcards.

Poster announcing the introduction of the class system. Jul 1968, POST 110/4353

Poster announcing the introduction of the class system, Jul 1968, POST 110/4353

Speed

In a modern world of instant communication, waiting for the arrival of a postcard can seem slow, especially from abroad. Much like the expansion of the Victorian rail network cheaper air travel expanded holiday destinations. These further afield destinations often meant postcards arrived home after the sender.

Postcards were very much the WhatsApp of their time – short punchy messages accompanied by a picture. However, the postcard has now been supplanted by numerous forms of instant communication that offer replies, retweets and likes.

Boring

Boring Postcards edited by British photographer Martin Parr brings together postcards of shopping centres, airports and motorways. These everyday images of British life make you question why they were ever produced and who was buying them?

Postcard of Forton Service Area, M6 Motorway, from the collection of Martin Parr.

Postcard of Forton Service Area, M6 Motorway, from the ‘Boring Postcards’ collection of Martin Parr.

Digital

How will the postcard survive in a digital age? Companies and individuals are adapting the postcard for a modern customer.

Digital Postcards

Postcards can now be produced without having to pick up a pen or find a post office. Written and posted online you can customize the designs and even add your own photos. Companies such as TouchNote, Moonpig and MyPostcard now offer a digital means of sending a physical card. Many also combine the cost of printing and postage making the process even easier.

Front of TouchNote Postcard, 2021, E16491/0
Front of TouchNote Postcard, 2021, E16491/0
Back of TouchNote Postcard, 2021, E16491/0
Back of TouchNote Postcard, 2021, E16491/0

Postcard from the Past

Tom Jackson is the inventor of Postcard from the Past. The Twitter account started in 2016, connecting people to forgotten postcards through imagery and small snippets of the postcard message. He brings humour, intrigue and a new appreciation for the classic postcard.

Torquay Postcard tweet from Postcard From The Past, 14 Apr 2020
Torquay Postcard tweet from Postcard From The Past, 14 Apr 2020
Bognor Regis Postcard tweet from Postcard From The Past, 15 Apr 2020
Bognor Regis Postcard tweet from Postcard From The Past, 15 Apr 2020

Postcrossing

Postcrossing, a free to join postcard exchange programme, was created in 2005 by Paulo Magalhães as a means of encouraging communication through traditional postcard writing. For each postcard a member sends they will receive one in return. Postcrossers are randomly connected across the world, fusing postcards with digital technology.

Contemporary Art

Postcards aren’t being sent in their millions, as they once were, but they can still inspire and influence a contemporary audience. Artists are now using the postcard as a canvas and an art form.

Art on a Postcard

Art on a Postcard is an initiative that uses art to raise money for The Hepatitis C Trust. The artists that work with them use the postcard format as their canvas. The organisation holds auctions and sells artists’ limited edition prints on their website.

Francesca Colussi Cramer

Francesca Colussi Cramer uses postcards as the canvas for her work. By embroidering into the postcards, she can bring colour to a black and white landscape or abstraction to a familiar scene. Taking these forgotten items, she gives them a new purpose and enhanced beauty.

The Outsider by Francesca Colussi Cramer, 2019, ©Francesca Colussi Cramer, E16362/01
The Outsider by Francesca Colussi Cramer, 2019, ©Francesca Colussi Cramer, E16362/01
Reverse of the embroidered postcard, 2019, ©Francesca Colussi Cramer, E16362/01
Reverse of the embroidered postcard, 2019, ©Francesca Colussi Cramer, E16362/01

Emily May

The artist Emily May was inspired by postcards, painting both the pictures and messages in her own unique style. These designs were then turned into a repeated pattern and printed on fabric – presented here in the form of a dress.

Watercolour of a pictorial postcard of a boat, taken from the repeated pattern, August 2018 ©Emily May
Watercolour of a pictorial postcard of a boat, taken from the repeated pattern, August 2018 ©Emily May
Postcard Dress by Coco Fennell featuring Emily May designs, Jul 2019, E16451
Postcard Dress by Coco Fennell featuring Emily May designs, Jul 2019, E16451

Today

How is the postcard being used today? For many, 2020 was a difficult year where relationships were made and maintained through distant communication. The postcard played a part in this.

The Daily Postcard Project

#TheDailyPostcardProject started during the first UK national lockdown. Nathan Huxtable, an artist from Cambridge, began to paint individual postcards for people around the world. Images of these postcards were tweeted with messages of thanks, showing the importance of human connection.

Postcard produced by Nathan Huxtable as part of the #TheDailyPostcardProject, 2020, © Nathan Huxtable, E16494
Postcard produced by Nathan Huxtable as part of the #TheDailyPostcardProject, 2020, © Nathan Huxtable, E16494
Postcard produced by Nathan Huxtable as part of the #TheDailyPostcardProject, 2020, © Nathan Huxtable, E16494
Postcard produced by Nathan Huxtable as part of the #TheDailyPostcardProject, 2020, © Nathan Huxtable, E16494

 

Love from Cleethorpes

Produced by New Perspectives, a touring theatre company, ‘Love from Cleethorpes’ is a drama told over 6 postcards. By using postcards, the theatre is brought to your home via the messages of the characters. Delivered over 2 months, recipients had to eagerly await their next instalment.

Postcard Design

Postcard design responds to the time and its audience. These TouchNote cards reflect on the ‘new normal’ of everyday life during a pandemic. In the future they will represent the period of history we lived through.

‘One Hug Redeemable After Lockdown’ Postcard, 2021, E16491/04
‘One Hug Redeemable After Lockdown’ Postcard, 2021, E16491/04
‘Staycation’ Postcard, 2021, E16491/05
‘Staycation’ Postcard, 2021, E16491/05

Future

After seeing the ways in which the postcard has been used throughout history, what do you think the future holds for the postcard? Will the postcard adapt and change to meet the needs of future generations?

Technology

We have already seen technological advances in postcard production, moving away from handwritten cards to customisable digitally produced designs. Physical postcards, however, are still produced from trees. As the planet strives to be more sustainable can we find alternative materials, or should we move all correspondence online?

Vintage

The postcard, much like vinyl records, could have a revival. In a time when technology can both connect and isolate us, we may look to classic forms of communication. The postcard is an emotive, tangible representation of affection.

‘Why Don’t You Write?’ Postcard. Early 1900s, 2020-0003/28

‘Why Don’t You Write?’ Postcard, Early 1900s, 2020-0003/28

The postcard has had different functions and uses over its history. Its future however is down to us. How we decide to use the postcard going forward will determine whether the postcard in any capacity is part of the lives of the next generation.

Also of interest

Visit our new temporary exhibition and explore postcards from the collection.

  • Wish You Were Here: 151 Years of the British Postcard

    Wish You Were Here celebrates and explores the iconic role the postcard has played in connecting people for more than a century and a half.

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  • Exploring Postcards

    Discover unique stories and activities from our collection around the theme of postcards.

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