In today’s digital world, handwritten postcards are novelty items. Who doesn’t find it fun to receive a handwritten card or letter as opposed to another email? Handwritten letters are more exciting than getting a parcel delivered to one’s home as packages nowadays are likely filled with granola bars, hand soap or office supplies from your favorite online retailer. The world has changed, yet there still remains a strong sentiment of keeping people and families connected.
The world of seaside holiday postcards was born in the early 1900s. Earlier postcards, the ones that command the highest prices with ephemera dealers today, were actual photographs taken by a studio photographer.
The images were often of the sender themselves posed in an artificial scene prepared for the occasion (bring on the fancy dresses, hairstyles, parasols and feathers). The postcard became an extension of the calling card, a small type of business card brought to the Lords and Ladies of great houses on a silver tray carried by the home’s butler.
Once printing technologies improved and photography became mainstream, postcards went into mass production. At first, people were only allowed to write the address on one side of the card, in keeping with strict postal regulations. When it became apparent that a short message was desired by senders and recipients, an area for correspondence was included. The most popular were seaside holiday news, grand tours of Europe and Africa updates and simple notes to advise of upcoming train journey arrivals. Keep in mind that before the widespread use of the telephone, fax, same day courier and internet, London had two, three or four postal mail deliveries per weekday. It actually was possible to invite someone to tea in the morning post and have them arrive, in all their lace and finery, for afternoon tea the same day!
Windows into the Past:
Prisoner of War
Postcards provide a window into another world, a glimpse of a bygone era when times were more innocent and bathing costumes left nearly everything to the imagination. It’s particularly poignant to consider the stories left untold when reviewing postcards found during family history research. Here are two examples from the Christensen’s family collection:
This is a card sent by Tom Johnson to his mother during World War Two. Tom was captured early in the war and detained in a German Stalag (prisoner of war camp for NCOs and privates). When he arrived home at the end of the war, he was so thin that his mother didn’t recognize him! The photo on the back of the card seems a bit unusual, but it does make perfect sense when we learn that two cricketers shown on the front are his brother-in-law Philip and his son Gerry going out to bat. Tom probably carried this card with him as a memento and it served double purpose as notification to his mum where he was being kept prisoner.
A Secret Romance
And now we switch gears completely to see a romantic note sent by an assumed-to-be British resident man named “Don” to his darling “Esther”, written on “Saturday”. There’s no stamp affixed, and it hasn’t been through the mail, at least not as a postcard normally would. Was this a secret lovers’ tryst that was kept hidden by mailing Esther the card concealed inside an envelope? All we have is a series of one inch square Ansbach, Germany scenery photos (black and white) on the front and Don’s note on the back. Don tells his love of his train accommodation issues, that he’s enjoying cherries and wine and reports the weather is OK. A host of questions is brought to mind: Who are/were Don and Esther? Did he make it back home to her? Did they marry? Where did they live? Why was he in Germany? It’s an impossible quest without more clues. However, never discount the knowledge of the family history and genealogy communities. Perhaps someone will see this and make the family connection – it’s possible these days thanks to the power of the internet.
Historical postcards are more than simple remnants of the past. They help bring family history alive and are windows into our ancestors’ lives. Remember it was a different world before the internet, travel and globalization. Thankfully old postcards record a lot of this world and it’s there for us to enjoy now and in the future. This brings a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘wish you were here’.
Hudson, G., "The Victorian Printer", Shire Publications Ltd., Great Britain,1996.