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Postcards From the 1900s, With Love

We retrace the different roles that picture postcards have essayed throughout the twentieth century

Published: Apr 9, 2010 06:52:42 AM IST
Updated: Apr 8, 2010 03:43:23 PM IST
Postcards From the 1900s, With Love
Image: Courtesy: Better Photography

When 24-year-old writer Helen MacGregor received a Christmas greeting in the form of a postcard, she was amazed to see that it was a picture of the town she grew up in. And she was in it! The postcard showed her as a three-year-old with her mother in the market town of Otley, West Yorkshire in England. This image was captured on camera and put on a postcard — and had found its way to her after two decades.

Snapshots like these can be found in antique shops and used-book stores around the world. Their charm lies in the fact that they capture a thought, a concern, a moment, with unique handwritten inscriptions.

The first postcard was created by Dr Emanuel Hermann in Austria in 1869. Within a year, this postcard spurred a revolution in the way messages were communicated. Between 1902 and 1910, the production of ‘divided back’ postcards skyrocketed. They accommodated an entire picture on the front and text on the back. Though limited by the 3.5 x 5.5-inch size, they allowed an astonishing variety of photographic expression.

Picture versus Real Photo
Two major types of postcards evolved: The printed picture postcard and the real photo postcard. Printed picture postcards were mass-produced. The real photo postcards were chemically produced from a negative on photo paper, with pre-printed postcard backs and hence, unique. In 1903, Kodak introduced an affordable, folding pocket camera that could take pictures that were printed directly on postcard-backs or postcard stock.

Postcard Mania
In Britain alone, the number of postcards passing through the post office rose from 313 million in 1895 to 926 million in 1914. By 1910, 2.5 million postcards were sold everyday in the US! This golden era of postcards lasted till the beginning of the First World War. 75 percent of commercially produced postcards were printed in Germany. But since Germany was the enemy, the War blocked their import. Though subsidised picture postcards were produced even after the War, people were not interested anymore, because by then the movies became the new visual experience.

Picture postcards allowed photographers to travel and document life. They took pictures  of important buildings and sites, parades, fires and floods. Realtors used postcards to sell new housing by writing descriptions and prices on the back. Real photo postcards were also largely sold as souvenirs in local drug stores and stationery shops. Today, picture postcards are compiled into books about countries and eras, as they allow us to view habits and styles now largely forgotten.


  Postcards From the 1900s, With Love

•The picture postcard first appeared in the early 1880s with the arrival of hotel publicity cards. Meant to be used by guests, these cards had images of the hotels which issued them, printed as a vignette on the top.
• Picture postcards are avidly collected by individuals and clubs. This hobby is known as deltiology.
• Advertisers have extensively used picture postcards to advertise their products and continue to do so even today.
• Modern picture postcards are called Chrome postcards. The images on these cards are based on coloured photographs, and are characterised by the glossy appearance given by the paper’s coating.


  Postcards From the 1900s, With Love

This postcard shows an inverted reflection in a glass globe.
The era of the postcard is unknown. The image in the postcard is very reminiscent of M.S. Escher’s imagery, which featured explorations of infinity. All three postcards shown here are from Harvey Tulcensky’s collection.

  Postcards From the 1900s, With Love

 There was depression in the wine market from 1902 to 1910, which led to taxation protests carried out by the wine-makers of France. This postcard photograph captures a rather unique and humorous manner of protest in the region of Poligny. The translation of the text on the cart is, “The old wine press of our fathers turned into a fiscal press.”

  Postcards From the 1900s, With Love

This postcard shows a photo-montage of Mona Lisa’s face superimposed on a giant woman. It was sent to a German lady named Marie-Thérèse Lemaire from Juliette, a Frenchwoman, in 1911. The message inquires about Marie’s health and mentions how Juliette has written the message at a post office, using a nail. 

Courtesy: Better photography



(This story appears in the 16 April, 2010 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)

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  • Editor

    Superb !!!!!!!!!!!!!

    on Oct 3, 2010