For more than twenty years after their first appearance, postcards were only for
brief written or printed messages. It was only when picture postcards were permitted
in the 1890s that they became really popular. Within a very short time, millions
were being sent and collecting them became one of the most popular hobbies of the
day. Needless to say, the Post Office was extremely strict about the rules. Cards
were a fraction too big, they were charged letter rate; cards had a touch of glitter,
or were aluminised, they were charged letter rate; cards had words in the wrong place,
or the wrong number of words, the cards were charged letter rate. But despite all
this sales prevention, it was only the first World War which brought an end to the
Golden Age of postcards
1902 marked a milestone in the growth of picture postcards in Great Britain. In that
year, the post office relented, and allowed a message to be written on the same (unillustrated!)
side as the address. This allowed more or less unlimited scope for the other side...and
this ‘divided back’ format soon spread from Great Britain to many other card issuing
At the same time, collecting postcards was becoming recognised as a ‘proper’ hobby
or pastime, with the first magazine for collectors being published in 1900. Albums
became widely available, and nearly every general auction, even in to our own days,
will have one or more of these up for sale.
The illustration at left shows the reverse of a card, sent from Blackburn to Heidelberg
with an inscription from the sender hoping that the recipient did not already have
a copy of this particular card!
The coming of the first World War in 1914 changed the outlook for postcards. There
was no postal service between the two warring halves of the European continent which
greatly reduced the numbers being sent, and for those that were, not surprisingly,
a more patriotic tone appeared, with cards featuring silk and embroidered flags,
portraits of war leaders, the devastation wrought by the enemy, and something of
a ‘business as usual’ approach to life.
The first card at left is a variation on the ‘seaside’ theme, advertising freedom
from Zeppelins! The only problem is that it was sent by a serving member of the armed
forces, and there is no indication where it was sent from!
The second card is woven silk, produced by a firm in Paris, and shows the damage
done to Ypres in the terrible fighting which took place in that area.
To see a much larger version of the images below, please hover your cursor over the
The Ruins of Ypres
No Zeppelins or Aeroplanes Here!
Added to the collection?
The next card is also a first World War card, but sent by a US Army Sergeant serving
in France with the American Expeditionary Force in September 1918. The card has been
through the military censorship, with two notable results. Several words, including
the Unit of the sender, have been obliterated by the Censor...in pencil, and the
censorship mark has been stamped in purple ink right over the message, making much
of it unreadable.
The end of the War saw some return to ‘normal’ but the Golden Age was over. Increasing
use of cheap travel opportunities, and the telephone, meant that the postcard’s use
as a communications medium gradually declined. The picture postcard continued, but
with the economic effects of the War being felt in most countries, there was no real
return to the quality and quantity of pre-war cards. Sometimes, too, the subject
reflected the times, as with this rather gritty card of unemployed miners talking
to King Edward VIII at Abertillery in 1936. Shades of ‘something must be done.’
“Something must be done”
The second World War saw some official collecting of picture postcards. People were
encouraged to send in their postcards of European destinations to help in the planning
of the invasion and subsequent liberation.
The 1950s saw a resurgence in scenic cards of tourist destinations, both at home
and abroad, and the predominance of photographic techniques. With the exception of
the ‘seaside humour’ type of card, most from the 1960s and 1970s are colour photographs,
and as we come up to date there are increasing numbers of ‘art’ style cards. It can
be said that the quality of some of these is reaching heights undreamed of in earlier
So, it is gratifying to note that while the volumes have decreased, the quality of
modern cards has gone in the other direction!
“Sunflowers” by contemporary artist Alison Fennell