"The History of Postcards"

March 2005 Meeting Report

Guest Speaker - Brian Lund


The March 2005 meeting of the Keyworth & District Local History Society took place in the Centenary Lounge, Keyworth on Friday, March 4th.  Yet again the room was full to capacity with members who came for the Society’s Annual General Meeting and the presentation afterwards by Brian Lund on the History of Postcards. Members with a good memory may remember that Ken Wayne gave a similar talk in November 2001. Brian Lund is well known in Keyworth especially for his publications in The Reflections of a Golden Age series and other books relating to postcards. He has also been a member of the Society for a year or so though he admitted that this was his first visit to a meeting.

Brian began by telling his audience that the postcard probably owed its introduction to an Austrian named Emanuel Hermann on 1st October 1869.  However, there is evidence to support a rival claim to the introduction of postcards by an Englishman some years earlier. The original intention behind the introduction of the postcard was as a means of communication. It was the Victorian equivalent of the ‘phone call, text message or e-mail, (depending on how up to date you are with technology).  Postcards were slow to gain popularity with the public at large in this country. Much of that was caused by the Post Office having a monopoly on their sale. When postcards were first introduced in 1870 they were blank and pre-stamped. The post card was 1/2d and the stamp was 1/2d making the total cost one old penny. This was relatively expensive. Also we were still in an age when a great many people could still neither read nor write.

The popularity of postcards increased considerably with the introduction of the first picture postcards in 1894. By then a greater proportion of the country’s population were able to read and write thanks to the reforms that had taken place in the education system. This increased the potential market for the postcard. Another factor that contributed to the burgeoning popularity of the postcard were the railways. By the end of the 19th century the railway network in England, Scotland and Wales was very comprehensive. It introduced the opportunity for all sections of the population to travel on a scale hitherto undreamt of.  It became quite the thing to send and receive postcards from all manner of places that an individual had visited.

One drawback on the first postcards was the continued demand by the Post Office that the postcard had a split front. Half being used for the picture and half for the message.  It wasn’t until 1902 that the Post Office relented and allowed the whole of one side to have the picture and the address and message to be split on the reverse of the card. With this change the opportunity for producing far more impressive looking postcards arrived. The postcard manufacturers, of which there were three major producers in the United Kingdom, were not slow to exploit the market. Thus from 1902 until the advent of The Great War postcards enjoyed what was to be their “Golden Age”. Annually, during this period, there were around 10 million postcards posted annually. That’s an awful lot of postcards. The postal service of the time was vastly superior to that which we have today. In the large cities particularly there might be as many as six collections a day and four deliveries. Thus a postcard posted to a local destination may be sent in the morning and received at lunch or teatime. And the system then was of a single tier nature. None of todays two tier system where you pay extra for ostensibly a 1st Class Post without any guarantee that the mail will arrive within the stipulated time.  Thanks to the excellence of the Edwardian Royal Mail people often used the post as we would use the telephone or e-mails today. A card sent in the morning to ones sweetheart informing them that you would meet them at a particular place and time in order to take them to the new picture palace that evening would invariably arrive in plenty of time to ensure that no beau missed his sweetheart.

Another factor that helped to cement the postcard’s popularity was the vast scope of subject matter that was covered in the pictures that they carried. You name it and the chances were that someone, somewhere, produced a postcard with the subject matter that you wanted on it. Before the advent of television the vast majority of the population would have had very little idea of what famous people looked like. Music Hall stars, sporting celebrities, Royalty, famous politicians, cinematographic idols and many others were simply names without faces unless they had actually been seen in the flesh. The postcard changed all that. Many people collected postcards in a way that a later generation would collect cigarette cards. The range of topics covered was immense.

In many circles the postcard attained something of a social status. Families kept scrapbooks with the postcards that they had received inside them. The more exotic the location of the card or the greater the social standing of the sender so the personal prestige to be derived from the cards increased.  It became quite the thing to show ones album off to family, friends and acquaintances and bask in the reflected glory that their ownership bestowed.

After The Great War the popularity of the postcard began to decline. The reasons for this are unclear. Certainly the more widespread availability of the telephone and the advent of radio and later television may have played a part in the postcards declining fortunes cannot be denied but there must have been other more fundamental factors which present. It wasn’t until the 1960’s that postcards began to make resurgence. Today they are as popular as ever and show no signs of losing their appeal. Indeed, when Brian began his talk he asked the audience if any of them had sent or received a postcard in the last year and without exception everyone responded in the affirmative. As a litmus test that was a pretty conclusive statement of the postcards continuing appeal.

After the presentation Brian gave an illustrated slide show of various postcards from his personal collection and when that was over he even distributed some of the postcards that he has had published amongst the audience. Unfortunately he had underestimated the appeal that his presentation would have and there were not enough cards to go round. All in all the presentation was a great success, delivered with enthusiasm by an articulate, knowledgeable and obvious love of the subject by one of the Society’s own members, well done Brian Lund and thank you for a highly informative and entertaining evening!!