Deltiology, the official name for postcard collecting, is thought to be one of the three largest collectible hobbies in the world, along with coin and stamp collecting. Postcards are popular because of the wide range of subjects, with just about every subject imaginable being at some time, portrayed on a postcard. History itself can be tracked on postcards, be it historical buildings, famous people, art, holidays, streets, etc.
They were a popular way to keep in touch with loved ones in faraway places. Family and friends sent postcards often depicting Australian flora and fauna while those serving overseas sent postcards that showed the exotic places they had seen on their way to the front line.
Postcards existed primarily to send greetings, and did this so successfully that in the Edwardian period they took over to some degree from Christmas cards.
Given the speed and efficiency of the mail system and the rarity of telephones around the turn of the century, it’s no exaggeration to describe postcards as the ”emails of their day”. As they served a practical use – to set up meetings and deliver important messages – as well as being collectible aesthetic objects, today postcards are able to perform the amazing feat of giving us tangible glimpses of the past.
The first illustrated postcards are said to be those introduced by a French stationer in 1870. He realised that French troops fighting in the Franco-Prussian War needed to be able to send short messages to their families and designed a “postcard” to suit the purpose. As many of the soldiers were illiterate they decorated their cards with sketches of their many activities at the front rather than writing, thus creating a picture postcard.
The earliest British postcard was issued in 1870 and was designed to send short messages; the stamp was printed on the card, therefore it did not require an envelope. It was considered by many to be lowering the postal standards because the texts were no longer private. However, the cards were a great success as on the first day of issue in 1870, half a million passed through the London postal centre.
The first postcards were introduced to Australia by the NSW Government in December 1875, but while decorated with a bamboo border they could not be referred to as pictorial postcards. These cards appeared first as decorative vignettes in the late 1880s, before the NSW Government Printing Office produced a series of pictorial cards in 1898. Most of these were Government Issue and had pre-printed stamps on the address side and an image on the front.
Postcards flourished during the First World War. Embroidered cards, known as WWI silks were sold to soldiers as souvenirs. The cards were sewn by women in France and Belgium, and then sent home by soldiers serving overseas. Approximately 10 million of these were produced between 1915 and 1919.
During that time postcard publishers created many thousands of different cards reflecting the war. Some of them were humorous, others beautiful and patriotic. Some even had embroidered pockets or pictures, meant for ‘mum’ or ‘my sweetheart’.
Yet many of them were stark and devastating reminders of the war, showing photographs of battlefields, and even of corpses. These cards, which were sometimes sold in sets, highlighted the destruction of war. As the war progressed, they heightened feeling against the many enemies. As the war raged on, battlefields and destruction became opportunities for propaganda postcard publishers, and more postcards were created.
Virtually every street business and public building was photographed for commercial and often private use.
Colour was often added to the image by hand as colour photography as we know it today did not exist then. Professional colourists were employed by photo artists and a production line system was employed with postcards.
In the postcard era (c1900-1914) views of the City were common as were images of the harbour, beaches and events. Cameras were rare and professional images were valued by the public at large.
Often a family would have an album of cards sitting in a prime position on a table in the drawing room of their dwelling.
To learn more about Postcards visit our museum on Saturday, 6th October to hear Robert Mills tell us more on the subject.