Tag Archives: postcards

GPO Britain in pictures

The BPMA is the custodian of a photographic collection which includes about 100,000 individual photographs; the earliest is from the late 19th century and the latest ones date from the 1990s. In a previous blog on our photography collection and a talk now available as a podcast we have presented some of this fascinating material and the stories behind it, and our exhibition The Post Office in Pictures features some of the most striking images.

The GPO Britain postcard set.

The GPO Britain postcard set.

The photographs depict life in Britain at the time of the General Post Office (GPO) with its contrasts between modern urban areas and the industrial heartland, and the remote rural regions where the postman or postwoman presented a vital connection to the outside world. We have selected six of the most intriguing images for a new postcard set which is now available from the BPMA Shop.

Man posting a letter holding a cauliflower, 1949. (POST 118/1964)

Man posting a letter holding a cauliflower, 1949. (POST 118/1964)

Many of these photographs have been published in the Post Office Magazine (POST 92), which was first issued in 1934 in order to promote postal services and good relations with the public, aimed at the large postal workforce, their families and friends. The articles often presented the modernity and efficiency of the GPO’s services, such as the Post Office Savings Bank – “Everybody’s Bank” with ten million accounts, according to the author of an article in the September 1935 issue. The story on the bank, which holds “the small savings of ordinary not-very-wealthy folk in the hamlets and towns and cities of Britain”, is accompanied by several images of banking clerks entering the 120,000 daily transactions in the newly adopted accounting machines. The clerks’ efficiency in dealing with the amount of correspondence and day to day business clearly impressed the author – he dubs them ‘super clerks’.

A female clerk at the Post Office Savings Bank, on the cover of the Post Office Magazine September 1935. (POST 92)

A female clerk at the Post Office Savings Bank, on the cover of the Post Office Magazine September 1935. (POST 92)

Other sections of the magazines were regularly dedicated to news from the different UK regions. These focussed on the local postal staff and their achievements, activities and work in their local community, which, to today’s readers, provides some authentic insights into rural British communities in the 1930s and 1940s. The October 1938 Northern Ireland section, for example, features the image of a postman with a pony and trap on a rural road: “The Glenarm Bay postman goes on his delivery in a trap presented to him by local residents” (POST 118/903).

Postman with pony and trap in Northern Ireland, 1938. (POST 118/903)

Postman with pony and trap in Northern Ireland, 1938. (POST 118/903)

Other issues show postmen wading through rivers on horseback (January 1939) to reach the next village or town, or recount the peculiar history of whale bones decorating the post office exterior at Cley-next-the-Sea (March 1938).

Postman on horseback near Withypool, Somerset, 1938. (POST 118/910)

Postman on horseback near Withypool, Somerset, 1938. (POST 118/910)

Main Strain in Cley, Norfolk, 1937. (POST 118/1204)

Main Strain in Cley, Norfolk, 1937. (POST 118/1204)

The GPO Britain postcard set is now available from the BPMA Shop for £3.75.

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Postal Mischief podcast

In April we invited the writer, broadcaster, artist and musician David Bramwell to the BPMA to give a talk on the history of postal mischief. This turned out to be a fascinating and highly entertaining event, looking at the work of key players in this field including the ‘King of Mail Art’ Ray Johnson, Victorian prankster Reginald Bray and musician Genesis P.Orridge, who inadvertently changed the postal laws (owing to the ‘colourful’ nature of his homemade postcards).

Colourful mail art referenced in David Bramwell's talk.

Colourful mail art referenced in David Bramwell’s talk.

David also shared his own exploits in mail art, which saw him and a friend post unusual objects to each other – much to the amusement of local Post Office and Royal Mail staff.

Post Office staff were amused when this set of false teeth came in to be posted!

Post Office staff were amused when this set of false teeth came in to be posted!

You can now listen to or download David Bramwell’s talk as a podcast via our website, iTunes or SoundCloud. And if David has inspired you to engage in some postal mischief do let us know about it!

A tropical leaf which was posted to David Bramwell.

A tropical leaf which was posted to David Bramwell.

Find out about our upcoming talks and other public events on the Events page of our website.

A Curious Culture of Letter Writing

In December 2011, as some of you may remember, BPMA and the BBC produced a collaborative radio series entitled the People’s Post. One episode of that series focussed on the culture of letter writing. Ever since this episode I have been intrigued by this subject and the many different forms letters have taken, particularly in the 19th and early 20th Century. As a result I decided to delve into the BPMA collection to see whether a culture of letter writing was reflected in the objects and files in the collection.

On Thursday 20th June at 7pm I’ll be giving a talk in which I use objects from our collection as a basis to explore how postal reform helped the development of this culture of letter writing and sharing some of the weird and wonderful things I’ve discovered.

Postcard sent in 1914. (OB1997.35)

Postcard sent in 1914. (OB1997.35)

Some of the broader themes I’ll be looking at are the introduction of the penny post, the development of envelopes and postcards, as well as the sending of cards for special occasions such as Christmas. I am by no means a postal historian and this is much more an introduction to some of the main changes in the 19th Century postal system and how these are reflected in the objects I’ve found within the BPMA’s collection and the social history they tell.

Embroidered card with an embossed Christmas border. (OB1995.162/24)

Embroidered card with an embossed Christmas border. (OB1995.162/24)

These objects range from various Curious Addresses – the name given to envelopes where the address is presented in a different format such as a poem or a picture; Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland Postage Stamp Case; the Express Delivery form used by suffragettes to post themselves as ‘human letters‘ and an account of a kitten being sent through the post as well as numerous postcards and letters.

‘Wonderland’ postage stamp case, exterior – printed with chromolithographic images, 1889. (OB1995.415/1)

‘Wonderland’ postage stamp case, exterior – printed with chromolithographic images, 1889. (OB1995.415/1)

Come along to the Phoenix Centre, London, on Thursday 20th June at 7pm to find out more…

- Emma Harper, Curator

See images from the Curious Culture of Letter Writing on Flickr.

Visit to the Postal Museum Store

Photography student Stuart Matthews has written this guest blog for us…

On Saturday 6th April I ventured to Loughton, Essex to visit The British Postal Museum Store for the Pillar Box Perfection open day. Currently studying photography at the University of Bedfordshire, I’m now in my final year working on my final major project. The visit was in aid of my university project ‘POST’ a project which looks at pillar boxes and how my generation rarely write any more.

"Pillar box alley" at The British Postal Museum Store.

“Pillar box alley” at The British Postal Museum Store.

We live in an age now where we are constantly tuned into our digital social lives by texting, instant messaging and emailing. In my generation the everyday analogue process of posting a letter is quickly becoming a thing of the past. Postboxes lie dormant, statues and monuments of a bygone era. Fond of analogue tradition I decided I wanted to get myself and as many people involved as possible mailing postcards in the form of photographs.

The premise is simple:

  1. Take a photograph of a pillar box (Has to be taken landscape)
  2. Get the photo printed at the 6×4 (Postcard size)
  3. Once printed, write directly on the back of the photograph (Write whatever comes to mind, your thoughts on pillar boxes, maybe the digital age, something personal? A quote, or song lyrics? Maybe describe the location of the photo?)
  4. Then stick on a stamp, add my address and send it to me in the post:
    166 Vandyke Road
    Leighton Buzzard
    Bedfordshire
    LU7 3HS

Postcard showing a Queen Elizabeth II wall box.

Postcard showing a Queen Elizabeth II wall box.

By getting people to photograph postboxes I hope to create a large topology to showcase the results, which will I hopefully display in a gallery space. For the time being I’ve set up a blog site where I’ve regularly up load all the entries sent to me. Which you can visit here: www.thegreatpostproject.wordpress.com.

As I love a challenge, I am hoping that my project will make people take notice of postboxes again and in the grander scheme get younger people involved in writing letters and postcards. Although it may be wishful thinking, only time will tell.

Postcard showing the message "What's the Rush!!".

Postcard showing the message “What’s the Rush!!”.

The open day at The British Postal Museum Store was a great way to learn more about the history of the pillar box. Discovering the different types whilst being able to identify them I found it to be a rewarding experience. It really has helped me, by giving me a historical outlook which I can now apply to the project.

The staff were tremendously helpful giving talks throughout the day, and answering all my questions. A big thank you to those who work and are involved in The British Postal Museum & Archive you generosity hasn’t been unnoticed.

Their generosity also allowed me to visit London this week to participant in my very own From Pillar to Post: GPO London walking tour as I was unable to go last month! (It was only natural that I dropped in to say Hello at the Royal Mail Archives)

If you are reading this and feel intrigued by my project feel free to visit the POST blog site and get involved, and last but not least please do visit the The British Postal Museum Store when you can, it is worth it!

Postal Mischief

On Thursday 18th April we will be welcoming writer and performer David Bramwell as he presents a talk exploring the curious history of postal mischief.

Using a slide show of fascinating images and video clips David will discuss the key mischief makers, including the ‘King of Mail Art’ Ray Johnson and Victorian prankster Reginald Bray. In addition, the musician Genesis P. Orridge who inadvertently changed the postal laws thanks to the ‘colourful’ nature of his homemade postcards!

David Bramwell tries to post some underpants.

David Bramwell tries to post some underpants.

When you leave, indulge in your own postal mischief too – David will be hoping to inspire you to ‘post a flip-flop to someone you love’ by sharing his own exploits in mail art.

David has won a Sony Award for his work on Radio 3 and spoken at TED, Idler Academy and Alain de Botton’s School of Life. He runs the Catalyst Club in Brighton where everyday people talk about their passions in front of a live audience.

Visit our website to book for Postal Mischief.

Romance of the Royal Mail

It was common in the late 19th and early 20th Century for packets of cigarettes to include trading cards. Usually issued in sets of 25 or 50, cigarette cards had the dual purpose of stiffening the packaging and advertising cigarette brands. They also presumably increased sales of a brand if it issued cards which were particularly desired.

In the 1930s Royal Mail and the cigarette company W.H. & J. Woods Ltd joined forces to issue a set called Romance of the Royal Mail which depicted aspects of postal history up to the early 20th Century. Amongst the cards are some well-known stories including how John Palmer established the first regular mail coach services and the introduction of the postcard.

‘John Palmer’ cigarette card (2010-0384/04)

‘John Palmer’ cigarette card (2010-0384/04)

Less familiar is a card depicting mail deliveries to the South Pacific island of Tonga. The card explains:

As the nature of the coast of the Tonga Islands make landing difficult, the mails are delivered by the simple method of sealing them in old tea and petrol tins and throwing them into the Pacific, where they are collected by a native who swims out from the shore. The far-flung organisation of modern communications ensures dependable deliveries in remote corners of the world, where the arrival of the post is an exciting event, just as it does in the city street where the postman is seen three or four times a day.

'The Mail for the Tonga Islands' cigarette card (2010-0384/20)

‘The Mail for the Tonga Islands’ cigarette card (2010-0384/20)

Visit Flickr to see all of the Romance of the Royal Mail cigarette cards.

A Passion for Postcards

Writer and researcher Guy Atkins explores the intrigues of old postcards and why we like collecting them.

As a boy I was keen on collecting things, old keys, coins, stamps. I loved stamps. When I was about 14 a great aunt died. Relatives knew that I collected stamps and there were four original albums from the Edwardian era in her possession, as she was very old. They gave them to me. Because of the stamps on the back. But of course, they were all ha’penny greens. They were all the same. And then I looked at the cards and thought they were interesting. They were more interesting than the stamps! And so I looked into it, really. And I sort of refined them. Took out some of the ones that I wasn’t particularly interested in, and sold them. You could get two pence each for an old card. That was about 1971. And for some reason I kept back some cards done by an artist called A. R. Quinton who died in 1934…

- Peter Cove

Forty years after having “kept back” his first cards, Peter Cove now owns one of every postcard designed by the artist A. R. Quinton, and published by Salmon’s of Sevenoaks. That’s 2,350 cards.

Peter Cove with the final card in his collection of postcards by the artist A. R. Quinton.

Peter Cove with the final card in his collection of postcards by the artist A. R. Quinton.

This time last year, I was writing a thesis on the intrigue of old postcards. Like Peter, I’m hooked on collecting them. And having read of his odyssey in Picture Postcard Monthly, I contacted Peter to see if I could interview him. I wanted to understand what it felt like to have finished a collection.

Brilliantly, he agreed. And invited me to his home near Dorchester. With his wife Sarah chatting to a friend in the kitchen, Peter poured the tea and we set about discussing our shared passion.

The details of Peter’s hunt were extraordinary: he told me of adverts he placed in French magazines to find a card of Dover that might have been sent to France; he explained how he’d buy cards he thought people with items on his “wanted list” might accept in exchange; and, lowering his voice for fear of Sarah overhearing, he spoke of visits to London markets where he’d spend hundreds of pounds.

Towards the end of the interview, Peter laid out some of his Quinton albums. With pride, he showed me the card that had brought his quest to an end: Salmon’s card no. 2986, picturing a railway line near Rhyl. He bought it for £300.

Picking it up, Peter described the card as “most uninteresting to most people”. One might have predicted this. The final card was always likely not to have been commercially successful when first sold, making it in short supply today. I was not prepared, however, for Peter’s ambivalence towards the rest of his collection:

“It’s something I liked years ago. And I started so I’ll finish. Do you know what I mean?… Now my tastes have changed. They’ve moved on to more sophisticated artwork…”

In my thesis, I wanted to see how Peter’s experiences stacked up against the ideas of academics who have written about collecting – in particular, the work of Jean Baudrillard and Susan Stewart. For Baudrillard, Peter’s serial motivation would be of little surprise. His apparent disregard for the cards’ aesthetic appeal tallies with Baudrillard’s observation that for collectors “what motivates the purchase is the pure imperative of association”.

Likewise, for Susan Stewart, Peter’s collection is not constructed by individual cards. Rather it comes to exist by how it is arranged. Stewart would argue that Peter’s ten heavy-duty albums are a kind of “Noah’s ark”, preserving items according to criteria selected by him.

Perhaps these charges are fair. But Peter unsettles other ideas of Baudrillard and Stewart. Take Baudrillard’s psychoanalytic portrait of collectors. He sees collectors as individuals struggling to form relationships with others, and using collecting as a way to withdraw from society. It is easy to match this template for collectors against fictional characters. Think of the terrifying Frederick Clegg in John Fowles’ The Collector, or Bruce Chatwin’s porcelain-obsessed Kasper Utz. Yet for Peter, being able to build relationships is at the core of his collecting. Rather than being estranged from society, Peter needed all his social skills to complete the Quinton series. It was his good relationships with dealers that allowed him to reach his goal. And while Peter is only one collector, empirical research on collecting suggests he is not unusual; collectors are not a markedly different group from the rest of the UK population.

Another strand of both Baudrillard and Stewart’s analyses Peter confounds is that collecting somehow abolishes time, that it is ‘anti-history’. For Stewart, “a collection replaces origin with classification”. This is an important part of her criticism of collecting as the “most abstract form of all consumption”. She believes it eradicates labour, making the moment of production remote.

It is true that Peter does not greatly value the artistic merits of Quinton’s work (“he was not a great artist!”) and the driver of his collecting was undoubtedly the completion of the series. But the origins of the cards matter. Ordered according to when the originals were painted, the cards in Peter’s albums provide a history of Quinton’s journey around Britain. Far from marginalizing Quinton’s labour, Peter and fellow members of the Salmon Study Group reveal it. Each year they visit sites he painted and compare the artwork on his cards with the views today.

So where does this leave us? Well, interviewing Peter and other collectors has made me wonder whether it’s time for a reversal in the portrayal of collecting, time for collecting to edge out from the shadows. Perhaps the motivations for collecting will always be private and mysterious. Maybe collectors do use the pursuit of objects to escape into their own worlds. But this should not stop us from recognizing the communal benefits of collecting. Alongside that drive to complete, stories emerge, histories are rescued and communities form.

I’ve finished my thesis now. But I’m keen to keep investigating. So if you’re a collector, I’d be delighted if you got in touch. Especially, if you’ve a story of something that has happened as a result of your collecting. Maybe you’ve uncovered an interesting history that would have otherwise been forgotten? Or become great friends with other collectors? If anything comes to mind, please do get in touch. My email address is guyatkins@gmail.com. Or write to Guy Atkins c/o BPMA, Freeling House, Phoenix Place, LONDON WC1X 0DL. I’ve also got a blog you can follow at www.postcardese.com or @postcardese on Twitter.

References:

Jean Baudrillard, “The System of Collecting”, in The Cultures of Collecting, ed. John Elsner and Roger Cardinal, (Reaktion Books, 1994)

Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Duke University Press, 1993)

Bloomsbury Festival

Saturday 20th October sees the BPMA once more take part in the fantastic Bloomsbury Festival – a celebration of the cultural activities and community fun to be had in this vibrant area of London.

Members of staff from the BPMA will be offering a wide range of activities across the weekend – and moving around across Russell Square in order to meet as many people as possible.

Our postman from the past.

Our postman from the past.

Back, due to popular demand, is our Pedal Powered Postman from the Past – who will be at the Festival from 10am ’til 4pm on Saturday 20th, riding around on a vintage postman’s parcel tricycle. The tricycle will be full of children’s activities for all ages – with a retro postal theme. Be sure to ask the Postman from the Past all about the red and blue Victorian postal uniform that he will be wearing too.

Victorian parcel tricycle.

Victorian parcel tricycle.

For both the Saturday and the Sunday we will have the Poetry Postie at the Festival, from 10am ’til 4pm. The Poetry Postie, otherwise known as Sally Crabtree, will also be riding around Russell Square. Sally will have a fantastic array of arty activities and crafts, which may include items such as singing telegrams or letters written as a poem. Sally is guaranteed to bring an arty twist to any postal items – and will ensure you never simply write a letter or a card in the same way again!

On the Saturday from 12.30 to 5pm the BPMA will be based at the October Gallery for our Write Away event- following on from our popular collaboration with the October Gallery at last year’s Festival. We will be making and writing our own retro postcards and providing free postage. You can send your retro postcard with a unique design to friends and family by posting it into one of our unusual replica pillar boxes.

With so many stalls and activities to see and do, all celebrating the creativity and community of Bloomsbury, the Festival promises to be a weekend not to be missed. Our events with a postal twist will be innovative and inspiring – we look forward to seeing you there!

The Penn-Gaskell Collection of Aeronautica

Back in May, Science Museum Curator David Rooney gave a talk here at the BPMA on the Penn-Gaskell Collection of Aeronautica. The Collection comprises of stamps, postcards and other material related to powered flight and its social impact which was amassed by aeronautical enthusiast Winifred Penn-Gaskell. A recording of David Rooney’s talk about the Collection is now available to download as a free podcast from our website.

Winifred Penn-Gaskell was a distinguished collector of the early 20th Century who in 1938 became the first woman to be inscribed on the Roll of Distinguished Philatelists. Before her death she arranged for her collection to be left to the Science Museum. The collection includes covers from all of the early transatlantic flights and a great many other pioneering airmail flights, along with disaster mail, material related to early ballooning, prisoner of war mail and other items from the Second World War. A tiny fraction of this large collection is on permanent display in the Flight Gallery at the Science Museum.

Items from the Penn-Gaskell Collection

Items from the Penn-Gaskell Collection

Flight in powered craft such as balloons and, later, aeroplanes was of huge interest to people in the 18th, 19th and early 20th Centuries. The balloons and aircraft, and the men and women who flew in them, adorned a wide range of memorabilia. In his informative talk David Rooney gives examples of notable memorabilia in The Penn-Gaskell Collection, discusses the fascination with flight and offers an insight into Winifred Penn-Gaskell herself.

The Science Museum website gives further details on The Penn-Gaskell Collection of Aeronautica.

The BPMA website offers a number of other recorded talks on the Podcast page.

Read Laura Dixon’s blog on visiting the Science Museum and getting a sneak preview of The Penn-Gaskell Collection of Aeronautica.

Diamond Jubilee Party

To celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the recent opening of our brand new Diamond Jubilee exhibition, we are holding a fun-filled Jubilee Party in a bright red Gazebo in Spa Fields, Clerkenwell on Friday 1 June.

We are being joined by teams from the Foundling Museum and the Museum of the Order of St John, who will both have plenty of items that illustrate their Museums as well as fantastic items to give away.

Throughout the day the brilliant Guy Atkins of Postcardese will be giving quick talks and workshops on the Forgotten Art of Writing Postcards, and the startling hidden histories behind the positioning of stamps.

Clerkenwell Tales bookstore will be with us all day, with plenty of great books and products.

The Big Wheel Theatre Company will also be running games and activities for everyone.

Lorna Giezot will be creating free stamp portraits for visitors to take away with them.

We will have Jubilee-themed cakes to give away and also a tombola with fantastic prizes including The World’s Smallest Post Service, letter writing sets, stamps, books, playing cards and games.

This is the perfect way to start the Diamond Jubilee bank holiday weekend, and it’s free – we hope to see you there!

BPMA Diamond Jubilee Party, Friday 1st June, 11am- 4pm
at Spa Fields, off Exmouth Market, EC1R 08B (Map)