Tag Archives: postcard

‘Wish you were here’: 145 years since the first postcard

On this day, 145 years ago, the British public were first introduced to the postcard. As eagerly anticipated as the latest technology upgrades are today, 75 million were sent in the first year alone. 

However, they were a far cry from the ‘Wish You Were Here’ holiday scenes which primarily make up today’s postcards. Instead they were rather dull: the address was written on one side with the reverse left blank for the message. No other writing was allowed on the address side in case it obscured the address and led to the item being incorrectly delivered. Moreover, the postcard was introduced to benefit businesses as a time saving device rather than to share tales of holiday adventures. Mr Lundy of the North British Colour Company in Leith argued that a postcard:

“would save a vast amount of trouble…to the Post Office & also a large amount of valuable time which is daily wasted by large firms like ourselves who have many envelopes to open covering information which really is of no consequence as to whom it may be read by.”[1]

Original postcard design - no exactly the most thrilling thing to receive in the post

Original postcard design – no exactly the most thrilling thing to receive in the post!

By 1890 both publishers and the public were eager to make better use of the postcard. They suggested the introduction of a divided back, in other words, confining the address, if wished, to just a half of a side freeing up the rest of a card for a drawing or a longer message. Eventually the Post Office agreed on the condition that any extra designs or remarks did not “Lead to any practical embarrassment of the Officers of the Post Office” and so in 1894, the picture postcard was born.

Sample postcards produced when discussing the introduction of the divided back postcard and halfpenny postage rate

Sample postcards produced when discussing the introduction of the divided back postcard and halfpenny postage rate

Soon cartoons and photographs adorned the fronts of postcards which were now very much the piece of social mail that we know today. With the turn of the new century in 1900 the craze for sending and collecting postcards went into overdrive. From country landscapes to cheeky seaside scenes, from political cartoons to photographs of major events the picture postcard was used the country over to share news, opinions and events, broadening people’s knowledge of the country and the world.

Postcard printed with a comedic scene of a man crashing his car.  Reverse is stamped and bears a message addressed to Miss K. Jenkins. Postmark on reverse is 1905, but on the front the postmark is 1985.

Postcard printed with a comedic scene of a man crashing his car.
Reverse is stamped and bears a message addressed to Miss K. Jenkins. Postmark on reverse is 1905, but on the front the postmark is 1985.

Whilst a picture might paint a thousand words, the messages on postcards were still an important aspect. As an open form of communication postcards can be fascinating objects. Looking back at postcards written decades ago the messages they carry can often seem cryptic if you were not the sender or receiver.  For example, one postcard in our collection sent to Miss M. Bright just says ‘How many ghosts did you meet last night. Will this do for your collection’ My imagination immediately conjures up a scene whereby Miss Bright is an Edwardian ghostbuster! The impact of the postcard as a more open form of communication is still felt today, whether we realise it or not, in the many texts and tweets we send around the world.

A very

A very spooky postcard…

But people also developed a myriad of ways to convey messages privately on postcards that the interested eye of the postman wouldn’t see.  This could be through the message itself, written perhaps in mirror writing or in a coded alphabet, or sometimes in an adaptation to the postcard itself. For example many people starting ‘tilting’ the stamp, leading to many variations known as The Language of Stamps. As with the Language of Fans the position of the stamp could convey a plethora of meanings, from ’I love you’ to ‘I don’t want to see you again’, it was adapted many times over.

Postcards showing the 'Language of Stamps'

Postcards showing the ‘Language of Stamps’

I hope this brief outline of the origins of postcards 145 years ago will inspire you to keep sending postcards to friends and family across the world and perhaps next time you send one, you’ll tilt your stamp or use your own secret message.

– Emma Harper, Curator

[1] The Royal Mail Archive, BPMA, POST 30/319A

Vinegar Valentines

Sending special letters for Valentine’s day probably dates from the mid-18th century. We have a number of examples of early Valentines in our collection. The idea of choosing a sweetheart on Valentine’s Day may be connected with the idea that 14 February is the date on which birds began mating.

A Valentine's day featuring an image of a bird.

A Valentine’s day featuring an image of a bird.

The name of the day has also been linked to a Christian martyr named Valentine who signed a letter to his jailer’s daughter, with whom he had fallen in love, “from your Valentine.” It was even believed in the eighteenth century that the festival had developed from the Roman Lupercalia (15 February), which celebrated the coming of spring and included fertility rites and the pairing off of women with men by lottery.

A spiteful valentine from c.1814 sent to Thomas Williams Esq., No. 41 Berkley Sqaure. The last line of the verse reads 'if all men, were like thee - then, I'd sooner die than marry'.

A spiteful valentine from c.1814 sent to Thomas Williams Esq., No. 41 Berkley Sqaure. The last line of the verse reads ‘if all men, were like thee – then, I’d sooner die than marry’.

Not all valentines were declarations of love however. We have letters in BPMA’s collection complaining about the sending of insulting and rude Valentines and more particularly about having to pay for them. This is because prior to 1840 and the introduction of uniform penny postage, letters were paid for by the recipient rather than the sender. As such, on Valentine’s day some people with a particular grudge or spite against someone would, anonymously, send rude or grotesque valentines which the receiver would then have to pay for, really adding insult to injury. These have become colloquially known as spiteful or ‘vinegar valentines’. Complaints were made to postmasters requesting refunds for such vinegar valentines.

Poster showing the consequences of missorting, especially on Valentine's Day

Poster showing the consequences of missorting, especially on Valentine’s Day

As a variation of this, one of our acquisitions for the museum collection in the past year was a coloured print of a postman delivering letters on Valentine’s Day. Although of a much later date this print shows how the public didn’t always trust the Post Office to deliver their valentines in a prompt and appropriate manner, and postmen were certainly not viewed as potential valentines themselves.

A spiteful/vinegar/comic Valentine or Penny Dreadful.

A spiteful/vinegar/comic Valentine or Penny Dreadful.

We hope you all receive nicer Valentines than these!

Emma Harper, Curator

New acquisitions

A few weeks ago we were very fortunate to have a visit from someone wishing to donate a group of material to the BPMA museum collection. The group of material related to a Thomas William Ernest May, the donor’s father. We have subsequently been able to trace something of his Post office service through the Archive records. May joined the Post Office in 1910 as an Assistant Postman and just a couple of years later, in 1913, was appointed as a Sorter at North District Office in Islington, very quickly transferring back to his old role as postman but at the North West District Office. Just one year later with the outbreak of the Great War as it was known, Thomas, like many other Post Office workers, joined the 8th Battalion London Regiment known as The Post Office Rifles at the age of 20. He later returned to work at the Post Office, rising to the rank of Assistant Superintendent by the time of his death in 1953.

The objects donated to the BPMA relate both to May’s time in France with the Post Office Rifles as well as his Post Office work. Amongst these are several very personal objects, including a green leather bound pocket journal given to May before he embarked for France in 1915. It includes a map of Flanders, various helpful French and German phrases, a calendar for 1915 and different methods of working out your position in day and night: all to aid the soldier should he get lost or separated from his battalion. The journal itself is written by Thomas in pencil and covers his posting to France as well as his thoughts and feelings in the midst of campaigns on the front line. We are hoping to work on a project to scan and transcribe this journal to chart May’s time during the war, so do look out for that on this blog in the coming years, as well as many other items relating to the Centenary of the Great War.

Journal given to Private Thomas May before leaving to fight in France with the Post Office Rifles.Journal given to Private Thomas May before leaving to fight in France with the Post Office Rifles.

Journal given to Private Thomas May before leaving to fight in France with the Post Office Rifles.

There are also photographs of May with other members of the Post Office Rifles, both in official uniformed shots as well as more informal photos of them with their brooms and rifles. May received the 1914-1915 Star Medal and the British War Medal, both campaign medals routinely given to those who served and they are also included within the collection as is the slightly more unusual Silver War Badge. The Silver War Badge was given to soldiers who had to return from the war due to injuries, the badge states ‘FOR KING AND EMPIRE SERVICES RENDERED’. It was to be worn on civilian clothing and was proof that they had been honourably discharged and meant they could avoid being given a white feather for supposedly shirking their duty.

Photograph of Sergeant Thomas May.

Photograph of Sergeant Thomas May.

As previously mentioned, May returned work at the Post Office following his experiences in the war and the final object of this blog dates from 14 March 1929 when he was still at the North District Office. It is a large hand-illustrated card in the form of a postcard and shows a man pushing a child in a pram on the front in a street scene with a cinema and dancing hall in the background. The caption reads ‘You will have to cut all that out now! Daddy’ and features ‘Hearty Congratulations and Best Wishes from NDO’ on the birth of his daughter, who has now generously donated these objects to BPMA.

Illustrated card sent to Thomas May by colleagues at NDO on the birth of his daughter.

Illustrated card sent to Thomas May by colleagues at NDO on the birth of his daughter.

This is such a wonderful group of personal items relating to Thomas Ernest William May and we are very grateful to his daughter for donating them so that Thomas’ story can be added to the others told through our collection.

– Emma Harper, Curator (Move Planning)

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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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.