Old photos and their history

Edwardian Pram Holding Three Children

Initially a postcard, it seems the image was too small. It has been therefore trimmed and transformed into an attractive little photograph with a white border and rounded corners.

Three children are sitting upright in the pram. One is chewing a rattle. Beside them sits a smartly dressed girl with ribbons in her hair and a teddy bear in her arms. The last child sits grinning to the far left of the pushchair.

This design of Edwardian perambulator evolved from earlier French wickerwork bassinet prams. These allowed the child to lie flat. Earlier prams had been for older children to be pushed while sitting upright. They had been based on carriages used to transport the sick and physically disabled.

Note the different sized wheels. There are two wheels at the front with two larger overlapping wheels at the back. This allowed greater manoeuvrability for the pusher.

Carriage-style suspension kept the innocent cherubs content when travelling along the cobblestone paving. If you look closely you’ll see a belt strapped to the bottom of this particular pram. I’m unsure whether it was a feature or a cheap repair by the owner.


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A Brief History of Portrait Postcards

You may have come across portrait postcards whilst rummaging amongst dusty boxes of ancient family photos. You may have seen them at car boots or antique shops. They range from the professionally staged studio photos to the obviously amateur snaps. The private nature of these portraits can jar with today’s association of postcards with mass production and saucy seaside snaps.

This article gives a brief introductory history to the early 20th Century rise and fall of the portrait postcard in Britain. So, whether you’re new to them or not, I hope it will at least give you a better appreciation of these valuable private artefacts.

Early postcards

Postcards had been sold by the British Post Office since 1870. These were uninspiring blank cards on which you wrote the address on the front and your message on the back. If you wanted to send a picture, you often had to draw it yourself.

It was not until 1894 that picture postcards became widely available. A drawback of these was that the picture restricted the size of your message. As well as limited space, your tiny scrawlings could look untidy which detracted from the decorative image. The divided back in 1902 resolved these problems by allowing senders to write the message and address on the same side, meaning the picture expanded to fill the other side.

The postcard boom

The broad range and attractiveness of early picture postcards made them the ideal inexpensive gift or souvenir. They soon became collectable and some were posted just to be added to a friend’s collection.

They were also a quick and simple way to send messages. At the standard 1/2d for inland postage (prices increased after 1918), people took advantage of an affordable and reliable postal service. Increased literacy of the population meant anyone could send and read them, and proper grammar and spelling were not needed. It’s often said the postcard was the Twitter of its day.

All these factors led to postcards becoming a cultural phenomenon in Edwardian Britain.

Real photo postcards

Portrait postcards came with the introduction of the real photo postcard. The first was posted in 1899. They were photographic negatives developed onto a postcard backing. Most were black and white, though some were hand-coloured using water-based or oil-based paints.

Real photo postcards captured many aspects of life such as holidays, movie stars, architecture, local streets, and important historical events. One of the major 20th Century events captured was the first world war, with postcards being sent to and from the front.

The real photo postcard coincided with advances in technology that democratized photography. Kodak led the field with their simple “you push the button, we do the rest” cameras and their low-cost Brownie. Studio photographers began losing business as photography entered the hands of the people.

The amateur could make their own postcards. In 1902, Velox photo paper with a pre-printed postcard backing was first sold. Then in 1903, Kodak introduced a folding camera that took postcard-sized photos. Between 1906 and 1910, Kodak offered a service to produce postcards from any photo taken.

The real photo postcard and the portrait postcard it had given birth to began losing popularity in the 1930s. Alternatives, such as the more colourful photochrome cards, were entering the market. Increased availability of the telephone also diminished the need to send short messages through the post.

Social history and portrait postcards

Portrait postcards are part of our personal and collective photographic historical archive. Unlike the broader subjects of commercial postcards, they provide an intimate look at the ordinary person who lived in the past. From changing fashions, jobs, and relationships, we get up close and personal.

If you are lucky, these postcards were posted. The name and address of the receiver provide vital clues to identification (occasionally the sender’s details are present). A message may have been written, connecting us to the sender. Censuses and other records can be used with the information to flesh out the people behind the portrait.

A common problem is that they have not been posted and printing information on the back was too expensive. This means we don’t know the photographer, the subject, not even the date. If they are a family member, you may be able to put names to faces. A rough date can be guessed by looking at what they are wearing.

If you own any portrait postcards yourself, whether handed down or bought, then please share your stories. You can either post comments below this post or contact me about submitting your own post.





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Unknown Soldier, REME, 6th March 1945


REME Cap Badge 1942-1947

This soldier is wearing the uniform of the British Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME). This can be seen by his fuzzy but distinct cap badge.

The letters “ME” form part of the REME shoulder title. The hammer on his shoulder is part of a REME Artificers trade badge – the full badge is a hammer and tong. His shoulder rank appears to be Lance Corporal.

The 6th March 1945 was a Tuesday. WW2 was nearing its end. Operation Spring Awakening had begun on the Eastern Front. It was the last major German offensive of the war which ended in defeat after a Soviet counterattack on the 16th.

Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers

The REME Corps was formed on the 1st October 1942. Their role was and still is to maintain and repair the Army’s equipment. They quickly proved themselves highly capable during the battles of El Alamein.

At the time of this photo, REME was involved in implementing the first phase of the military’s reorganisation. The aim was to gradually replace the many different corps involved in maintenance with this newly formed corps. Tradesmen from the Royal Army Ordnance Corps (RAOC), Royal Army Service Corps (RASC), and the Royal Engineers (RE) were transferred to REME. Facilities to train new recruits were also created.

For more information on the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, you can visit their museum:


Photo of cap badge:

By Tfitzp – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=48595775


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Simple Snapshot Contest, Derby Co-op and Gaumont, c1952

Not a photograph this time but a Gaumont Theatre photography competition flyer. The Silent Voice (1952) and The Family Secret (1951) date this competition to at least 1952. The Brownie Folding Camera was the 2nd model of the Kodak Six-20, produced in the UK between 1948 and 1954. I assume this prize was given by Derby Co-operative Society in return for advertising space.

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Happy Xmas, Family and Dog in Garden

“Wishing you a very Happy Xmas and a Bright new Year from all



This seasons greeting was sent with a photograph of the family. A man and woman sit either side of a girl holding a doll. The two adults are likely husband and wife, with the girl being their daughter. A dog sleeps beneath the man.

If you look closely, you’ll see the woman is wearing a bracelet. It looks like a silver chain bracelet with a heart-shaped padlock. Possibly solid silver.

This may have been a family photograph taken for another occasion. It certainly isn’t festive. Only the girl is raising a smile, the man smokes a cigarette, flowers are in bloom, and there’s no evidence of cold weather. The plant on the bamboo hexagonal table and the woman’s wicker chair gives a more summery vibe.

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