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.
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.