BM sends me a sample of his grandmother’s “Great War” postcard collection. To receive an image from overseas from a loved one at that dire time must have been an emotional experience. This November marked the 100th anniversary of Armistice, a great time to reflect on this collection. I turned to the Woodruff Library of Emory University, whose websites claims to have one of the largest collections of WWI postcards on the web, at 472 cards.
We call a collector of postcards a “deltiologist.” Connoisseurs of fine art look down on such collections as lowbrow. These lowly cards sprang out of a specific era; the art form and the medium reflect something unique as a means of communication. The Golden Age of the postcard is also the era of the Great War. Our present culture has access to immediate messages in both text and image, not possible for 200,000 years - since Homo Sapiens first appeared.
The breathtaking ability to receive a picture in the mail at a crucial time, when most family members of soldiers couldn't imagine the front, created what Emory scholars termed a “mania.” The postcard craze was born out of many factors: the growing postal services of the world, technological advances in photography and printing, and a desire for a short form of communication. We see in this early form of “media” something akin to our iPhone system of communication, one born of a hybrid of a platform of technology, using short-form communication and imagery, transmitted worldwide, with little privacy.
When such communication, in times of rapid change, is enabled, as in the postcard revolution of the early 20th century, the world took action. In 1905, seven million postcards flowed through the world’s post offices, says the Emory Library’s site. In 1909, Baltimore handled a million Christmas postcards; St Louis cancelled 750,000 postcard stamps in one day. The Atlantic City Post Office sold 17 million one-cent postcard stamps in 1911. In Europe, Germany sent 1.1 billion postcards in 1906, the UK sent 734.5 million. A year before the declaration of war, Americas sent 868 million postcards.
WWI generated its own categories, one is BM’s favorite, a hand embroidered card featuring the French, Russian, Serbian, British, and Belgian flags of the Allied Powers, underneath embroidered: “United for Liberty.” The trade name for these cards is “silks,” produced by French women who made a few francs each off the buying troops.
BM has a postcard picturing the Union Jack and a fit, happy “Tommy,” the card labeled “Church Army Recreation Hut.” Church Army was established in 1882 by Britain Wilson Carlile to bring the Gospel where he considered it most needed. WWI saw Church Huts serving 200,000 men daily in 2,000 huts that offered refreshments, games, and a ‘devotional’ corner. BM’s ancestor has written on the card, dated France, Oct. 28, 1915: “My dear Margaret: daddy is feeling fine and having a rest here at Camp. Hope you are well and haven’t a cold. Your daddy.”
BM grandmother’s husband fought in WWI in the Canadian Expeditionary Forces. BM, check for certain valuable categories, classified by Emory scholars: “nationality” cards, collected by troops from various postings, “military” cards, showing scenes of war, trenches, and devastation, “home front” cards of religious or sentimental themes designed to lift spirits, and those fine “silk” cards.
BM, your “silk” postcard is worth $35. But is a postcard collection ‘beneath’ great collections of fine art worth millions of dollars? Who actually named objects low, middle, or highbrow? Class, socioeconomic levels, and ‘taste’ enter into the opinion of status of an object or collection. The first, best book on this topic is Russell Lynes’ classic The Tastemakers: The Shaping of American Popular Taste, 1979.
Culture wars have raged around certain types of collections (I remember my assistant laughing over a client’s milk carton collection), but every collection of objects has an embedded narrative of an era, and none, perhaps, exhibit this narrative more fundamentally than a WWI postcard collection. Because of the use of a new media, in which shorted language (both visual and written) was necessary, as conveyed on a worldwide platform, these postcards reflect in a significant way the shrinking of the globe which began in the early 20th century.
BM, you are onto something. Build your grandmother’s collection into a WWI postcard archive and you’ll have one of the few archives of its kind. The value of an archive, a narrative of the past, and a predictor of a world of communication, used in times of duress to unite, is irreplaceable.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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