Sitting Pretty with Picture Postcards

on Saturday, 26 April 2014. Posted in Archives, Photography

With the help of our Sheldon 6th Form volunteer Laura Bailey and our work experience students we have been making great inroads into our vast collection of uncatalogued postcards from the early 20th century. The aim is to give each an entry on our electronic catalogue alongside a digital image to enable easy access for the public via the online site Wiltshire Treasures (see link at end of this article). At present we have over 4,000 postcards catalogued. I thought it would be interesting to discover a little more about the history of postcards in this country and just why they became so popular during this period.

The golden era for the postcard was around the turn of the 20th century until c. 1915, with the first postcard being issued in Austria on 1st October 1869. In Britain, it was Dr Lyon Playfair MP who began the campaign for a ‘card post’. A year later, also on October 1st, postcards were issued in Britain and soon became extremely popular, both with the general public and commercial retailers and businesses who liked to use them to confirm appointments, acknowledge the receipt of goods etc. These first postcards were a pale buff colour and contained an imprinted halfpenny stamp of Queen Victoria. The Post Office came under strong pressure to end their monopoly on postcard production and after 1872 commercial firms were permitted to produce their own cards as long as they were not for sale to the general public.

From 1875 it was possible to post them overseas. In fact, the postcard was becoming so popular that there were worries it would bring with it the end of letter writing. There were also concerns over the level of privacy afforded to an open message. In 1890 an etiquette book advised ‘It is questionable whether a note on a postal card is entitled to the courtesy of a response’. However, the postcard had made its mark as a cheaper form of communication, and was here to stay.
Pictorial stationary had been commonly used since the 1840s there had been ‘pictorial advertisement cards’ since 1870. Other countries had started producing picture postcards soon after they’d introduced plain ones, but the production of picture postcards was much slower in this country. Stationers wrongly believed that the additional production costs involved would have to be added to the price of the imprinted halfpenny stamp and therefore would be too expensive to be commercially viable. The situation had improved by 1894 when it was agreed that postcards could be sent with a self adhesive halfpenny stamp on them rather than the imprinted one. Any picture had to be printed on the message side of the postcard leaving a free space on the alternate side for the addressee’s name and address. The early cards using this system are called ‘undivided backs’. The rules were relaxed in 1897 regarding messages and addresses which could now be written on the same side, initially for posting in the British Isles only. As other countries began adopting the British method from 1902 this restriction became unnecessary, and the style of postcard that we are familiar with today are described as having a ‘divided back’.

When picture postcards were finally introduced in this country they soon became en vogue, but the manufacturers were concerned that the size of the cards would not make for an attractive postcard. Raphael & Tuck spearheaded a campaign which in 1899 successfully increased the size of a postcard to 5.5x3.5 inches.

By 1903, 600 million postcards were sent every year, and there was a craze for collecting them. We have on the back of some in our collection handwritten notes saying that they were being sent to the recipient specifically as an addition to their collection.


The International Postcard Market Catalogue lists over 1,500 categories of picture postcard, topics ranging from the suffragette movement to football and scouting, and of course the comic and landscape versions. Many Christmas card publishers would now turn their hand to postcards and photographers moved out of their studios to begin photographing their local landscape. Large businesses dealing in postcards sprang up such as Tompkins & Barrett of Swindon and R. Wilkinson & Co. of Trowbridge, but it is also noticeable from the Kelly’s Directories of the period that many an enterprising tradesman got on the bandwagon and began publishing or retailing postcards in towns and villages throughout Wiltshire.


Colour photography was not introduced until the 1930s but photographs before this date could be hand tinted, more often than not in the photographer’s studio and then turned into postcards. Many of Britain’s early postcards were printed in Germany and colour printing was available via different methods such as Chromo Lithography and Callotype.

A combined process was possible whereby the image was printed with the Callotype process and the colours superimposed by the litho process.

The Photochrom process was also produced by a combination of litho and Callotype processes, but creating a more natural effect and used from the turn of the 20th century.

‘Real Photo’ cards were developed in 1894 using bromide. The best known company using the process in Britain was the Rotary Photographic Co., established in 1901 and who (perhaps unsurprisingly) used rotary presses for printing.

In 1918 the postage rate for postcards doubled and the number of postcards sent in that year was halved. The British love affair with the picture postcard began to wane, but as we look back at these images of Wiltshire from 100 years ago a glimpse of those long lost times re-emerges. Evans was right in his book ‘A social History of Britain in Postcards’ when he stated that: “In the postcard, the social historian possesses fragments of people’s lives. He touches a hundred isolated moments, hears the echoes of voices long stilled, reaches out down the years to grasp at the day-to-day life of Everyman.”


These pictures of the past are still providing enjoyment for us cataloguers (and hopefully those of you who will be viewing our handiwork) in the present!

Julie Davis
Local Studies Assistant

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