Postcards from the Past

The humble postcard is a quintessentially British souvenir. Often picked up casually at the gift shop of a historic house, art gallery or even beach front, it acts as a reminder of places visited and memories made which can be shared with friends and family back home. However, this was not always the intended purpose of the postcard; postcards actually started life as a quick, efficient and convenient means of communication to fill a gap in the communications market of the mid-nineteenth century. As Heinrich von Stephan famously said:

The present form of letter does not yet allow [for] sufficient simplicity and brevity for a large class of communications. It is not simple enough, because notepaper has to be selected and folded, envelopes obtained and closed, and stamp affixed. It is not brief enough, because, if a letter be written, convention necessitates something more than a bare communication. This is irksome both to the sender and the receiver.

Frank Staff, The Picture Postcard and its Origins (London, 1979), p. 44.

First created in 1869 in Austria-Hungary in response to Dr Emmanuel Herrmann’s article ‘A New Way of Correspondence by Post’, the postcard was introduced in Britain in 1870 and immediately became popular as a means of quick, cheap communication.[1] Initially the postcard was conceived as a means of communicating ‘ordinary information’ which did not warrant the writing of a full letter; ‘intimacy would continue to be protected by the envelope’.[2]

While many historians date the postcard’s beginnings to c. 1865, a number of researchers have looked further back to other communication modes for evidence of its pre-history, including fifteenth century playing-cards, eighteenth-century plain and pictorial visiting cards and illustrated notepaper which was popular in the mid-nineteenth century.[3]

The first postcards, commissioned by the British Post Office, were only printed on one side, allowing for messages to be written on the other side. They included an imprinted halfpenny stamp which covered the cost of postage (which was half the price of sending a letter). Just a year after they were first introduced, around 75 million postcards were sent in Britain alone; by 1910 this had risen to 800 million a year.[4]

A picture postcard from 1899 depicting Robert Burns and his cottage and monument in Ayr. Image available under the Creative Commons Licence.

The picture postcards which we are familiar with today were adopted much later in Britain than elsewhere in the world, largely because until 1890 the British Post office held what was in effect a monopoly on the production of picture postcards.[5] In 1894, after ‘persistent agitation’ from postal reformers, the British Post Office finally allowed private firms to publish and sell their own picture postcards, provided they met certain standards for size and design.[6]

During the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries the relation between address, message and image continued to change.[7] It was in 1902 that the reverse of the postcard began to resemble what we know today; this was the first time that a message and the recipient’s address could be written on the divided back of the card.[8]

During the First World War postcards became an essential means of communication; they boosted morale and allowed a those serving in the armed forces to let friends and family know they were safe. Those serving on the Front were even encouraged to send postcards home and given free postage to do so.[9]

One postcard in our collection, sent from Portsmouth in 1916, has a stunning black and white photograph of Herstmonceux Castle with a woman taking tea amongst the ruins. Hastily scrawled in pencil across the front is the note:

Carried this in my pocket, forgot to post this morning. Sorry!

On the reverse, the postcard lets parents know of a safe arrival in Portsmouth.

A postcard showing ‘Hurstmonceux castle near Eastbourne’ sent from Portsmouth in 1916.

Visitors to museums and attractions have been buying postcards as souvenirs since the turn of the twentieth century and this is considered to be the ‘Golden Age’ of the postcard. During the Victorian and Edwardian eras Herstmonceux Castle was little more than a romantic, ivy-covered ruin. However, this did lend the site a certain charm which was capitalised upon by a newly emerging tourist industry. The castle became a popular destination for day trips from Eastbourne with people arriving to take tea in the castle grounds. As James Douglas noted:

It is impossible to gaze upon a ruin without finding a Picture Postcard of it at your elbow.

Staff, Picture Postcard, p. 79.
An early 20th century postcard showing people taking tea in the castle ruins at Herstmonceux.

It was during this phase of the castle’s life that we see numerous postcards being produced, several of which survive in the castle’s archives today. While some remain blank on the reverse, others have messages from sons, mothers and friends.

‘Many Happy Returns on your birthday Bert!’

‘How are you getting on with the tennis?’

‘Just a line to say I am still here. Lovely weather.’

The central theme with all of these postcards is the striking images of the castle that are portrayed, sometimes in black and white photographs and at other times as colourful illustrations. One postcard shows a black and white image of the ruined castle where the kitchen would have once stood, while another showcases an image of the castle in its medieval glory, based on an engraving.

A postcard from 1928 showing an 18th century engraving of the castle.

Today, Herstmonceux Castle still sells the ever-popular postcard in its gift shop and BISC students continue to collect postcards from their travels around the UK. It would seem that despite the ever increasing move to digital forms of communication with WhatsApp, email and Instagram, there is still a place for the picture postcard in our modern world.

Dr Claire Kennan, Research Coordinator and History Lecturer at the BISC.

[1] ‘Postcards’, The Postal Museum, [last accessed 10/02/22]; Esther Milne, Letters, Postcards and Email: Technologies of Presence (Taylor & Francis, 2010), p. 104.

[2] Milne, Letters, Postcards and Email, p. 104.

[3] Ibid,p. 93.

[4] ‘Postcards’, The Postal Museum.

[5] Milne, Letters, Postcards and Email, p. 105.

[6] Ibid, p. 106.

[7] Ibid.

[8] ‘Postcards’, The Postal Museum.

[9] Ibid.

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