More Than Pictures and Captions: Wartime Postcard Media Overview

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Originally purposed as platforms for correspondence fit for collection, picture postcards have taken on new functions in times of war. To twenty-first century learners, picture postcards can provide valuable insight into the period of their creation and contextual concepts of national identity and conflict. By understanding the original purposes of these pieces and seeing how they were applied to serve political needs during international conflict, contemporary learners can recognize the use and circulation of wartime propaganda during the First World War.

In the period preceding the First World War, postcard media was reaching its peak. In the decades leading up to the conflict in Western Europe, the production and use of postcards reached an all time high during years of temporary regional peacetime in the 1880s and 1890s [Fraser]. Writing on the development of political postcard media in Europe, John Fraser states, “The picture postcard was possibly the great vehicle for message of the new urban proletariat between 1900 and 1914. It’s small size meant no great effort need to expended and no great amount of time consumed in writing. Its cheapness in cost and postage put it within the means of most working people. And the speed and frequency of postal deliveries then guaranteed the usefulness of the postcard.” [John Fraser, Propaganda on the Picture Postcard, pg 39]. Although more often printed in mass quantities, the creation of personalized portrait postcards was made available through the widened availability of studio portrait photography. A media platform which took on new uses and applications with the progression of the twentieth century, the picture postcard has shown to be more than pictures and captions

By the dawn of the First World War in 1914, the picture postcard became an obvious contender for platforms to circulate propaganda – a function, which Fraser writes, was enacted as early as the late nineteenth century. Within the context of the First World War, picture postcards accomplished an important task – providing easy and affordable communication between soldiers at war and Home Front [Fraser, 1980]. Articulating the multifaceted use of the picture postcard in the context of the First World War, Fraser continues, “The First World War gave a great stimulus to the propaganda postcard…The picture postcard proved an ideal vehicle for propaganda: cheap, easy to handle, and with an instant visual appeal so that it was easily appreciated, more particularly by those who were illiterate.” [John Fraser, Propaganda on the Picture Postcard, pg 42]. Excluding portrait postcards with limited circulation, politically inclined picture postcards in the period surrounding the First World War often shared similar themes and characteristics. On the side of the postcard opposite to that intended for postage information and a personal message from the sender, the postcard featured a studio photograph displaying a figure against a simulated environment through the use of a painted backdrop, accompanied by a succinct printed message. During times of conflict, the images and messages presented by picture postcards were often highly strategic – creating a political message through the use of symbolic objects and nationalistically charged choice of words. By interpreting these pieces in context, twenty-first century learners may uncover key information regarding the development and application of wartime postcard media during the First World War.

To contemporary learners, wartime picture postcards combine words and images to create powerful insight into wartime media culture. Outside of their originally intended purpose of widely available pieces of illustrated correspondence, picture postcards of the First World War combine powerful symbols of national identity and unity to achieve a far reaching political message during wartime; historian Jon D. Carlson stating in 2009, “Postcards can serve a number of sociopolitical purposes, including political satire and propaganda, and therefore provide a valuable window into the mentality and perceptions of the age in which the cards were produced and used.” [Carlson, 2009]. Through interpretation and collection, we in the twenty-first century can begin to understand major themes within political print media of the First World War. 

Suggested Reading:

  1. John Fraser, Propaganda on the Picture Postcard (Oxford Art Journal: Vol. 3, No. 2, Propaganda (Oct., 1980), pp. 39-47, Oxford University Press)
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