Christina Broom: The Business of Postcards

By guest on 6 Jul 2015
Christina Broom with her postcards stall at the Women’s War Work Exhibition, 1916

Christina Broom with her postcards stall at the Women’s War Work Exhibition, 1916

Against the leading Edwardian women photographers, Broom’s entrée to postcard production stood out as a unique business venture. She turned to producing picture postcards just as they were becoming a popular cultural phenomenon. Although pre-stamped official government postcards had been available for sending messages in Britain since 1870, the picture postcard offered a product that was original, functional and commercial.

In 1902, under pressure from private enterprises and the general public, the British postal service authorized the divided-back card that left one side for short messages and a mailing address, and the reverse for an illustration. The standard size 5½ inch × 3½ inch card cost a halfpenny to mail compared to one penny for a letter, the mailing cost contributing to its popularity. Even if some people were reluctant to leave an open message that others could potentially read, the picture postcards still rapidly gained an accepting audience both for communication and for their prospective collectability. One could write a brief note to a friend in the morning and, with the frequency of mail delivery, they would receive their card later that same day. These factors opened the market for private postcard publishers, such as Mrs Broom.

Countless postcard manufacturers of various magnitude and capacity emerged on the scene, and their businesses survived for equally varied lengths of time. Likewise, these companies had a diverse range of specialties. The more well-known producers of British postcards included Bamforth & Co., the Daily Mail, Raphael Tuck & Sons and Valentine & Sons. Bamforth, of Holmfirth in Yorkshire, initially gained fame for their production of narrative lantern slides. Along these same lines, they developed postcards that utilized a narrative format incorporating models to enact the roles. Specialists in sentiment, Bamforth produced series that illustrated songs and hymns, many humorous series, and patriotic and sentimental cards, especially during the First World War. The ‘song cards’ were often sold in sets of three or four, bearing the words to a well-known song or hymn (one verse to each card).

Raphael Tuck & Sons of London were well-established art publishers to Queen Victoria when the picture postcard developed. In July 1900 they advertised their first numbered series, ‘12 London Views’, a theme which was expanded to 48 views of London and the Thames. Royal, political and military themes likewise featured among these early series, produced in chromolithography, an inexpensive colour-printing process. Valentine & Sons of Dundee, Scotland, another large firm with an output similar to that of Tuck & Sons, began producing postcards in 1897. Valentine’s specialty was photographic view cards covering the whole of the British Isles. The firms Bamforth, Tuck and Valentine published in a number of postcard formats including coloured reproductions of artists’ drawings and real photographic postcards toned in black and white or sepia, or hand-tinted.

During the First World War, in September 1916, the Daily Mail began selling its ‘Battle Postcards’ which reproduced photographs of fighting on the Western Front taken by official war photographers. Sold in sets of eight cards, the series, 20 sets in total, continued until the spring of 1917.28 Views of weapons, military leaders and life on the battle front revealed the hardships of the Great War in graphic detail and were in popular demand at the time of production. Although early postcard historians have accounted for a number of these existing publishers, Mrs Broom’s information doesn’t appear in their scholarship, even though her photographs were reproduced as illustrations in their text. Yet Broom became the most prolific female publisher of picture postcards in Great Britain, if not in the Western world. Still, her two-person business and at-home production was minor in comparison to the giant postcard publishers of the day who had the printing capacity for large runs. According to postcard historian Richard Carline, ‘One publisher alone claimed he had issued forty-three million cards in one year.’

Broom’s small editions of real photographic postcards were printed chemically in the darkroom. She made direct contact prints from glass plate negatives on sensitized postcard stock. The locations of the scenes, handwritten on the negatives, appear as white text on the finished prints, which are black and white or sepia toned. Additionally, her early cards are numbered and include ‘Broom’ on the front; with later editions her name and address are stamped on the reverse. These postcards filled a niche market because they were real photographs of sights and scenes that resonated with Britons.

Margaret Denny, 19th century photography specialist

This is an excerpt from Soldiers and Suffragettes: The Photography of Christina Broom, the accompanying book to the Museum of London Docklands’ free exhibition – which runs between 19 June – 1 November 2015.

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