Postcards in a digital age

By anna sparham on 3 Sep 2015

Coldstream Guards looking through Christina Broom’s postcards for sale, Chelsea Barracks, 1906

Coldstream Guards looking through Christina Broom’s postcards for sale, Chelsea Barracks, 1906

This summer, postcards have been a hot topic in my house. In June I installed Soldiers and Suffragettes; the exhibition exploring the life and work of photographer and postcard publisher Christina Broom, including over 100 vintage postcards.

In July, with the exhibition up and running I went on holiday with my young children. The suggestion of sending postcards back home to their friends arose. A great idea I thought, and the kids were keen on the novelty.

In Christina Broom’s heyday, the picture postcard was at an all-time peak in popularity – the golden age for buying these cheap photographs and sending them to friends and family. It had fast become an integral way of communicating, with up to 10 postal deliveries a day in London. People could send a postcard in the morning and have a reply in the afternoon. In 1903 Broom seized upon this emerging cultural phenomenon when she first picked up a camera. Over 35 years Broom created and published photographic postcards to order, hand printing them at home in the darkroom with the incredible assistance of her daughter Winnie.

In 1904 Broom secured a uniquely privileged position, whereby she could visit the army barracks of the Household Division whenever she liked to photograph the King’s Guards. Posing in groups or individually for Broom’s camera, the soldiers would then buy numerous printed postcards.

An installation shot from A Woman Amongst Men section of the Soldiers and Suffragettes Exhibition

An installation shot from A Woman Amongst Men section of the Soldiers and Suffragettes Exhibition

In exchange for tuppence, soldiers received a hand-printed postcard together with an envelope for posting, should they want to include a longer letter, intending the photographs as mementos for the family album. From the highest of ranks, Broom was even credited with boosting recruitment to the Guards, thanks to her photographs of healthy and happy looking soldiers, which encouraged others back home to join the army.

With the outbreak of the First World War, Broom’s business in recording the soldiers flourished further. Her postcards show us now what life was like for these soldiers on the home front. It would be so wonderful to hear about any such Broom vintage postcards surviving in family collections from this period and any associated stories of the sitters. Go check those family albums.

I’m thrilled that on display in the exhibition we have been able to show Winnie Broom’s 1910 order book, brought over on loan from the Harry Ransom Centre, University of Texas. It details the daily variety of subjects Broom was photographing and printing to order as postcards, from Suffragettes to the University boat race. In the first week of August 1910 alone, Winnie printed a whopping 459 postcards by hand.

Vintage postcard from collection showing The WSPU Historical Pageant of the Women’s Coronation Procession, 17 June 1911

Vintage postcard from collection showing The WSPU Historical Pageant of the Women’s Coronation Procession,
17 June 1911

People still love to purchase postcards – from exhibitions, places of interest, specialist postcard fairs – bought as souvenirs or to add to a budding collection. Broom’s suffrage postcards are particularly sought after. However, we now only post tiny fractions of the numbers we did in the first quarter of the 20th century; emails, texts and social media largely replacing the need. My children did buy their postcards – 3 each. We even wrote them together, but we didn’t go that extra mile of finding stamps and actually posting them. Perhaps next time we should embrace technology and download a postcard App.

Anna Sparham, Curator of Photographs

Download the Museum of London Postcard App to create and send postcards with a personalised message. Curated ranges include a collection of Christina Broom postcard images.

 

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