How I hate all those “weather terrific, wish you were here” kind of picture postcards from friends soaking up the sun. It’s probably because I haven’t had a summer holiday for a couple of years now.
I suppose there’s one way of having the last laugh: if I stash away all the cards I get sent and keep them long enough, one day they might be worth enough to buy a week in Rhyl. Not for me, though, more like my children or, perhaps their children.
To be honest, I’ve never fancied collecting old picture postcards either. But for every one like me, there’s probably a thousand deltiologists (postcard collectors) who think of nothing else. When some can change hands for £200 or more apiece, it’s clearly big business nowadays.
The first time postcards appeared in anything like a commercial form was in 1869, following a suggestion by German statesman Dr. Heinrich von Stephan. His idea was to use the pre-paid cards as a means of military communication, but it was Austria that seized on the idea first, although the former country was first to introduce colour printing and photographic views.
America started sending postcards following their introduction at the Chicago World Fair of 1893. Britain’s first postcards were produced and sold by the postoffice in 1870, ready-printed with a halfpenny stamp which would take them anywhere in Britain. However, the home industry blossomed once the Post Office relaxed rules governing the size of postcards in 1894. As a result, the first quarter of the 20th century emerged as the Golden Age of the art form.
Holiday resorts and picture postcards have been linked inextricably for years, while comic postcards by such artists as Donald McGill are something truly British. However, old picture postcards often provide a fascinating record of the development of villages, towns and cities, making them invaluable to the social historian. And cards like these can usually be picked for small money.
Some of the most beautiful cards were produced by the London firm of Raphael Tuck. Known as oilettes, the cards were miniature reproductions of paintings of well known artists of the day. The most sought after these days show country scenes by Henry Payne. A set of six might fetch £75 or more.
Not quite so pleasant, but still highly sought after, are the so-called “fantasy head” cards that first appeared in about 1910. These often show babies emerging from cabbages or growing on trees, the infants sometimes with skeletons’ heads. Prices range from £10 to £30 apiece.
Another favourite among collectors is the range of Bamford Song and Hymn cards, beautifully printed and steeped in sentiment. They were produced in sets of three or four and were sent in their hundreds by wives and sweethearts to soldiers serving in the trenches in the First World War. Approximately 2,000 sets were issued and they are still relatively common with the result that prices range from about £10-£15 for a set of three.
In return, the troops sent back cards of their own, and very special they were too in my opinion, in fact, these are the only postcards I would collect personally. They were embroidered in silk, on machines tended by French and Belgian women and children, forced into the work in order to earn enough to buy food while their men were away at the Front.
Delightful and patriotic colours were used with designs incorporating dates, regimental mottoes and sentimental messages such as: “To my dear mother/wife/sweetheart”; “I’m thinking of you”; “I’m lonely without you”; “From your soldier boy” and many more. Some even had tiny silken pouches inside which was for a card with a more personal message.
Still found easily enough at collectors’ fairs, their average price is between £10-15. Problem is finding clean examples, which are well worth the extra. My own small collection of about half a dozen look smashing framed together and hung on the wall like a picture.
British troops on the other hand purchased naughty, glamorous and erotic postcards which were something of a speciality in France. Artists such as Leonnec and Rocher now command prices up to £50 for good examples of their work as opposed to the small change paid for them in 1914-18.
Advertising postcards are another area of strong collector interest, one of the best known being the Shell Motor Spirit “poster” cards of 1905-1910. The most famous shows a boy pouring Shell petrol into a car’s radiator and is titled “Helping Father. The right thing in the wrong place!”
Prices vary from £40-£60 apiece for the real thing, but one word of warning about such expensive knickknacks: the Shell cards, for example, were reproduced by the company between 1950-1970 and it has been known for the unscrupulous to pass off a later copy as an original. It has even been known for rogues to split an old but worthless postcard lengthways in order to paste its reverse on to the back of a reproduction card, thus transferring to the fake the early postmark and stamp.
Of all promotional cards, the cigarette card has been most diligently collected. It first appeared in the 1880s, initially as a way of strengthening the packet, but manufacturers soon realised its value as a marketing tool. Wills and Players began the tend in Britain by printing miniature versions of their advertisements. Once the idea caught on the card became almost as vital a factor as the quality of the tobacco.
Illustrations varied from ships, cats and birds’ eggs to actresses, footballers and optical illusions. Their heyday in the 1920s brought increasingly fanciful objects inserted to entice the buyer including metallic cards, stereoscopic picture cards and even miniature gramaphone record cards.
Collectors could get albums to keep their cards in, or use special mounts for framing and displaying a set.
Many sets are inexpensive as so many were saved. However the price of a scarce set can be as much as £10,000 or more For example the Taddy’s clowns from the 1920s, but beware of forgeries: only 15 genuine sets exist, as the company closed down when the set was still in preparation.
Individual cards can also be valuable if they are rare. The record price of US $451,000! was realised by a 1910 card with a picture of American baseball player Honus Wagner and an advertisement for Piedmont cigarettes. Soon after it was issued Wagner asked for the card to be withdrawn, as he disapproved of smoking. How prophetic was he, in an era where smoking was seen as healthy and fashionable? Only 40 of those cards now survive, of which only two have the Piedmont advertisement.
Cigarette cards died out with the outbreak of war in 1939.
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