And furthermore ...

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Friday, 9 January 2015


A (very) brief history of typography, design and real photo postcards
“Design can be art. Design can be aesthetics. Design is so simple, that's why it is so complicated.” 
Paul Rand

A statistic from 1903 tells us that an average of 1 446 938 postcards were mailed in Germany every day that year (You have to love German precision). Basic maths tells us that was in the vicinity of 376 203 880 for that year, and given a certain percent of the population of 56 000 000 were too old, too young or had no interest, clearly some people were very busy. Not all the postcards were photographic but 1903 was also the year that the real photographic postcard emerged as the latest fashion in mail culture. It seems that images of stage actresses were the most popular but so were postcards that amateur photographers made themselves, and then there were images like these, where studios and publishers took current ideas in design and transformed them into photographs. It’s not hard to see why: the only reasons a studio wouldn’t embrace the new process were that it was too expensive or that the studio had established some success with the half-tone process, and neither made much sense businesswise considering those figures from Germany. This card with its obvious religious message comes from an unidentified studio. Though the message is in French the studio could have been based in Germany: studios were never constrained by political boundaries. It could have been running a profitable line in soft porn images as well. With the kind of money involved in the photographic postcard trade, it paid to be pragmatic. If there were a market across the border for Catholic imagery a hard headed Lutheran in Berlin would have no trouble responding to it.

John Beagles & Co was one of the most prolific publishers of photographic postcards in Britain up to the 1930s and specialized in stage stars. This was published before World War 1 so the idea of remembrance is uncertain. The tulips (?) generally refer to love – which makes sense in an image filled with beautiful women – and the horseshoe of course means luck, but ‘remembrance’ normally implies mourning and while it wouldn’t be strange to publish a series of cards intended to be sent to the recently bereaved it would be odd to design such a card filled with a collage of famous actresses. Possibly it refers to John Beagles himself, who died in 1909. The company could have produced a series commemorating its founder showing portraits from some of its best known cards.

 Barnstaple is a small town in Devon, which at the beginning of the last century only had a developing reputation as a tourist destination. The postcard was published by J. Welch & Sons of Portsmouth. If the publishers were using templates sourced from elsewhere they may have had little to do with the design of the finished product and may not have even supplied the scenes of the town. The motifs could have been used for any town in Britain and it is also possible that the letters with their collages of women and girls were created elsewhere. The price for a photographic postcard in England was a penny and even though some are on record as selling in the hundreds of thousands, it’s unlikely that Welch & Sons would invest any time on the typography for a card selling in small town Barnstaple. Note the collage of the girls and women. It is a feature that can always date a postcard to being pre World War 1; not because the war had anything to do with it but because fashions changed.

 No account of typography and design in photo postcards can be complete without examples from the Reutlinger studio. They produced the most sophisticated examples and dominated the French market. A comparison with the Barnstaple card is enough to show why. Even though the studio mass produced images and recycled the photographs - this portrait of Gilda D’Arthy would appear on at least half a dozen other designs - there was always a sense that if the postcard wasn’t unique it was different. This comes from a series employing the Art Nouveau typography and featuring a woman against the backdrop of a lake. Together the letters spell out ‘Reutlinger’ and the idea was for people to collect the full set. Another statistic from 1903 indicates that of the nearly 200 000 000 postcards bought in Britain that year, only a quarter were posted. The real market lay with collectors and the trick was to make sure they always returned to buy more. 

 Postmarked 1930 but most likely produced in the 1920s, this Freudian double entendre urging Dad to use his cane and repopulate France was a response to the huge loss of life in the First World War and the 1918 flu epidemic, which together accounted for over two million deaths, or around five percent of the population. Even before the turn of the century, France’s population had been considered too low for full economic prosperity. It wouldn’t fully stabilize until the 1960s, when with independence millions of immigrants from former colonies in Africa and the Middle East arrived. We don’t know how successful this campaign was but it’s doubtful Mum would have been too thrilled at the prospect of thirteen children. 

 The Rose Stereograph Company was founded in Melbourne in the 1880s by George Rose, a man who realized that for a stereographic company to thrive it needed international scenes and the best way to get them was to do the travelling himself. By the 1920s the market for stereographs was in decline and the company turned to producing postcards. Mostly, it appears, the postcards were standard topographical scenes but this is an inspired example of what could be achieved with a little imagination. I can’t say I’ve seen anything else quite like it and the inclusion of the waratah with the eucalyptus flowers suggests the template may have been particular to the company and not sourced from elsewhere. Note the sign on the building at the right for Martin and Pleasance Homeopathic Pharmacy. Like the Rose Postcard Company, it is still in business.  

 From the 1930s onwards the strongest challenge to the real photo postcard came from brightly coloured linen cards and in the U.S the Curt Teich Company ruled that roost. There’s good research on the company with stories of a small army of salesmen travelling desert highways and offering lonely gas stations and motels such tempting ideas as the addition of a couple of girls in bikinis to the image at little extra cost. The large letter linen postcard with the name of the place, town or city writ large is a distinctly American vernacular. Large letter photo postcards are not as common though in some ways they are much better. The photos in this postcard were taken by the Nevada Photo Service but we are more interested in the illustrations. Lew Hymek was a newspaper cartoonist in Reno during the 1930s and 40s, the era when the town suddenly boomed on account of relaxed gambling, and divorce laws before mob town Las Vegas took all the attention. Obviously there was a collaboration between Hymek and Lawrence Engel, who operated the Nevada Photo Service, and because this is a photographic postcard it could have been produced and published by the Nevada Photo Service. A linen card version would need to be sent to somewhere like Curt Teich that had the printing technology. This is better than a linen card because it displays Hymek’s skills and it has that cowboy glamour we associate with Reno when North Virginia St was still worth visiting.