Inside the Collection

Australian Pictorial Postcards

Postcard, young men with snowmen, addressed to Mrs. W. Hall, West Maitland, New South Wales, photographic print, Australia, 1905
Postcard, young men with snowmen, addressed to Mrs. W. Hall, West Maitland, New South Wales, photographic print, Australia, 1905

‘In these degenerate days of postcards and typewriters letter writing has become for many almost a lost art and Lord Chesterfield’s ‘Letters to His Son’ would probably nowadays be dictated to a shorthand writer transcribed on a billboard and sent through the post …’ The Sydney Morning Herald, 30 January 1895.

Although critical of the picture postcard trade the above quotation in fact makes it clear why they were so popular. Not only were they cheap to buy, and quick to be delivered, the limited space for writing democratised the educated and elitist letter writing styles that preceded it. The other major factor in ensuring their popularity was the mass production of millions of cards from the printing presses in Austria and Germany, where the trade in pictorial postcards had begun in 1869.

The craze for collecting picture postcards in the British Empire appears to have occurred in the wake of the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1889. One of the first picture postcard companies which offered British views was set up by a 17 year old teenager Evelyn Wrench. His idea for the company, Messrs. Wrench and Co., began while on holiday on Germany with his parents in 1900. Here he saw how established the picture postcard trade was and so arranged for a small run of English cards to be printed by a firm in Saxony after he returned to England. These did so well he soon repeated his orders and expanded his business to the point he was employing 100 people and taking orders for over 5000.00 pounds a month. Unfortunately his inexperience as a businessman and the success of the operation meant he was over extended and when he failed to raise capital the business collapsed.

The first postcards were introduced to Australia in by the New South Wales Government in December 1875, but while decorated with a bamboo border they could not be referred to as pictorial postcards. These cards appeared first as decorative vignettes in the late 1880s, before the New South Wales Government Printing Office produced a series of pictorial cards in 1898. Most of these were government issue and had pre-printed stamps on the address side and an image on the front.

Postcard, Lady Carrington Drive, National Park, photo mechanical print, published by Kerry and Co., Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, 1906

In 1895 the Victorian Government gave permission for the use privately printed postcards under the following conditions, ‘… they must be made of ordinary cardboard not thicker than the material used for the official postcard, and measure not less than l inch x 3 inch nor more than 5 ¼ x 3 ¼ inches, and that there be nothing affixed, written, or otherwise impressed on the front thereof except the address and stamps in payment of postage. On the reverse side any communication may be written or printed but nothing whatever can be attached except adhesive stamps in payment of stamp duty.’

This meant the earlier cards had an undivided back with the message often written next to the image. These kinds of cards, particularly those with real photographs on them are highly sought after by collectors. The picture postcard format we are more familiar with appeared in 1905 when the Australian Postal Service allowed the cards to be divided on the back. This allowed the address and the message to be put on the back and the pictorial image to take up the entire other side.

The craze for collecting postcards in Australia really started around this date and remained in vogue until soon after the First World War. From this period untile the early 1920 collecting became less popular as postal charges increased and telephones became a more popular means for exchanging information.

by Geoff Barker, Curatorial

The Argus, Saturday 2 June 1934
The Sydney Morning Herald, 30 January 1895
Picture Postcards in Australia, David Cook, 1985
The Argus, 6 April 1895

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