"The world before us is a postcard, and I imagine the story we are writing on it." – Mary E. Pearson, 'The Miles Between', 2009.

Our wonderful heritage volunteers, Rosemary and Richard, shine a light on the 'golden age' of postcards and our extensive collection of Woking views. Long before e-mail, smartphones and video calls, postcards were an easy, quick and cheap form of communication. Since lockdown many things have seen a revival as is the case with jigsaws, diary-keeping, and also postcards.

A brief history

The first commercially produced postcard dates back to 1861 Philadelphia, when John P. Charlton created a blank card intended to carry the address on one side and a message on the other. He bowed out in 1873 when the United States Postal Service began to issue its own postal cards. A postal card is one where the postal authority has included and shown the cost of postage, while a postcard needs a stamp in order to be mailed. 

Lipman Cards. 1861-1872, invented by John P. Charlton

Some artists had taken up the challenge of putting their own art on a card, and even as early as 1840 Theodore Hook, of Fulham, had made a satirical painting of post office clerks on a card and posted it to himself with a Penny Black stamp. This unique card was sold in 2002 to a Latvian collector for £31,750.

Postcards in the United Kingdom

The first postal cards in the United Kingdom were published by the Post Office, blank on both sides, with a pre-printed halfpenny (½ d) stamp. In 1894 the Royal Mail gave permission for firms to issue postcards which prompted the first picture postcard to appear.

It was not until 1902 that the Post Office allowed anything other than the address to be written on the side without the picture, so early picture postcards often left space, albeit quite small, for a message to be written around the picture.  The new regulations heralded the 'divided back' postcard, where a message covering half the address side could be written. This change led to the 'golden age' of the postcard.

Beachy Head Lighthouse, 1914

Back then, postcards frequently served as a means to send messages to friends: cheap to buy and to post, and often delivered on the day, people could invite friends over for tea, discuss their health or enquire about others. The cost of ½ d for postage encouraged their use for short messages, the ½ d of the period 1902–1918 equates to 25p today.

Aside from town views, landscapes and seascapes, postcards also depicted flowers or pets, innocent children and comic characters, religious themes, and, during WWI, some postcards showed angels guarding soldiers at the front.

An early Donald McGill postcard, c. 1921

The Lightbox Heritage Collection

One of the glories of The Lightbox Heritage Collection is its holdings of postcards. As well as several embroidered ones sent from France during WWI, it holds a comprehensive collection of local views.

Some, as is the one Guilford Road, Mayford, do make one wonder why such views were taken and why they were bought. Yet they were local to the sender and more interesting than just a blank card – and nowadays form a valuable guide to how the town and its suburbs used to look.

Mayford before the roundabout, 1950s

One postcard we have just come across and bought for The Lightbox is a photograph of a school play, possibly of Westfield School, posted by Frances Stacey, from Saunders Lane, Mayford, to her aunt in Alton to greet her for the new year of 1912. This, like many others, is printed as a postcard, but not for general sale. Locally, several stationers at the time produced their own cards, or sold Frith cards under licence. 

Recent purchase of a postcard showing a school play, 1914

In Woking, there were several photographic studios who also issued cards – the earliest was Patrick Delgarno of 26 Chertsey Road, who issued a small calling card of Zouche’s Tower in its last days before its collapse in 1867.  Wildman in Maybury Road, who was succeeded by Sidney Francis, issued a set of postcards of Empire Day celebrations in Woking in 1909 and 1912.

Patrick Delgarno's view of Zouche's tower, c 1867

Compared to the output of the 'golden age' there are only about five or six views of Woking from the 1970s onward as other means will have recorded the town’s development.

Which brings us to…

Nowadays, if postcards are sent at all, they are usually from holiday destinations at home or abroad, with vast e-cards alternatives and memes available online for digital natives.

While on lockdown, two creatives have crowd-sourced and designed a vintage-inspired postcard series that shines a light on homes from across the world during quarantine. "Traditional postcards focus on landmarks, tourist attractions and views, so we decided the more modern approach to this is looking out at these same things but through our windows."

What would your postcard from home look like? Why not try creating one yourself? Share your postcards with us via social media.

For more ways to stay creative at home, browse our blog.