A Postcard is better!!

Welcome to the first “Cartoons, Close-ups” Blog!

I am a dress historian, which means I look at history through the clothing worn by women, specifically. I am fascinated by the period just before, during and, after the First World War because of the questions being raised in British society about the role of women. The involvement of women in politics, work opportunities and their demands for ‘independence’ were observed and reflected in debates and representations of fashion, gender and respectability. The reality, however, was less dramatic, especially for working-class women. I am fascinated by the contradictions in society and how working-class women juggled expectations of respectability, work versus homelife, motherhood and duty, survival and bettering oneself.

My PhD thesis researched the specific range of workwear worn by female munition workers in Britain between 1914-1918. I was fascinated by the shock and disgust that was expressed over the sight of women wearing trousers, which are now regarded as acceptable and practical garments worn by women in 21st Century Britain. Since 2014 I have been collecting First World War portrait postcards and cartoons, which depict trouser wearing Munitionettes, as female munition workers were nicknamed. Taking inspiration from the descriptive noun ‘Suffragette’, which was applied to those involved in the pre-war campaign for the women’s vote, the noun ‘Munitionette’ first appeared in print in The Sphere in 1915. I’ve christened this Blog site Cartoons, Close-ups after the cartoon and photographic postcards that I have collected, examples of both I’m going to share with you.

Now Look pleasant!

Portrait photography was particularly popular at this time. Recording yourself and sending it to sweethearts or male relatives fighting at the Front was encouraged in cartoons and on postcards. See Figure 2 which shows a cartoon of a photographer encouraging a soldier in uniform to look his best! Photographic studios featured prominently on high streets across the country and with the introduction of postcard backing, effectively turning the photograph into a postcard, the cost of having one’s portrait captured became much cheaper.[1] An article in the Yorkshire Evening Post, 31st October 1916, detailed the ‘new craze’ among female munition workers to have their photographs taken. Reporting that female munition workers ‘see in the new and cheap photograph a means of obtaining a permanent record of how they “did their bit” in the great war….’[2] The article goes on to report of one Leeds photographer charging 1s 3d and 1s 9d for a dozen copies acknowledging that friends may have clubbed together to share the cost.[3] The importance of having one’s portrait taken and exchanging these cards with sweethearts, friends and family was clearly common practice. Suggestions on how to have a perfect photograph taken as a lovely memento for the soldier sweetheart to take to the front, appeared in an article in Home Notes, June 10, 1916:

“I want a really good photo of you, dear, to take out there with me” is the cry of every soldier just leaving for the Front “and I won’t be put off with any cheap postcard affair – let’s have something really like you.” …When a man says that of course he means “something that is really like you at your best”. So, do please take care that the photographer catches you in one of your happiest moments.[4]

Where a dedication to a relative or friend has been written on the reverse of these postcards, the brief but sentimental exchange of feelings, not only suggests a desire to preserve one’s unusual appearance, but it also contains the implicit desire to present oneself at one’s best, as the cartoons on the postcard below demonstrates. (Figures 1).

Figure 1: Author’s own postcard.

A postcard’s better!

The picture postcard was a hugely successful form of mass communication at the beginning of the twentieth century. According to Esther Milne in her book Letters, Postcards, Emails: technologies of presence, the British postcard market was slower to develop than that of its European neighbours, in particular Germany.[5] This was mainly because of the strict Post Office Regulations in England, that had, until the late 1890s, maintained a monopoly over the production of picture postcards. A change in the Post Office’s regulations allowing pictures on one side and the cost of postage starting off at half a penny, meant it was an affordable means of mass communication with as many as six deliveries per day.[6] James Taylor has explained the scale of postal deliveries to and from the Front during the War, estimating that the number of items handled on a daily basis by the Post Office amounted to over 2 billion a day. Guus de Vries has calculated that at least 30 billion postcards were sent by, or received by, soldiers on the Front over the period of the War.[9] This figure does not include the domestic market. In a recent book Comics and the World Wars: A Cultural Record the authors describe humour as being ‘dependent upon the society in which it exists, adapting and evolving with it..’ reflecting the discourses of a particular moment in time.[10]

Figure 2: Author’s own postcard

Postcards also became very sought after as collectors’ items and souvenirs and were not only sent as communications in their own right but were included with letters:

of these the comic artist-drawn cards counted for a significant proportion, running into millions. In addition, there were millions of cards that were also acquired not for posting but to be added to a personal collection, for exchange or to be given as a gift in person.[7]

James Taylor argues that postcards were not only a form of whimsical communication but they also formed a part of the propaganda activities to encourage the Nation’s continued support of the war, alongside the posters, marching bands, films, lectures, music-hall and theatrical performances, rousing speeches held at rallies as well as town processions and gala days.[8] 

Annebella Pollen has written about the cruel humour contained in Victorian Vinegar Valentine cards, where insults are explicitly expressed.[11] The cartoon postcard beneath features two unmarried women, one a seemingly middle aged spinster who is reading from a  letter. Miss Dainty is unforgivingly catty in her response to the romantic anecdote that Miss Dial’s photograph saved her soldier sweetheart. The difference in age is reinforced by the shorter dress worn by Miss Dainty, which is the height of fashion as opposed to the longer, more modest outfit of Miss Dial. The sender of the card does not refer to the joke cartoon merely telling her daughter that they travelled to Betws-y-Coed, in Wales, from Llandudno by motor bus that day! 

Figure 3: Author’s own postcard

Postcards are commercial items and the artists designed them to be eye-catching through colourful designs and humour. The artists played with topics, which featured concerns prevalent in public debates. These recognisable tropes and commentaries enabled the buyer and recipient to share the joke and experience the camaraderie required by the nation during the war. Postcards were also a quick and public means of communication, so that much like the way we use modern text messaging, the notes are often brief and mostly discuss travel plans, comments on the weather only occasionally acknowledging the cartoon content. In my next blog I’m going to share with you some of the heartwarming postcards sent by serving soldiers to their children back in ‘Blighty.’ 

I hope you have enjoyed this very brief introduction that I will continue to share with you over future blog posts.


Chapman, Jane, Anna Hoyles, Andrew Kerr and Adam Sheriff, Comics and the World Wars: A Cultural Record. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. Print. 

De Vries, Guus, The Great War through picture postcards. Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Military, 2016. Print

Milne, Esther, Letters, Postcards, Emails: technologies of presence. Abingdon: Routledge, 2010. Print.

Pollen, Annebella, ”Love Letters and Hate mail: Victorian Vinegar Valentines”, 8 September 2014 https://brightonmuseums.org.uk/discover/2014/09/08/love-letters-and-hate-mail-victorian-vinegar-valentines/

Richardson, Jennifer, Female Munition Workers’ Workwear in Britain, 1914-1918:

A Visual and Material Culture Analysis. Unpublished PhD, University of Brighton, 2019

Taylor, James, Pack up your troubles: How Humorous Postcards Helped to Win World War 1. London: Conway, 2016. Kindle.

[1] Evidence that postcard photographs cost 2/4d each has been found on a high street photographer’s shop window in Swindon from 1906 https://www.flickr.com/photos/swindonlocal/7428065156/in/photostream/ and in an advertisement in a regimental magazine for a photographer in Eastbourne. The Sussex Patrol, Incorporating the Sussex Signal; Dec 1, 1916; 1, 7; Trench Journals and Unit Magazines of the First World War pg. 0 Imperial War Museum, London at 3/- per dozen.

[2] The Girls’ Record of their War Work. Photographs in munition suits.” Yorkshire Evening Post 31st October 1916, p.5

[3] Ibid

[4] “A Portrait for you Soldier Boy”, Home Notes, No 1170, Vol XC, 10th June 1916, Print. p. 403

[5] Milne, Esther, Letters, Postcards, Emails: technologies of presence. Abingdon: Routledge, 2010. Print. p.105.  

[6] tp://www.lancaster.ac.uk/fass/projects/EVIIpc/index.php Accessed 3.10.14 

[7] Taylor, J (2016) Loc.211

[8] Ibid (2016) Loc. Loc.1266 

[9] De Vries (2016) p.11

[10] Chapman, Hoyles, Kerr and Sheriff (2015) p.37

[11] Pollen, Annebella, ”Love Letters and Hate mail: Victorian Vinegar Valentines”, 8 September 2014 https://brightonmuseums.org.uk/discover/2014/09/08/love-letters-and-hate-mail-victorian-vinegar-valentines/