Tuesday, March 10, 2015

A brief history of naughty postcards

The first known printed picture postcard, with an image on one side, was created in France in 1870 at a soldiers’ camp, Camp Conlie by Léon Besnardeau (1829–1914). Besnardeau combined emblematic images of piles of armaments on either side of a scroll topped by the arms of the Duchy of Brittany and the inscription "War of 1870". There was no space for stamps and no evidence the cards were ever posted without envelopes.

After the Paris Exhibition of 1889 there was a fad for art nude postcards with Paris the hub of "fin de siècle." The subject matter alone prevented public display and a clandestine ‘dirty postcard culture’ developed. This spread to other parts of the world especially after the First World War.

The Royal Mail granted permission to British publishers to manufacture and distribute picture postcards in 1894. The first UK picture cards were published by ETW Dennis of Scarborough. Early postcards featured pictures of landmarks, scenic views, photographs or drawings of celebrities. Once steam locomotives were available and seaside trips became affordable then souvenir postcards became popular.

In the 19th century the use of sexual innuendo was a way of entertaining older adults without offending public morals or censorship laws in live theatre. Comic singers thrived on playing on a possibly sexual interpretation of an otherwise innocent utterance. These were especially common in popular music hall songs and mild sexual innuendo acquired a specific meaning i.e. a "risqué" double entendre . Typically one of the interpretations is rather obvious whereas the other is more subtle. By simply changing of the pronunciation of a word the comic could also make a statement sound vulgar e.g. innuendo to "in-your-endo". Mild sexual innuendo became the staple of British off the peer shows and pantomime. In the 20th century a crackdown on lewdness fell to the Lord Chamberlain to examine the scripts of all plays for indecency. Nevertheless, most comedians still continued to get away with it. Max Miller, famously, had two books of jokes, a white book and a blue book, and would ask his audience which book they wanted to hear stories from. If they chose the blue book, he could blame the audience for the lewdness to follow, the white book was rarely used. By the 30s innuendo humour was transferred to saucy seaside postcards and after the Second World War radio, cinema then TV followed the same trends.

Saucy seaside postcards became widespread in the early 1930s with many millions sold each year. Bawdy in nature, these comic cards made full use of innuendo and double entendres and traditionally featured stereotypical characters such as vicars, large ladies and put-upon husbands. By the early 1950s, the UK Conservative government became concerned at the apparent deterioration of morals in Britain and cracked down on saucy postcards. The industry continued but when artwork and humour started to deteriorate by the late 70s and early 80s the industry became a shadow of its former self.

The best-known saucy seaside postcards were created by called Bamforths, based in the town of Holmfirth, West Yorkshire, England. The company was started in 1870 by James Bamforth, a portrait photographer. In 1883 he began making lantern slides. During 1898 'Bamforth & Co. Ltd' started making silent monochrome films with the Riley Brothers of Bradford, West Yorkshire ('R AB' films). Bamforth's expertise with lantern slides proved invaluable in the film making. The popularity of films featuring a character named Winky , led to a film industry in West Yorkshire which for a time surpassed that of Hollywood in terms of productivity and originality. Bamforth & Co Ltd started making illustrated 'saucy' seaside postcards in 1910 and these were exported worldwide.

Donald McGill (1875 - 1962) was by far the most prolific artist to produce comic postcards. His cards featured an array of attractive young women, fat old ladies, drunken middle aged men, honeymoon couples and vicars, and his work is collected and appreciated for his artistic skill, its power of social observation and earthy sense of humour. McGill was born in London in 1875 and lost a foot in a school rugby accident. He studied art and started his career in postcards in 1904. He created distinctive colour-washed drawings which were then reproduced as postcards. Over his working life McGill produced an estimated 12,000 designs which 200 million copies are estimated to have been printed.

During the First World War Donald McGill produced anti-German propaganda in the form of humorous postcards as part of the War effort. Cards dealing with the so-called "home front" covered issues such as rationing, home service, war profiteers, spy scares and interned aliens. Recruitment and "slackers" were other topics covered. Many cards were designed to appeal to the soldier who wished to send a card home to his sweetheart and these cards showed couples. Cards showed soldiers in training, and there were many light-hearted jokes about the Scottish soldier and his kilt. A few cards showed images of nursing sisters, and at least one showed three female munitions workers.

George Orwell composed an essay entitled "The Art of Donald McGill" in 1941. The writer remained unsure if McGill was a real person or simply a trade name but concluded in spite of the vulgarity and the artistic merits of the cards were the best of contemporary postcard artists and alarmed at mounting censorship would be sorry to see them go.

McGill constantly battled local censorship committees which eventually led to a major show trial in Lincoln in 1954 when the artist was accused of breaking the Obscene Publications Act 1857. He was found guilty and fined £50 with £25 costs. The Director of Public Prosecutions [DPP] found A collection of 128 cards to have a corrupting influence and were seized in a decade-long anti-obscenity drive led by police. The campaign saw 1,300 postcards confiscated in coastal resorts throughout England and Wales. Sadly many postcards were destroyed as a result and retailers cancelled orders. As a result of the censorship McGill lost around £100,000 of revenue. In the late 1950s, the level of censorship eased off and the market recovered.

In 1957, McGill gave evidence before the House Select Committee set up to amend the 1857 Act. In 2001 businessman Ian Wallace bought the firm Bamforth & Co with ownership to the rights to more than 50,000 of postcard images. Over 60 years after the original bans the Director of Public Prosecution's office lifted the original embargo by deeming them fit for viewing. The banned post cards went on display in an exhibition entitled "I wish I could see my little willy." in 2011. Donald McGill's original works is highly collectable today and regularly fetches in excess of £2,500 at auction. The Donald McGill Postcard Museum is in Ryde, Isle of Wight.

Further Reading
The British Cartoon Archive
The Donald Mcgill Museum

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