Tuesday 11 May 2010 by Pen Roberts. 7 comments

The postcard concept had its origins in Germany and the United States in the middle of the nineteenth century. By the outbreak of the First World War, millions of postcards were being sent across the world via postal services. The phenomenon of collecting postcards was also well and truly established.

A new display featuring images of women from the First World War postcard collection, is currently showing in the Australian War Memorial’s Reading Room.

The Memorial has a rich collection of postcards that servicemen sent to family and friends, and also those they collected for themselves. Many of these postcards depict images of women. In this display, several prominent themes are featured.

Left: La France vanquishing the German eagle. (French postcards 2/7469) Right: Britannia with sons of the Empire. (British postcards 11/1/29)

“Women in Uniform” encompasses symbolic nationalistic images such as Britannia and La France, as well as photographs of the women’s war effort. Thousands of allied women worked as nurses, in factories, in general services and on public transport. Images of the British war effort were used for propaganda purposes, and postcards of women working in these capacities were released in several languages.

Romantic images form the largest category of postcards of women. The sweetheart image was ubiquitous and we hold German, French, English, Egyptian and Australian examples. The woman writing to her sweetheart or waiting for news from him, became an iconic image of the time.

Portraits of beauties were popular to send to loved ones, friends and girlfriends. Glamorous postcards of actresses, the pin-ups of their age, were also widely collected. When looking at these postcards, a shared ideal of beauty and perception of fashion emerges that traversed national boundaries. 

The First World War enabled many Australians to visit countries, that they would have financially have been unable to reach.  The soldier-tourist collected postcards of these places. Scenes of women in daily life and wearing traditional dress, were among the customary postcards available from these countries.

A novel category for the soldier-tourist were French risqué postcards. Not available to any large extent at home, servicemen took full advantage of the opportunity to purchase these witty and stylishly illustrated cheeky cards.

For this display, paper flowers have been scattered amongst the postcards to either reflect national flag colours or to mirror the hand-tinted colours used in many of the postcards from the First World War. Our local scrapbooker, Assistant Curator Kim Giannasca, created and matched these flowers especially for the display.  

The display will be on for six months. The Reading Room is open Monday to Friday from 10am to 5pm, and on Saturday from 1pm to 5pm.


Katherine Pawley

Thank you for the wonderful blog, It was nice to be able to share it with my colleagues here in Special Collections at the University of Auckland. The exhibition sounds wonderful and it is great to see the hairy postcards get an airing. Cheers Katherine

Web Momentum

What a wonderful collection! It's amazing to see the different postcards from different countries and even more amazing that these still exist.

warren mcglynn

the post cards are very interesting to me ,mainly because l have been serching for info on cards for years now mainly because l have been left at least 20 post cards from a great uncle who served in ww1 any info would be greatly appreciated

Dr Sophie Psychologist Perth

Fascinating how old these seem - even older than they actually are! I imagine these images must have been considered somewhat risque at the time - a bit like the "naughty" postcards of today! And check out the hair - is that for real? Amazing!

david allen

I have a postcard from 1904 that shows three children playing ( or about to play) on a barrel and plank, obviously a crude see-saw. The thing that makes it interesting is that it is in color ( hand tinted). The card was probably mass produced by a company in Germany. The quality is outstanding. Have you seen a postcard like this?

Cathey Shepherd

I loved looking at these old post cards. Recently I have been given 6 books of postcards titled 'Saint-Omer','Namur - after the bombardment', 'Ypres', 'Albert-before and after the bombardment' , 'Charleroi' and 'Bruxelles'. Only some of the booklets are written in.Dates are 1917.I was given these books by a lady now living in England, but was given the postcards by an elderly man in Gladesville, when she was a child.I would love to make sure these postcards don't get lost forever. Would the War Memorial be interested? Please let me know who I should contact. Yours sincerely, Cathey Shepherd

Pen Roberts

Reply to David Allen. We do hold a lot of European images of children that are hand tinted in the collection. I don't recall the one you mention, but as you can imagine we do have a big backlog and the German postcard collection has yet to have a finding aid done. Thank you for leaving a comment.