Monday, April 11, 2011

Send me a postcard

In the second half of the 19th century it has become a custom that travellers send picture postcards to family and friends at home. The cards give a view of a landscape, village or town; they show an image of a building or a monument that is worth seeing; they show a local tradition, and so on. By sending the card the sender wants to tell the addressee what a beautiful place s/he is visiting and what a happy time s/he has there. The card seldom shows persons, unless it is relevant, and it gives always an exaggerated image of what is on it: colours are made brighter, the sky is usually blue and cloudless, ugly details have sometimes been removed. A picture postcard is also a kind of cultural manipulation insofar only what is considered beautiful is shown: mountains, “romantic” landscapes with cows, old buildings, traditions… You do not find on postcards what is deemed ugly, like industry or people working “in the sweat of their faces”. They present an ideal world, a kind of paradise. In this sense the cards contain an ideology and they are a kind of propaganda.
The possible propagandistic value of picture postcards has been well estimated during the First World War. Just like other people far away from home and in difficult circumstances, the soldiers fighting at the front wanted to stay in contact with their families and friends, and because modern means of communication like telephone were hardly in use by the common people then, or did not yet exist, people wrote letters, many letters. And they sent postcards. However, the soldiers were not free to tell about the misery at the front and all the mail was censured. It is true, the circumstances there were often so bad that many soldiers simply did not want to write about it, but some did. And some wanted to show pictures as well. In order to lead the mail in the “right” direction, the military authorities provided for postcards with preprinted texts and with acceptable images, which had often a kind of propagandistic content. For instance, everybody knew that soldiers got often seriously wounded; therefore the official postcards did show images of wounded soldiers but it were images where they clearly received the highest possible standard of care; where the wounded were smiling; where they thanked the nurses and where they were treated as heroes. This was often far from reality. Other cards showed that, even at the front, a decent burial was possible. Or there is a postcard with soldiers lying in shell holes in the ground, containing the message: British soldiers can adapt to any circumstances to make themselves comfortable and to sleep. Or cards expressed comradeship and traditional virtues. In short, these postcards were used as propaganda intended to boost support for the war at the home front. However, from that point of view, who could ever have got the idea to have printed this picture on a postcard (see above), and, even more, who would have been prepared to send it?

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