Within the vast collection we have here at the museum, we’re often discovering little gems that give us a fascinating and unexpected insight into the past. These might not be the most spectacular, impressive or valuable objects but they can lead us to discover some interesting stories about the less well known aspects of social history. That is certainly the case with a 117 year old picture postcard that we discovered in the museum’s archives last year.
The card, posted on Saturday, 27 August 1904, shows a colourised image of a steam fire engine, complete with quick hitch horse harness, in the engine house of the West Bar Police and Fire Station – now the home of the museum. It was sent to Miss N. Sellars, on Weston Road in Sheffield, from Harry; a quick note to say he would be away from home on Monday, no doubt hoping to save his friend a wasted journey.
This simple missive sent me on a quest to find out more about Harry and whether he had any connection to West Bar when it was a working police and fire station. What I discovered was not only a perfect Valentine’s Day tale but a little piece of social history straight out of Edwardian England.
Harry’s postcard was sent at the height of what is now known as the ‘golden age’ of postcards. While today we might think of postcards as a holiday tradition, or as something to buy and keep as a souvenir of a trip, back in the Edwardian era they were a ubiquitous part of everyday life. They could even be thought of as the social media of their day!
Postcards first became popular across Europe in the 1860s; until relatively recently it was thought that the oldest postcards dated from this time. That was until 2012 when a card sent by Theodore Hook (to himself!), stamped with a Penny Black, sold at auction for more than £31,000 and entered the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest, and most expensive, postcard ever.
The first true, mass-produced postcards appeared in the UK in 1870 as plain, pre-paid cards which could only be issued by the Post Office. In 1894 permission was granted for other companies to publish picture postcards but one side had to be left entirely free for the address leaving very little room for messages, although people often improvised by squeezing what writing they could in around the image.
In 1902, the UK became the first country in the world to introduce the ‘divided back’ postcard; the format that we are still familiar with today. This allowed the address and message to be written on the same side, with the reverse left entirely for a picture or photograph.
There was some concern about this new format. Some people thought it was ‘unseemly’ to write private messages in plain sight and others were worried that it was too easy for a postman or delivery boy to see people’s news when they looked at the address. Enterprising correspondents got around this by writing sideways, upside down or even in code!
The innovation of the ‘divided back’ coincided with a number of other factors that helped drive a surge in the popularity of postcards. Developments in printing technology meant that picture postcards were cheap and easy to buy and, thanks to the standard ha’penny postage, they were cheap to send too. Photography was becoming more widely available to the masses and literacy rates were increasing rapidly. Added to the efficiency of the Edwardian postal service - which could deliver as often as six or seven times a day in major cities - messages could often be sent and received within a matter of hours.
In an age before the use of the telephone was widespread, postcards became the go-to medium for cheap, reliable and speedy communications. People used them to arrange and cancel meetings, to let friends and family know if they were visiting and what time they would arrive, to order goods and services and just to keep in touch about their day to day lives; just like we use text messages or social media today. An astonishing six billion postcards are estimated to have been sent in the UK between 1902 and 1910.
Every subject under the sun appeared on postcards during this period. Seaside pictures were of course instantly popular (Scarborough featured on the first known seaside postcard) but you could also buy pictures of urban scenes, famous landmarks, favourite theatre and music hall stars, big events and members of the Royal Family. It was also possible to have your own photograph printed on to a postcard and sent to a friend or family member; selfie anyone?
They were also employed by political organisations and campaigns, such as the women’s suffrage movement, to raise awareness and spread key messages and, as now, to be collected as keepsakes or souvenirs.
The advent of World War I gave postcards another huge boost as a quick and easy way for soldiers to keep in touch with loved ones back home, and the conflict and the ‘boys at the front’ became the dominant subject.
It was during this period that hand-sewn silk postcards - often bearing patriotic or sentimental messages - became popular with troops to send home. These were hand embroidered by French and Belgian refugee women before being turned into cards and, because they were so delicate, were often sent back with letters as a keepsake. Between 1914 and 1919 some 10 million silk postcards were made.
However after World War I the postcard never quite regained the popularity it had during the early years of the 20th century, partly due to a doubling of the postage costs - to one penny - in 1918. However even as their use as a cheap, quick form of mass communication declined, the age of the seaside postcard - from beach view to saucy jokes - continued well until the 1980s.
Which brings us back to the postcard sent 117 years ago and a happy coda to the story; one that’s perfect for Valentine’s Day this weekend. Less than a year after our postcard was sent, 21-year-old Harry, a cabinet maker, and dressmaker Nelly (also 21) were married at St George’s Church in Sheffield. Mr and Mrs Standring, as they became, welcomed their only child, a son also called Harry, in April 1906.
By 1911 Harry senior was in the army, serving with the 1st Battalion of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry. He stayed with the regiment throughout World War I, becoming a colour sergeant before being demobbed on a disability pension in 1919. He settled with Nelly (or Ellen, to give Nelly her proper name) in Sheffield, taking a job on the city’s trams, and in 1933 they became grandparents when their son and his wife of one year, Irene, had a baby boy named Keith.
By 1939 the couple were living at Burns Road, Crookesmoor, just a couple of miles from their son, daughter-in-law and grandson. Harry died in 1942, aged 59, after almost 40 years of marriage, with Nelly outliving him by nearly 35 years. A long union helped on its way by the golden age of postcards.