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Themes of World War One:
Illustrated cards were sometimes hand drawn or painted by military personnel. While they do no not exist in great numbers, there was significant output. They were usually drawn on blank postals; government issued cards that were blank on one side and had preprinted postage on the other. As time went on, fieldpost cards were produced specifically for soldiers to draw on. Some of these were made with textured paper to better hold watercolor. It is generally impossible to know the amount of artistic training the illustrator may have had, though an educated guess can be usually made by evaluating the card’s artistic merits.
If you served in the military it meant that your correspondence would be examined by sensors before it would be allowed to continue through the mail. Anything a sensor found objectionable would be blacked out. While a sensors job was primarily to make sure that no information was revealed that could inadvertently compromise military security, this was often a matter of judgment and was applied unevenly. Antiwar sentiments or harsh complaints rarely reached the recipients eyes. Some artists found a way around this by creating objectionable messages through photomontage and symbolic imagery that censors could not easily decipher or did not even bother looking at. These types of cards however are now extremely rare.
Even in a regimented military life that sought to keep the troops busy, there was still plenty of time to fill. A number of solders tried their hand at drawing scenes of their trench or camp in pencil on blank postcards to occupy themselves. Even when their style is crude, they tend to capture an immediacy not always found on more professionally rendered images drawn from the imagination.
Since hand drawn cards were not meant to be sold, they tend to show us what caught the soldiers attention rather than what the market demanded. They usually present us with the ordinary, often capturing their cramped quarters and comrades. Even though the soldiers in these sketches probably quieted themselves down to pose, many of these images still generate a strong sense of boredom. When action is captured on these cards, it rarely depicts the type of drama presented on commercially made cards.
While it is the mundane that dominates most hand made cards, the dramatic is sometimes depicted. They may take on the same patriotic forms found on commercial cards, but not all soldiers bowed to convention. When drawing one’s own card there was a freedom to choose subject matter that was not commercially viable or even in bad taste. We are left to wonder if some of these drawings were a form of therapy, an attempt by a soldier to get an unforgettable image out of his head. These are not idealized drawings from the imagination of a studio artist but of horrors experienced up close, which gives them a unique power.
Battle scenes were rarely recorded on handmade cards because that was not a time in which a soldier could comfortably sketch. There are those that do exist but they usually capture events behind the immediate front lines or incoming artillery fire if it were not too heavy. While it is conceivable that there were soldiers brave enough to put themselves at risk to make a sketch, many of these images were more likely made after the fact when the artist was back in his quarters. There is of course no real way of telling what the circumstances were when these cards were made.
One must be careful to not confuse a handmade card with a front line sketch that has later been printed as a card. As publishers were very interested in actual scenes from the front, a soldier might make some money by selling his sketches while at home on leave. When reproduced in through the gravure process the image can look very much like a sketch to the naked eye. If familiar with printing techniques, the difference between the two can usually be easily determined if examined under magnification.
In Germany, it was very common for publishers to use solder’s sketches on fieldpost cards that were made available to military personnel. Many of these images captured landscapes, towns, and ruins; all the things that might be expected from your average peacetime view-card except that they have some relation to the War. These views were often rather ordinary, which can fool one into believing it is handmade. Of course some of these printed images may have originated from handmade cards.
Many handmade cards are of quiet landscapes. They often show war damage and ruins near an encampment. Others however capture the undamaged countryside, and provide an interesting document of the rural landscape at that time. Although choices in subject matter were at least partially determined by traditional landscape painting, even for the amateur, compositions could vary widely depending on personal interests and artistic ability.
Not all handmade cards are based on direct observation. Even when the quality of rendering is good, it is often obvious that some scenes like those depicting battles were not drawn on the spot. While some of these may be based on memories of actual experiences, others borrow from the compositions of printed cards. This is most apparent when the action depicted seems forced as if it were meant to convey a propaganda message rather than capture something real. In these cases familiar tropes are often used.
One of a kind handmade cards should not be confused with hand colored cards, which were much more prevalent at this time. These cards were first printed in black ink from a key plate that carried all the details of the image. While this image could be photo-based they were usually artist drawn. In this way the density of the line work could be left more open, which provided more paper surface to hold the hand coloring afterwards. The decision regarding what colors went where would be set by an art director; but since this type of work was often sent out to women as home work, there were often great differences in the quality of hand as well as variations in color placement. These types of cards were not unique but they all contain variations that can sometimes be quite interesting.
Sometimes an individual would color a black & white printed postcard on their own after it was purchased. Since the card was not meant to receive coloring, the ink is usually too dense to show off the applied hues properly. The results of this optical blend are muddy colors that make these cards easy to spot.
At the time of World War One, and the years preceding it, there was no standard method of commercial printing. Postcards were made in a variety of ways that would be hard to imagine today. While techniques were many, the most common are still easy to identify. There are however so many obscure printing methods and hybrid applications of them that identification sometimes remains problematic. The great prevalence of hand colored printed cards at this time can cause confusion when trying to separate them from handmade cards. This becomes particularly problematic when only sparse black outlines were printed and the bulk of the paper’s surface was hand painted. Even when there is a noticeable difference between the line work and coloration, it is not always easy to tell if the lines consist of ink printed on a press or ink drawn in by hand.
Postcards that carry etched images can also cause confusion in classification. While these are not one of a kind cards, the etching is hand drawn onto a metal plate and then hand printed allowing for some variable within each image. Differences can be further enhances if they are hand colored afterwards. Identifying a real etching on a postcard can be problematic because so many facsimiles etchings were produced in collotype, lithography, and gravure. Many of these facsimile cards were even printed with a false embossed plate mark around the image to imply it was printed from a raised etching plate. A card most likely has a real etching on it if the embossed plate mark is at least somewhat dirty with ink, and the printed ink is raised above the surface of the paper.
There can also be much confusion between cards that look as if they have been entirely hand painted but have a commercial back with a publisher’s name. In some cases the name may only refer to the manufacturer of the blank card, not the image. Paper manufactures, especially those who supplied artists with quality papers, were known to do this. At other times the name on the back of hand painted cards can be confusing. A possibility is that these handmade cards were commissioned by publishers similar to the manner in which they had their printed cards hand colored, only by those with more skill. They would then be sold through the publisher who in this case acts more like a distributor.
Though the military eventually found a place for some soldiers in the ranks as official war artists, many more that served went unnoticed. There are some postcards with hand painted images on them that are so good that you have to look twice before you realize it is not a printed card. While many of these cards are anonymous or signed by those with no public recognition, others were made by accomplished artists like Otto Dix or Franz Marc that had built fairly well known reputations before the war. Their wartime postcards are considered extremely valuable today even when not carrying military subjects. Most of these cards are near impossible to come by today as they have long been squirreled away in family or institutional collections.
The most popular use of handmade cards was for holiday greetings, especially Christmas and New Year’s Day. Despite the specificity of their use, many often lack some or all of the usual seasonal iconography associated with these holidays. It seemed that it was more important to record some personal record of life in the field no matter the subject. Sometimes a hint of winter decorations are added in, but most can only be determined to be holiday cards by their written message.
By their sheer numbers it is easy to think that handmade cards were the sole purveyance of the army, but there are those from the navy as well. Despite the subject matter of these cards, they do not always reflect where they were made as they could be drawn from observation or imagination. Since all cards sent by military personnel first went through the military postal system, the branch of service from where these cards originated can be determined if they were mailed.
Pressed flowers had been glued onto novelty postcards before the War and now many soldiers who lacked the ability to draw did the same to create unique greetings. Blank postals often designed for soldiers correspondence was the obvious choice for the substrate. These cards created a strange intimacy between life in the trench and one’s family back home. They are a piece of a place rather than something just sent from a place, almost like a locket of hair. Dried flowers tend to become extremely brittle over time so it is remarkable how well so many of these cards are preserved. Other cards of course have deteriorated very badly. Some folk art collectors consider this a form of trench art made from the limited resources that a soldier could scrounge up at the front.
Apart from our preconceived notions of muddy battlefields, they could turn into blooming fields of wild flowers where the ground wasn’t continually churned up. Such scenes did not fit into preconceived ideas of a devastated no manís land, and so it was the bleakest landscapes that tended to find their way onto cards. The card above, issued during the war to depict a scene near the fighting at Champagne is a notable exception. Cards made of pressed flowers were far more common than depictions of growing flowers, which hints at their abundance. Even so, flowers are seasonal and not always handy, so any sort of leafy material was often substituted on hand made cards.
The popularity of pressed flower cards insured that commercial interests would take up the theme and try to market them to soldiers who lacked the ability or desire to make their own. While they still had to be made by hand, the flowers or leaves were usually pasted onto a card with printed text rather than a blank one. These cards do not seem as common as those created by soldiers. This may be do to the cost in assembling them or soldiers just might not have wanted to pay for something they thought they could create for free. Most cards of this type that do exist seem to come from France.
While some forms of trench art were sent through the mail, other handmade objects were captured on film and then reproduced as photo-based printed postcards. These are not art reproductions per se as the location of the work in these compositions is just as important as the work itself.
Rubber stamping was long used to place postal cancels on correspondence. While easy to make, the amount of detail they could hold was limited by the tendency of rubber to crumble if cut too thin. Designs had been added to cancels for some time, especially when used on dates of commemoration. Stamps were also used to add names and sometimes captions to cards, but larger pictures were also use as overprints on cards already printed to convey a new message. This was most often done on fund raising cards. Some took this technique a bit further to print entire cards. While the quality was very poor, these cards could be produced inexpensively on demand. While rare, some soldiers used this method to brighten up blank fieldpost cards, most often at Christmas. Even though multiples could be made of these cards, they are often still considered hand made because of their primitive production and limited output.
An unusual type of postcard that developed during the Paris exposition of 1900 was the hand embroidered silk card. These Silks suddenly became very popular in 1914 when soldiers began to buy them in large numbers. Multiple images were sewn onto a long silk mesh usually by French and Belgian women residing in their homes or in refugee camps, and then this band was sent off to a factory where they would be cut, trimmed, and sandwiched between heavy folded paper with a postcard printed back. A frame was cut out of one side to expose the embroidery, which was surrounded by decorative blind embossing. Even if these women sewed the same image over and over again, they were all unique to some degree by the virtue of being handmade. Many if not most of these cards were simple greetings with wishes of a Happy Birthday or To My Sweetheart and the ever popular A Kiss from France for those waiting back home. Holidays such as Christmas and New Year’s Day are well represented. They usually depict flowers, which mimics common greeting cards of the time that were especially popular in England. Even though these cards had a postcard back they were rarely mailed. Few would risk having these relatively expensive cards damaged in the mail services so they were usually sent in envelopes. They were however often put out on display in homes where they suffered subsequent wear and tear from excessive handling.
As unassuming and generic as many of these cards were, some were made with small pouches to hold other novelties or more potent messages behind a flap. This was a selling point rather than a necessity since the backs of these cards were stiff enough to easily write a message. Sometimes these printed inserts contain such overt patriotic messages that they seem to relate in no way to the calm pleasantness of the sewn design. Since they were produced separately, it can be assumed that these components were just matched up randomly. Embroidered cards found today rarely have their original paper inserts in their pockets.
Many embroidered cards incorporate the flags of many nations into clever designs such as butterflies or the written year to symbolize international alliances. Most common are those that solely focused on American, British or Anzac themes for it was these soldiers who had the most money in their pockets to spend on these expensive extravagances. Sometimes this only involved placing a single nation’s flag on the card, but some have more desirable features like regimental crests. This most likely meant that these cards were being produced near to where units were stationed for some time for it to be noticed by the local population. Since they were oriented toward foreign expeditionary forces, their production declined after 1919 and ended by 1923. It has been estimated that about ten million of these handmade cards were produced.
As the popularity of embroidered cards grew, publishers began directly commissioning woman to produce the most sellable designs. As they were turned out in a more factory like manner their quality declined, and the cards also lost something through the sheer volume of limited repetitive subject matter. There were however cards produced whose content was far less common, and they are considered more desirable today. These include depictions of military equipment such as cannons, tanks, planes, and even the ruins they cause.
Despite the production line quality of so many embroidered silk cards, it remained home work for many women working alone. This meant that a card’s quality and subject matter were totally dependent on personality as well as skills, which could vary greatly from one woman to the next. Many exceptionally fine cards were produced as a result, and their designs and workmanship can overcome their repetitiveness. An exceptional silk card could take up to eight hours to sew.
Some compositions on silks can be so out of the ordinary that one has to wonder if they are one of a kind. This type of speculation is always a dangerous because there is no real way of making a determination. All that can be said is that some subjects seem rarer than others through the simple process of observation. There was no doubt some women who felt the urge to create something unique, but it is difficult to know how expressiveness played out under these difficult market forces. Even so, the very nature of handwork means that that the same design will never be exactly repeated.
A much finer type of silk novelty card was woven in more subdued colors, usually consisting of black, silver, and red thread. They often depicted the fiery ruins of towns and cathedrals with their names boldly embroidered on them. Troopships were another favorite topic for these types as well as generals and other famous figures. Much rarer are generic subjects such as individual soldiers or romantic themes. The high quality of these cards with their tight even stitching would seem to suggest that they were manufactured by machine, not by hand.