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Themes of World War One:
Outside of Valentines and Christmas cards, the folded greeting cards we know today were practically nonexistent before the Great War. These early cards were originally given out by hand, but they were quickly adopted for the mail when postcards became popular at the turn of the 20th century. By 1914 a wide variety of holiday and general greeting postcards had become a staple of the publishing industry. Postcards were made for every possible occasion and they were mailed in great numbers. Many of these cards mark holidays that we no longer even consider card giving occasions. While it is always difficult to gage people’s true motivations, all this card giving was no doubt tied into the postcard craze of the golden age. Publishers eager to sell more cards were happy to promote as many holidays as they could to an audience constantly demanding an excuse to buy new items. Greeting cards like all postcards also reinforced social ties by simplifying correspondence. In this regard they were the cell phones of their age.
During World War One the exchange of holiday cards was already an expected norm and it pretty much carried on as usual. The number of cards available, as well as their quality, eventually diminished as resources were directed away from publishing and toward the war effort. Likewise many of those working in the printing trades were eventually called up for military service and their skills could not be easily replaced. This hardship was at least tempered by the large amount of women that had already been working in these shops and as illustrators for decades. Although each nation was affected differently by these factors, all publishing suffered to so degree. Even so, demand was met as best it could as people struggled to keep some sense of normalcy in their lives. Correspondence between families and those serving in the military was also understood as essential to keeping up morale, both at home and on the front lines. While this ensured that holiday cards would continue to be manufactured, they also aided the war effort by transmitting propaganda. While infusing holiday themes with military subjects made them more topical thus increasing their chance of sale, the combination of patriotism with long held social customs created an enhanced emotional response that could easily be used to manipulate public opinion. The conflict also presented new challenges for publishers and the artists that designed cards. Many family members had never been apart before the War; and as this disrupted the normal social fabric it forced the holidays to be approached in ways that would meet new emotional demands.
Valentines are the first known holiday cards, their use dating back to the 15th century. When postal systems were developed these cards were rarely sent through the mail because of their long tradition of being exchanged by hand. As the popularity of postcards increased so did the incidence of Valentines being made in postcard form. While these holiday specific cards were rarely combined with military themes, a whole new genre of military themed romance cards were inspired by the Great War. While most of these cards make no direct reference to Valentine’s Day, they were often made in the spirit of the holiday and were no doubt used on that occasion.
The most common form of military romance cards pair a soldier with a woman who are often accompanied by traditional floral elements or patriotic flourishes. They are true hybrids in that they cannot be classified as anything but a romance card while their patriotic intentions are more than obvious. Even when there is no visual reference to war except for the soldier’s uniform, the caption usually makes some strong patriotic reference. These cards honor both love and duty as they usually emphasize the sacrifice being made as a soldier departs for war.
The presentation of couples was very popular theme on French made hand colored real photo cards, and they were the ones most likely to express romantic passion or even drift into the risqué. Through the addition of symbolic elements relating to war, the visually romantic narrative could be tilted toward any number of other themes. Captions are always present, often making use of wordplay to indirectly reference the War. On many of these cards, the War is only presented as a distant backdrop; the romantic message clearly dominates.
Duel frame postcards representing two different places were commonly used during World War One, usually to depict the contrast between battlefield and the home front. While it is usually the soldier posted at the front lines that dreams of home, the format was also used to depict loving couples against the backdrop of the distant War. The exact narrative is usually left open so it can be read in different ways, thus increasing the audience for the card. They typically say that although my fate is to depart and fight, my heart will always remain with you. On these cards the War is never distant but plays a pivotal role in the narrative.
Humor and fantasy were often employed on military romance cards as a way to lighten the heartbreak of separation. These types of cards are often very clever, incorporating elements that were normally associated with the horrors of war and turning them into playful backdrops. Tanks become nothing but toys, and Zeppelin raids are transformed into excuses to embrace. Wordplay, common to the era, was also often employed to add light humor. While some of these may fall into the range of comic cards, romance tends to trump humor. While they are not always so easy to categorize, they were not manufactured with clear definitions in mind.
Without a direct reference to Valentine’s Day, many romance cards became little more than generic greetings. While it was still possible for them to be used as a Valentine, they often lack the spirit needed to get the message across. Though often accompanied by patriotic and floral designs, some make clever use of military symbols to help direct the narrative. On the French card above, the image of a woman appears through the cutaway of what at first looks like a wine bottle. A closer look reveals that it is an artillery shell used by the renowned 75mm field gun. The power of the weapon is meant to correspond to the sender’s intensity of passion.
Quite a number of romance cards were manufactured that combine embracing couples with the trappings of war, as in the case of the trench daisies made from bullets on the image above. There was usually no attempt to place great hidden messages or symbolism into these cards. Greeting cards were foremost about initiating a quick emotional response. The military pairings were most likely just made as a selling point, to differentiate these contemporary themed cards from the many romance cards produced before the War.
Many cards were produced that revolved around the yearning created by separation. A lonely sentry may be shown dreaming of his family or a woman holding a letter at home thinks of her husband. The use of correspondence often played significantly into this theme, and it was used in many ways. Some cards create a more vague reference to romance by simply invoking the desperate need to receive a letter or the great meaning that a letter has to its recipient. The lack of any reference to Valentine&rsquo,s Day on many of these cards was most likely a purposeful decision by publishers. By creating a generic, these cards could be sent home by lonely soldiers all year round. For those separated by a great deal of time and space, there is a longing to make every day Valentine&rsuo;s Day.
Many propaganda postcards were produced in all nations that used farewells and homecomings as themes. Normally presented in plain visual terms, it is much rarer to see these themes used directly on greeting cards that spell out this narrative. Sometimes all ambiguity is to be left out to be sure the recipient knows what the card’s message is. In this way it can do more than serve as a more meaningful personal message, it can also be used for specific propaganda purposes. While homecoming cards can be considered a category on their own as they are very different from Valentines, they are at the same time closely related to the emotional quality of romance cards that express a yearning for this unifying moment.
ALL FOOL’S DAY
April Fish (poisson d’avril) is the name applied to the victim of a practical joke played on April Fool’s Day, which is called All Fool’s Day in France. Many French postcards were once produced to celebrate this day, and they almost always contain some sort of fish imagery as decoration or part of the narrative. There have been many attempts to explain this custom giving reasons linked to the change in the Gregorian calendar to the signs of the Zodiac but they are all problematic. The connection of fish to April 1st dates back at least as far as the Middle-Ages but little else is known for certain. On the other hand the character of the fool is an archetype found in many cultures since ancient times. Military themes were rarely applied to these cards.
Easter is one of the most important holidays celebrated among Christians, marking the period between the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and his resurrection. Though it references specific events, they are not firmly set on the calendar as it is the symbolism found in the season what is most important. The name itself, Easter, comes from Ostara meaning spring. In an attempt to entice followers into their fold, the early Church tried to accommodate as many pagan customs as it could into its own practices. Matching the resurrection of Christ to older traditions celebrating the return of spring was an obvious way to fit these new ideas into society. While Easter remains a religious Christian holiday, its strong connection to pagan traditions has allowed it to take on many more trappings over the centuries that are foreign to the Christian faith.
Many of the Easter postcards that were produced during the War are quite simple in their designs, often making only a brief reference to spring along with some simple patriotic symbols. These types of cards were printed in great number, but it is difficult to say if their simplicity was caused by a shortage of resources. With their expansive white backdrops they used much less ink than a typical card, and they took far less time and talent to design. If this really did cut expenses, it might have just been a way to provide less expensive cards for the troops.
One of the oldest and most common symbols associated with Easter is that of the hare or rabbit. Its high reproductive rate and large spring litters has made it a symbol of spring since ancient times. Such symbolic depictions were widely used in art for centuries. The belief that these creatures were hermaphrodites that could conceive while maintaining their virginity also easily allowed them to become symbols for the Virgin Mary. This representation was common in the medieval Church. There are many military postcards that display hares in such a natural fashion that it would be easy to assume that the narrative is about hungry troops procuring food if not for their holiday caption.
The Easter hare first began playing a more active role in the holiday’s narrative within the Lutheran community from at least as far back as the 17th century. In many ways he mimicked the behavior of Saint Nick at Christmas, judging who was naughty and nice, and then on Easter eve, distributing the gifts carried in his basket accordingly. The gift giving hare was still a trope to be found on German made cards during the Great War. While the Easter Bunny had been depicted wearing clothing for centuries, he now often dons a military uniform in his modern incarnation. Apparently even the Easter Bunny had chosen sides in the conflict.
Rabbits and hares are so closely attached to Easter that it is easy to forget that they were also used in other symbolic ways. Is the rabbit dressed in uniform on the card above making reference to the holiday or is it commenting on the soldier? Word play involving slang that is no longer used can also make these types of images more cryptic.
The most common gift to be carried by an Easter Bunny was an egg. Eggs for obvious reasons were long considered symbols of fertility, which has further connotations with spring. From this they came to represent Christ, and their cracking, his resurrection. This seasonal association was further connected to Easter through practical customs. Eggs were traditionally not to be eaten by Christians during the fast of Lent that proceeds Easter, but because hens do not have any understanding of religious restrictions they keep on laying them. Unwilling to waste valuable food, most people hard boiled these eggs to preserve them until they could be added to the Easter feast. While this custom has practicality, its symbolic importance was not overlooked; these eggs were often blessed on Easter Sunday and were the first food eaten to break the fast.
Not all cards show the Easter Bunny generously delivering his eggs; in some cases his booty must be coerced from him by soldiers. In this regard the presentation resembles an Easter egg hunt, a folk tradition from southern Germany where it was believed that hares laid eggs. Since eggs were already associated with Easter, it helped the ritual egg hunt gain acceptance as it spread with German emigrants. On military cards the egg hunt is more often presented as acquiring an unexpected bounty of welcome food rather than a playful activity. Finding eggs was a popular theme on German and Austrian Easter postcards, not just due to their cultural closeness to the egg hunt tradition, but probably because of the real food shortages these soldiers endured.
Even when military Easter cards have a playful mood, they tend not to show soldiers engaged in activities that can be deemed too childish. Most publishers were cautious not to portray their troops in disrespectful ways and it was important to keep up some sense of professionalism and dignity that came with their service. While this did not mean that they could not be poked fun of, it was easier to accommodate the public’s desire for more light hearted cards by simply substituting children for soldiers. This method of toning down the seriousness of the War was commonly used on many types of postcards.
Easter eggs were usually dyed colors to ad symbolic meaning as well as brighten the festive nature of the occasion. Red representing the blood of Christ was the most common color used, though green was very popular as it represent the coming of spring. Practiced since the 13th century, the custom of coloring Easter eggs became so well engrained within many communities that Protestants kept up the tradition even after abandoning Lent. While Easter Eggs are usually portrayed on postcards in conjunction with Easter Bunnies, they can stand alone in compositions as long as some patriotic elements are added.
While the custom of dying Easter eggs a solid color was a way of adding symbolic meaning to an active holiday, the art of decorating eggs is much older. The best known of these traditions is pysanky, in which a wax resist is applied to the egg with a needle before it is dyed to create elaborate designs. Though practiced in the Ukraine, there are many variations of this custom throughout Eastern Europe. The designs placed on these eggs are meant to be more than decorative or even symbolic; their creation is an act of magic. The inherent power within a living egg that could give birth to life could also be redirected through the design on its shell to help shape coming events. These types of decorated eggs were long used in pagan spring rituals to protect crops and act as personal talismans. When they appear on postcards produced during the War, their designs are more likely to present patriotic themes. The decorated eggs themselves, as representative of a culture also became a nationalist symbol.
Even in cultures where egg decorating was not strong, it was still a widely recognized custom; and the egg’s more common reputation as a symbol of regeneration also made it a common symbol for hope. This shared meaning allowed associations to be easily applied to eggs for propaganda purposes as long as it is coupled with the proper patriotic or military symbols. The egg that represents a better future could easily be used to insinuate that success in the nation’s war effort, though not yet fulfilled will soon be forthcoming.
The motif of the Easter egg was sometimes used on postcards in very creative ways, which was extended to military themes during the Great War. Some of these cards are unique in the way they incorporate symbolic meaning so they can also act as propaganda. Other cards are just ingenious in the way they display pure creative fantasy. These types of narratives have little to do with the religious aspects of the holiday nor are they trying to convey an important new message; their originality is primarily designed to enhance sales. The mere sending of a postcard with a military theme regardless of its message was generally considered a patriotic act; so many customers may have sought out cards that presented them in a good light without putting much concern into the card’s meaning.
While there are many cards depicting soldiers celebrating Easter, many illustrators just combined some aspect or symbol of the holiday to a simple military theme. Sometimes the result was mean spirited but most cards tended to be playful. In both cases the connection to the holiday was usually tenuous; associations only being made through the use of familiar symbols rather than any relation to religious beliefs or even spring rituals. On the card above, an Easter Bunny guarding his eggs while wearing a German Uniform chases a Russian soldier out of a decorative egg shaped oval at the point of a bayonet. An old story has not just been updated; its narrative has been reconfigured for contemporary propaganda needs.
Some Easter cards that used symbolism made direct references to the holiday’s religious meaning. While the image of Christ may appear, he is often represented on this occasion by a lamb. Many of these cards are similar to those that depict soldiers experiencing some supernatural phenomena, but there is no effort here to present the narrative as an actual event. Both types of cards however often try to tell the same story. While some publishers depicted the presence of Christ to insinuate a stalemated army would soon be resurrected to achieve a final victory, the overall mood of most of these cards seems to be saying that peace is near.
The narrative on other Easter cards in which Christ appears is not always clear. These cards are more contemplative in nature, and might not be seen to be associated with Easter at all if not for their captions. The message may be similar to those found on religious cards dealing with chivalric notions of self-sacrifice. For a soldier fighting for God, a place will be earned in heaven by imitating the sacrifice of Christ. This was a very common theme on postcards and one that could easily be associated with the resurrection of Christ at Easter, but such associations were not often presented on holiday cards. Whenever the story line is left ambiguous, these Easter cards more closely resemble cards on which Christ laments the horrors of the War.
While most Easter postcards are full of some sort of symbolism directly relating to the holiday, it is conspicuously absent on others. These cards tend to show ordinary scenes at the front and are only accompanied by sparse celebratory troupes. If not for their titles, there would be no way to tie them to the Easter Holiday at all. Many of these cards may have been made as generics that were issued for a number of different occasions by just changing the text. Some may also have been originally created without any though of using them for holiday cards.