Weather fine, war iffy, corns playing up

April 6, 2001

Nigel Barley delights in the deciduous and a deltiologist's.

In the village where I grew up there was a little old lady who lived alone. When she died and they broke down the door, they discovered that for the past 20 years she had not thrown away a thing - milk bottles, newspapers, Christmas cards. In the living room were three cardboard boxes, one marked "pieces of string over one foot long", a second marked "pieces of string over six inches long" and a third - enormous - box marked "pieces of string too short to keep". She was an accomplished ephemerologist before the invention of the word and infused with the same tragic need to deny that some things are here today, gone tomorrow and really not terribly important.

A book such as The Encyclopedia of Ephemera can do two main jobs. It can be an amusing compilation of arcane snippets of information that are in themselves pointless except to make the world a more diverting and curious place than it hitherto seemed. Or it can be a serious academic source of well-referenced knowledge. This book unfortunately embraces neither role with any great conviction, though - with an eye to the American market - it is careful to have a good scattering of transatlantic references.

It is nice to know that the Taiwanese wrote propaganda on magnolia leaves that were then allowed to drift over mainland China, that German beer mats were printed in the form of greetings cards, that reading systems for the blind go back to the 16th century, that haberdashers gave change in pin papers (but no link made with "pin money"), that mail was habitually disinfected by sprinkling with sea water, that electrical devices were sold for the treatment of blindness and pimples, that early lavatory paper was marketed with a mix of beguiling Japanese names and threats of the terrible effects of printer's ink on the human fundament, that "Tyburn tickets" were given to prosecutors of convicted felons to reward them with privileges within their parish.

But some of the headings are bizarre: for example, "arrangement of carriages diagram", "auditorium seating plan", "eccentric advertising", "erratum slips", "lighthouse-dues papers", "milk-bottle closures". It is like looking up a list of Christian sins and finding "dog-kicking" as a separate section. And the sad collectors of these, surely, should receive prompt counselling and be compelled to get a life. Within entries, references are often cursory, sometimes only a single title, sometimes none at all and there are some quite breathtakingly sloppy sections. "Wills", we are told, adopt a liturgical tone because they were proved in ecclesiastical courts. This hardly does justice to the church's primordial role in the very invention of wills to get around the traditional inalienability of land for its own benefit. Under "Gretna Green marriage certificate", there is no mention of the fact that not just blacksmiths but any "joining" profession such as cabinet maker allowed the practitioner to solemnise marriages.

Few sections are as full as that on "cigarette cards", allowing generalisations about the nature of collectors, the importance of completeness, numbering and scarcity in a collection and the close association between the offering of cards and the absence of a government tobacco monopoly. And "postcards" offers particularly slim pickings, both visually and textually, given the wealth of recent work on this area.

Tom Phillips's The Postcard Century is a creature of a very different kind, being a labour of love based on his own enormous collection. This is a delightful book, full of affectionate erudition, but on a determinedly human scale. Deltiology or cartophilia has seized the author by the throat despite himself and the introduction describes rather shame-faced expeditions to bleak church halls to be jostled by devotees of cards showing goats or tea-drinking and enthusiasts of mint-condition sepia erotica.

The organisation has been something of a problem. In belatedly millennial style, cards are ordered by year, each year beginning with an icon of the times and a view each of Piccadilly Circus and New York. So 1914 begins with Kitchener wanting men like you, while most of the cards for the year are from the vague "somewhere in France" permitted by the army censor. Some 20 cards for each year add up to a truly formidable archive, each with technical information and arch, postcard-like comment from Phillips. Unusually, the author takes as much interest in the messages as in the cards, fighting a personal campaign against the trade's determined valorisation of the virgin, unused card over that sullied by history. There is a deal of background research too that has gone into elucidating references that were once obvious but now faded into the blur and blot of time.

The messages, it must be said, are at first sight a fearful cumulative condemnation of the postcard user's conversational skills, with more information on local weather than on world affairs. A card grandly celebrating the United States entry into the first world war carries the information, "I got the towel. It sure is nice." Wars and social revolutions are magically transformed in the world of postcards into family news and gossip - except, predictably, for writers in Esperanto who are given to portentous generalisation about humankind. Even the smouldering sensuality of a 1924 Rudolph Valentino serves to convey the only marginally erotic message: "Dear Kid. Ear bunged up. I will be down to you tomorrow."

Phillips is doubtless right to see the postcard as a medium less intimidating to the scriptorially challenged than the full-blown letter, in that it encourages informality and imposes the blessing of limited space in which to show up poverty of thought and bad spelling. That the writers sometimes comment on the image is not surprising, but it is truly striking how often picture and message seem to come from two entirely different universes; indeed, it is clearly the mere act of sending a card in the first place that is the principal message, regardless of what is written on the other side.

The lack of confidentiality of the card also favours a deliberate bland banality, since other people's postcards fair game to the curious - like ourselves. (In India a hotel desk clerk once brought a postcard, left with him to be posted, back up to my room, complaining that no one could read my written message so please could I decipher it.) One solution to the postman's prying eyes was the cypher, or mirror writing or resort to the cryptic abbreviation of passion via SWALK and DIDLYESM (alas, no NORWICH). Sometimes, however, the gap between front and back of a card is unexpectedly poignant and whole domestic dramas lurk behind the mass-produced facades. Phillips reproduces a number of cards from Max Church of Detroit. Max is a good boy, a Seventh Day Adventist, who, during his second-world-war army career, faithfully sends daily mail, replete with thoughts that draw the lessons of his experiences in Europe, back home to dad. In the final card, he ends up living with Pierre and asking the family to accept him. And all this on a postcard showing the Springfield hospital for crippled children.

Over the years, these cards are a running archive, not just of the march of photography and printing technology, but of shifts in fashion and taste, changing ideas on obscenity and the place of women. Human ingenuity finds its place in depictions of industry and art. The year 1907 brings us the Nullus Secundus airship, its skin made of the intestines of 200,000 cattle. Alas, it perished in the rain. The year 1924 opens with the sculpture of Jack Hobbs, the cricketer, cunningly executed in Australian butter at the British Empire Show. (In the Canadian pavilion they had the Prince of Wales in Canadian butter but the joke was that in the Indian pavilion they had one in ghee - it didn't last.) An earlier cricketing card has "Dear Ruby, will you please meet me at the corner of Holbeck Row on Sunday morning and I will give you a suck of my toffee apple." The cricketer is G. Cox. Work it out for yourself.

Wars come and go, the first world war turns into the second, Korea into Vietnam into Gulf and the machines of death get bigger and sleeker. Planes lose wings and propellors and acquire missiles. (Phillips notes that the Canberra bomber last served in 1982 on the Argentinian side in the Falklands war. On the British side they still had the Vulcan.) Brits never quite win sporting events but "put up a good show". Spain becomes a place of holiday, not fascism. Throughout, Donald McGill's heavy-footed double-entendres and Phillips's enthusiasm for the gaudy interiors of the Regent Palace Hotel remain as inevitable as the dire English seaside weather. Butlin's holds a grim and enduring fascination for the author from year to year like a sore he just cannot leave alone. He notes of a holiday camp lounge:"Few more dismal scenes exist on cards than this which you could easily believe was issued by a rival camp."

But change is on the way, and by the end of the century Africans get dignity, Piccadilly a facelift and the male bum is suddenly a thing of beauty. Postcards get ever weirder, they quote themselves, or one another, so that the end of the book is a postmodernist vision of a world living in quotes. But luckily the contents are much the same - the weather, trouble with teeth, terrible food and cricket scores - though that may just be Phillips's own reality. Perhaps the real change in the world is to be found in the fact that the book ends with thanks expressed to the Thai printers.

Nigel Barley is assistant keeper of ethnography, Museum of Mankind.

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