Old postcards give an interesting insight into the past

postcard antrim coastNOWADAYS it is more likely that tourists visiting these shores will send social media messages and post up digital photos on facebook for their family and friends.

Local people travelling abroad certainly appear to do the same in reverse.

But in the early decades of the 20th century the common means of communicating the holiday spirit was through the postcard, and there were literally hundreds of thousands sent.

The postcard is a relatively new phenomenon and the modern colour card owes its lineage to cards which were produced to send messages.

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A postcard used to send a Christmas greeting in 1920; it was sent to “Mr. John Howard, Blacksmith, Magheramorne, by Belfast”

These early cards were not so focused on scenery; when they first appeared in the 1860s they were popular because they were cheaper to post and it saved people having to buy writing paper. Within a short space of time new printing processes made it possible for the colour postcard to become a mass produced souvenir. Postcards also developed beyond scenic views to provide birthday greetings and studies of ships, royalty, and the work of leading artists.

From 1900 until the end of the First World War there was a commercial boom in postcards and in the 1920s the industry received a boost through the publication of photos of film stars, reflecting the rise of the motion picture industry. The industry continued in the 20th century but its heyday was in the earlier decades, within a major revival of interest from the 1960s being due to an interest in collecting old cards.

Postcard historian Martin Willoughby says “it is fairly certain that we will never again reach the stage where, as in those few years either side of 1900, the craze for collecting postcards took over the world”.

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An old postcard of silent screen star Miriam Cooper; there was a considerable demand for such cards from moviegoers.

Among the big postcard names in the early 1900s was Raphael Tuck and Sons, while others included Valentines of Dublin, London and Edinburgh, Lawrence’s of Dublin, the Signal Series, published by Eason and Sons of Dublin and Belfast, and John Hinde of Dublin.

Often local businesses, usually newsagents, would publish postcards and in my local area these included Apsleys in Larne, J. H. Hawkins in Islandmagee, J. W. Hill in Ballynure, J. Mann, Barnhill Post Office, Larne, and John McKee of Ballycarry.

Many postcards were photographed by the Lawrence company in Dublin, while other photographers active in the local area included Coon of Moira, who produced a series of cards for local newsagents. Alan Daniel Coon (1867-1938) was an interesting figure born in Buffalo, New York, and was an attorney-at-law before coming to Ulster in 1902 and opening photographic businesses in Londonderry, Donegal and Moira.

He travelled around in a caravan which contained a photographic studio and a darkroom.

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A Coon postcard showing the home of weaver poet James Orr, Bard of Ballycarry (1770-1816)
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An old postcard from Omagh in County Tyrone

Postcards are a fascinating social history of an area; many of the cards show townscapes and landscapes which have dramatically changed since they were posted by earlier visitors and tourists.

Cards were also used to convey messages in the knowledge that the post office delivered very promptly. Thus they can mention meeting up in a day or so after the card is dated, for example.

They also provide an interesting insight through the personal messages which were written. One, showing a jaunting car at the Red Arch on the Coast Road, and postmarked Cushendall, 1909, says “This is how we drove through today on a jaunting car, Bob”

Another, sent from Whitehead before the First World War to an address in Ormeau Avenue in Belfast, details that the sender had walked from Islandmagee to do some shopping; “We walked to Whitehead yesterday to do some shopping but were glad to get back to the Island again, for we felt like fish out of water amongst so many people” the card says, suggesting the scale of tourist and visitor numbers in the seaside town.

One card which I picked up recently showing Gleno and published by Apsleys Stationers in Larne had a rather unexpected message on the back. The card was postmarked Larne, 28 March, 1907, and was sent to an address in Bloemfontein, South Africa.

The card simply says “Dear Brother, Just a P. C. to let you know I was married this morning. I am here for the day am enjoying myself well. T. Richardson.”

Whether this news was a surprise or not for Mr. A. Wilkinson in Bloemfontein, we will never know.

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An old colour postcard of Gleno in County Antrim