Saturday, 15 October 2011

Postcards & Photographs : Each One Tells a Story

This morning I visited the Nexus Toy Fair with my science-fiction-loving family, and there was one senior chap who was selling old postcards. Did I look at the wonderful array of Star Wars figurines and sci-fi DVDs? Did I heck as like. I went straight to the postcards table, and oggled his vast collection!

Recently a dear friend at  said: "Think about it - why do people collect old postcards? The main reason is nostalgia..." This got me seriously thinking.

A dictionary definition of nostalgia is: A sentimental longing for the past, typically for a place or period with happy personal associations. When it comes to old postcards I certainly love to see places as they once were. Also, for me personally, it captivates me to see how a place looked in my ancestors time. I am fascinated with scenes of old streets, old houses and businesses, seaside attractions, and churches.

On the left you can see a postcard scene of the church tower of St Michaels in Beccles. The church itself has not changed over time but its surroundings have significantly changed. Housing and businesses have altered and changed hands, been demolished and some buildings which were once publichouses or mills are now private homes.

I love to collect old postcards so that I can see places through the eyes of my ancestry. Beccles, my hometown, has seen much progress and alteration throughout the centuries, and yet local history books and photography show how little has really changed. The shopfronts and the people may have changed but the historical flavour remains when you walk the streets or sit by the Quayside.

Postcards are a window to the past, no doubt about it. Not only do they provide a valuable historical resource for genealogists and social historians alike, but they also allow us a glimpse into how our ancestors once communicated with each other. I have many postcards that have scrawled messages such as: "I will be with you in two days time. The train leaves at 8.15am..." Soldiers relied on the exchange of postcards with their families and loved ones, mothers and lovers fervently sent postcards of home, and holiday postcards were delivered far and wide at the envy of their recipients. The famouse catchphrase "Wish you were here..." was coined by the sending of a postcard.

Over 100 years ago my Norfolk ancestors sold postcards in their stationer's shop. They didn't just sell them, they went out to the various places within a twenty-mile radius and took the photographs that ended up on the postcards. Historical documents prove that they travelled from place to place on bicycles and snapped local scenes such as churches, farms, houses and halls, prominent local businesses and organisations, as well as taking photographs of a journalistic nature. In particular, they took photographs of the damaging effects of the 1912 East Anglia flood.

Photographs are my passion. Not just simple portraits of men, women, children and pets. Not just landscapes and scenery. Not just buildings and architecture. For me it goes beyond the subject matter. For me it is about the story photographs tell. When you look beyond the composition and the framing, recognition of the subject matter lights up the photograph in an entirely new way.Just sit with a group of elderly people and watch their faces as they recall the subject in the photograph, the memories they inspire and evoke, and the hearty conversation that follows. Sit with any family member and their photo album and listen (and watch) as they regale you with the finer details such as where the photograph was taken, what the weather was like, where the clothes they were wearing came from (and what colour the fabric was, if it is a black and white photograph) and, before you know it, all kinds of history (family and social) comes pouring out.

That is how my love of family history began. Back when I was a child and my beautiful grandmothers sat me down and showed me their photograph albums. For hours we would sit together, pouring lovingly over each page. With each photograph I learned who the people behind the faces were, where they had lived, what they loved and who they loved, and the variety of special events the photographs had captured. Some photographs are blurred, some are over-exposed, some have faded or lost their vibrancy and some are stained or damaged but each one is cherished and loved. They are a very special, very real link to the past. A photograph can tell the viewer so much. Perhaps that is why I love scrapbooking and journaling. Many of my scrapbooks are filled, not only with the photograph itself, but the story behind the photograph.

If you love genealogy and social history, photographs and postcards provide a vital visual aid to your story. They bring your ancestry alive in ways that pure words alone cannot convey. Telling your story is so much more than just names and dates. With today's technology it isn't too hard to open a Google Images search engine and begin a visual journey to your family's past. Better yet, why not visit a Fair, your local history centre, a car-boot sale or a charity shop? You never know what you might find. There is a wealth of visual history out there, waiting to be found. Let the stories begin...

Image from Ultimate Photo Guide website


  1. Fascinating insight Debra..a pity so many postcards and photographs get destroyed.

  2. I am lacking photos and cards/letters from one whole side of my mum's family. It is so frustrating! As you say, the views bring the world our ancestors lived in alive. Who knows what will happen now everything is digitised and few photos printed off. Mind you, I have SO many now my descendants would hold their hands up in horror at the thought of sifting through them! Suzie @keatsbabe

  3. Thank you Ann & Suzie for your comments. I agree it is a great pity so many are destroyed, very sad. My grandmother was very aware of this and entrusted me with some of her more precious photos because of it. She knew I would look after them.
    Yes Suzie, it is a sad fact that not all of us have family mementoes passed down but those we do have, I truly hope our descendents will keep. Have you labelled all of your photos?! lol xx

  4. Thank you for the mention, I really enjoyed reading this - it really brings genealogy and vintage postcard collecting together. Beautifully written and oh! so many images conjured up!

  5. I read a tweet from Old Postcards and he referred to your website. Very nice. I love old postcards and photographs. I do sell postcards and buyers are thrilled if they get an old picture of the hometown. Brings about a lot of history.

  6. I found your blog via Old Postcards and everything you say could have also been written by me.
    I am just discovering postcards and collecting and tend to buy ones that are written on so that i can follow their stories.
    I will enjoy reading your blog.

    all the best

  7. Useful information like this one must be kept and maintained so I will put this one on my bookmark list! Thanks for this wonderful post and hoping to post more of this!

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