Erotic Postcards of the Early Twentieth Century by Nigel Sadler
Sometimes research takes you onto a peculiar and unexpected path. Back in 2013 I started to work on the book Ottery St Mary Through Time. During this research some of the postcards led me into looking more deeply into the First World War, resulting in the publication The First World War: The Postcard Collection. One of the postcards used in this book showed a woman dressed provocatively and had been sent to a woman from a soldier reporting he was being treated in hospital for shrapnel wounds. This seemed a rather odd image to have been sent so I looked more into it.
What I had found was the ‘French Postcard’ genre. This card was probably from a sequence of images in which the lady got undressed and ended with partial or full nudity. Reading several books on the First World War there was occasional, but limited reference to men collecting postcards showing naked women, and in the film ‘Mrs Henderson Presents’ she claims she wanted to show soldiers real naked women during the performances at the Windmill Theatre rather than just on the postcards like she had found in her sons possessions after he had been killed in the First World War. I had of course seen some of these postcards throughout the years but didn’t really think about their context - my curiosity had been spiked.
I must say at this stage what I was looking into was generally not what I would term pornography. These cards don’t show obscene scenes or acts of sexual intercourse. In many cases they were produced to titillate and to push the boundaries of decency, but in my opinion they were just an extension of the old art schools using female nudes in paintings, drawings, sculptures now using the new and developing medium of photography.
The French studios dominated this genre of postcards from the late 1800s and early 19th century. Unfortunately, as the trade in these cards was illegal, or at best frowned upon, many of the studios, photographers and models remained anonymous, or have been forgotten. There has been little research carried out on the subject and the few publications that covered the subject were mostly just collections of the postcards with little more than a brief description of the scene depicted.
The cards are also good indicators of changing social views and of influences in the wider artistic world. The New Sculpture Movement of the 1870s introduced more realistic and artful poses than classical sculptures and opened the way for the wider range of poses taken on by the photographers in their works in the early twentieth century. Also, by 1880 studio photography had also fallen into a routine and a new movement, ‘art photography’ developed. Photographers wanted their work to be accepted as an art form. They posed models following the same rules of painting, experimenting with light and shade both in settings with objects in and where the only thing in the image was the person. One of the later champions of this approach was Julien Mandel.
These types of postcards can be categorised into four types: glamour, risqué, pornographic and scientific study. Glamour showed women posing completely dressed in regular clothing or undergarments. Risqué ranged from where the model had some naked skin showing to full nudity and is also often referred to as erotic. Pornographic images showed the model engaging or pretending to engage in sexual congress or explicit nude shots. Scientific images tried to change the moral compass of the image by claiming it had some scientific purpose and included ethnographic studies, art and naturism.
It was the scientific category that caused much confusion. Colonial expansion by European countries led to a developing interest in ethnography and the colonies soon supplied a ready stream of women, mostly unwittingly, whose naked poses started to adorn the postcards. Initially they tried to make some scientific claim but it wasn’t long before photographers were posing naked ‘studies’ in studio sets with the only hint to their culture being them adorned in local clothing or jewellery.
Naturism as a popular medium started in the 1920s and grew in Germany. Postcards showed people enjoying the outdoors naked. Technological advances along with the naturism movement led many photographers to attempt taking photographs outdoors to benefit from natural light and shade, however, many images were not true naturism but naked people outdoors.
This book does not claim to be a definitive guide on the subject but is hoped that it will inspire others to carry on the research on this often hidden postcard genre.
Nigel Sadler's Erotic Postcards of the Early Twentieth Century is available for purchase now.