Pets in Photographic Postcard Portraits

1-copyPets are often captured in portraits, pictured in their own right and together with their owners.  In the Edwardian period they appeared in the semi-public format of the real photographic postcard, seen at home with family and friends.

Picture postcards were a hugely popular form of communication in early twentieth-century Britain, carrying illustrations and views of every conceivable subject and place.   Cheap to buy and send, those posted travelled at speed and could be received on the day they were sent.  Messages were usually brief and many requested ‘PCs’ by return, emphasising their sense of immediacy.

Before January 1902, messages on postcards that were sent unenclosed through the post could only be written on on the front or around the image if there was one, the back of the card being reserved solely for the address.  After this date, due largely to public pressure, messages were permitted on the back of the card to the left of the address, creating a space for short notes – the postcard as we know it today.

The contemporary press eagerly reported the ‘fabulous figures’ of postcard sending, measuring the national and international traffic not just in the millions of cards sent annually but in cubic space and tons and miles.  They also homed in on individual cases of postcard mania that highlighted how postcard collecting was often a domestic activity.  According to the Picture Postcard Annual and Directory in 1907, ‘one postman states that he has delivered over a hundred postcards to one person in the same post.  This individual was the winner of a post-card competition, 20,000 being the number of cards collected’.

A common type of postcard was the ‘real photo’ card, so-called because the photograph was developed directly onto sensitised paper backing. To judge from surviving examples, real photo portraits of the home and household were a favourite and perhaps obvious choice for communicating with friends and family – the subjects appearing to ‘speak’ to recipients who were literally addressed on the reverse.  As the author of a card posted from Ealing in west London in 1906 wrote, ‘With Mrs Powell’s best love; I thought I would just come & see you, with my monkey’.

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Thus despite their seemingly ephemeral nature, the combination of the letter and the likeness often gave postcards a second life as keepsakes within the home.  As a handbook of 1906 called the Picture Post Card for Personal Use and for Profit put it, ‘the most highly appreciated cards are original photographic ones’ and that as they ‘will fit any friend’s postcard album … they stand a better chance of being treasured than they would if they were in larger sizes’.

The association between home and family had long been emphasised in portraiture, and the photographic postcard gave such images a new lease of life and extended their social reach.  While they continued to be popular through the twentieth century, the heyday of the real-photo portrait was the period between 1902 and 1918.

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Photographs of the type illustrated here were taken by amateurs or by photographers who called at houses on spec.  Subjects were often pictured at the gate, as we see above, on the front door step, or in the back garden and yard.  But wherever they were taken in the home, pets were often drawn into the portrait.  Most of the pets to be pictured seem to be dogs and cats with some rabbits and birds – though for those living in larger houses in rural areas, horses or ponies might be included with the family group.  A postcard view of a couple seated in the front garden of a semi-detached suburban house similar to Mrs Powell’s shows two bird cages hung high off the ground above the bay window – out of reach of the cat which lies curled in the woman’s lap.

Sometimes you have to look hard to spot the blur of a twitching cat or perhaps rabbit within a family photograph; other pets were clutched in order to hold them still.

Dogs were more reliable subjects and are often shown sitting obediently as part of a family portrait, while others took pride of place.

Since many postcards survive with no missives or other documentary evidence, we often have little clue as to who the subjects were or where they lived, much less why pets were included in their portraits.  But it seems clear that, for many people, it was important for their pets to be pictured as part of the family or friendship group, whether for sentimental reasons, out of pride or for fun.

All the postcards illustrated here are from author’s collection.

This blog was written by Dr. Rebecca Preston.

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