Hands across the sea: situating an Edwardian greetings postcard practice
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The Edwardian postcard has been described as the Twitter of its age. Earlier regarded as an insignificant pop-cultural trifle, it has, over the last two decades, begun to receive serious academic attention. This attention has, however, been unevenly spread, and often relies on a forty-year-old narrative of the postcard’s history that locates the postcard as the product of a set of discrete occurrences within postal history. This thesis argues that the lack of a contemporary, broadly contextualised history distorts our understanding of the postcard’s place within Edwardian society. It centres its critique around a genre of greetings postcard that is disadvantaged by the current approach: Hands Across The Sea (HATS). These multimodal cards’ designs normally contain the clasped hands symbol and utilise imagery and verse that is ostensibly old-fashioned, nostalgic and sentimental – qualities that sit uncomfortably within the academic tendency to frame the postcard as a quintessentially modern medium. Yet advertisements show that Edwardians within the British diaspora were prepared to pay up to six times more for these cards than for normal tourist views. This discrepancy between contemporary and Edwardian estimation of the card, it is argued, is itself significant. To explain how the HATS card could be valued thus, the study fundamentally re-situates the history of the postcard, using a wide-ranging, contextualist approach that is both interdisciplinary and multi-methodological. It initially uses the heuristic of exploring the HATS phrase and symbolism to negotiate nineteenth century culture and to identify the connotations HATS carried for postcard users. Over the course of a century HATS would develop out of Anglo-Saxonist liberal discourse to be adopted by trade unions, and to rhetorically exemplify both Anglo-American and Colonial relationships. Culturally, however, its use in such areas as melodrama and the trade union emblem is shown to be of unexpected significance for postcard study. Located primarily at the intersect between design history and history, the thesis draws on business history, sociology and anthropology to connect or reframe the postcard’s relationship to discourses such as taste, gift-giving, consumerism, collecting, anonymity, design, printing and material culture. The transnational Victorian print culture of lithographic ‘Art Publishing’, its business networks and its customers’ collecting practices, it turns out, all prefigured major aspects of the postcard’s development, most significantly via the Christmas card. The thesis then re-examines the history of the postcard, using new evidence from postcard retailing to posit three distinct historical waves of postcard fashion. Following view and actress card phases, the HATS card is shown to be a central element in a revitalisation of the greetings genre which occurred as Edwardians sought ‘better’ cards. A detailed study of six hundred HATS cards collected in New Zealand then examines the dynamics of a genre that played a key role in the transnational maintenance of family and friendship networks among immigrants. It explores how this popular cultural item evolved with no clear initiator, and challenges the middle-class attitudes to authorship, originality and the commonplace that have prevented recognition of HATS’ significance. Ultimately, the thesis’s richly contextualised account of the trajectory of this entangled phenomenon aims to provide an improved historical underpinning for future postcard studies. In addition to showing that ‘Hands across the Sea’ represents a paradigmatic aspect of late Victorian and Edwardian culture, it concludes that the postcard’s history is emblematic of contradictory progressive and nostalgic currents that co-existed in Edwardian society, but that there is far more continuity with earlier practices and visual culture than the current postcard literature acknowledges.