The following is a guest post by Irene Lule, a Library of Congress Junior Fellow who worked with the Veterans History Project (VHP) this summer.
Of all the types of material contributed to the Veterans History Project, World War I-era postcards are among my favorites. Postcards sent and kept by veterans are striking in their documentation of World War I and early 20th century life. They not only depict images of European cities and landscapes, but also include scenes of camp life, battles and even death. The following postcards top my list.
Philip E. Scholz, who served in France with the 332nd Machine Gun Battalion, collected several humorous postcards depicting camp life. One shows a soldier receiving a shave in a field with other soldiers and a wagon in the background. The inscription reads, “No hot towels here.” While the light tone may have been an attempt to ease the minds of the recipients, the image demonstrates that camp life was (and is) an integral part of the soldier’s military service.
A second postcard in the Scholz collection stands in stark contrast to the first one. The black and white image shows soldiers in trenches, wearing gas masks, with an unknown white substance flowing over their heads. The inscription further solidifies the imagery: “Fighting a Gas Attack.” The use of gas is mentioned in several World War I collections. Most veterans refer to the discomfort of having to wear a gas mask. Another veteran discusses a cough he developed due to a gas attack. Postcards such as this one, depicting battles and death, are a departure from the common use of postcards as pleasant souvenirs of relaxing vacations.
Along with traditional postcards, the Scholz collection also includes photographs of the veteran. These photographs are actually “real photo postcards,” also known as RPPCs, and were produced on postcard stock.[i]
While most will focus on the image, the back of these items illustrates an interesting component of the postcard market during World War I. They allowed soldiers to send home a personalized souvenir to their families. As clearly seen here, the item is labeled as a “Post Card,” with sections for correspondence, an address and a stamp.
By far, my favorite type of World War I postcard is the silk postcard. Soldiers prized these beautiful and artistic items; and they were not cheap. [ii] Known as “World War I Silks,” they were typically made of embroidered silk, and were heavily produced from 1914-1919.[iii] I really like the one above from the Henry Trollinger McNutt collection. Sent by McNutt to his girlfriend, the postcard includes a blue peacock, nine embroidered Allied Powers flags and the inscription, “A Kiss From France.”
While some postcards were retained as souvenirs and never mailed, many include brief notes to family or friends. Writing to his father, Edgar D. Andrews included a witty note in response to the imagery on the postcard. Extremely romantic in tone, the French inscription translates to, “Love softens the rigors of waiting,” and features a French soldier kissing the cheek of his love. The veteran’s commentary simply reads:
Nothing like this in the town where I am.
Postcards, much like oral histories, letters, memoirs and photographs, play a critical role in telling World War I veterans’ stories. They provide information on location, popular designs and general sentiment, with the occasional message from the veteran. Most importantly, they represent a piece of history for their families, and for themselves.
[i] “Real photo postcard,” Wikipedia, August 1, 2017, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Real_photo_postcard
[ii] Read, Fergus, “Embroidered Silk Postcards,” Imperial War Museums, August 1, 2017, http://www.iwm.org.uk/history/first-world-war-silk-postcards. http://www.iwm.org.uk/history/first-world-war-silk-postcards
[iii] Read, Fergus, “Embroidered Silk Postcards,” Imperial War Museums, August 1, 2017, http://www.iwm.org.uk/history/first-world-war-silk-postcards. http://www.iwm.org.uk/history/first-world-war-silk-postcards