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The postcard

By Marie-Hélène Vendette, under the supervision of Dominique Marquis, PhD, Laboratoire d'histoire et de patrimoine de Montréal, UQÀM

The Origins and Evolution of the Postcard

With the introduction of the postage stamp in England in 1840, written correspondence multiplied dramatically. The increasing use of the mails spurred the development and standardization of the postal system in various European nations, and advances in transportation (the advent of railroads in Canada in 1836) and communications (the invention of the telegraph in 1840) lead to the expansion of postal services.

In the search for ways to speed up personal communication, the Austrian Emmanuel Hermann developed a method to send messages on cards, that is, ones without the protective covering of an envelope. The first postcard was mailed on October 1, 1869, in Vienna. Hermann's invention spread with lightening speed throughout Europe and across the Atlantic. In 1871, Canada became the first nation in the American continent to adopt this form of communication. The United States followed suit two years later

The earliest postcards were "administrative," that is, produced solely by government authorities and aimed at facilitating business activities. Used to confirm meetings, call general assemblies, etc., they were a 9-cm-by-14-cm piece of cardboard that carried a pre-printed stamp but no image. The Canadian government held a monopoly on the creation of postcards until 1897, after which anyone could produce and sell this form of communication here.

The number of postcard publishers and printers grew rapidly. They were soon selling, for a few pennies, cards bearing illustrations of various types and subjects. A means of mass communication, the postcard was quickly adopted by every social class. People were attracted to postcards mainly because of their visual element, which enabled the sender to not only describe but "show" a particular place or item to the receiver.

In Canada, postcards reached their peak in popularity from 1904 to 1918. It was during this period that postcards assumed their current form, with the front entirely covered by a single illustration. In earlier versions, the illustration and space for writing the address were on the same side. Originally created to fill a need for rapid correspondence, the postcard would become a means of modern communication, enlivened with artistic designs. Canadians sent 27,000 postcards in the first year of the 20th century and 60,000,000 thirteen years later.

Illustrated Postcards

The first illustrated postcard was produced in the United States in 1893 for the Universal Exposition in Chicago. Canada began producing them five years later, in 1898. Drawings of rural landscapes and cities, historical monuments and folkloric scenes - cards with images quickly became the norm. A number of illustrators in Quebec working for illustrated newspapers had their work reproduced on postcards: Octave-Henri Julien (1852-1908), Edmond-Joseph Massicotte (1875-1929), Jacques Gagnier (1918-1978) and Simone Hudon (1905-1984), to name a few.

Photography was introduced to the world of postcards in 1906. Photomechanical processes for reproducing images developed after their introduction in 1869 had made it possible to produce, notably for newspapers and magazines, high-quality, lower-cost photographs and illustrations. Thus, to the range of illustrated postcards was added, in the early 20th century, the "photographic view."

The popularity of illustrated postcards, especially photographic cards, created problems for some, however. Among photographers and illustrations, copyright was an issue in the early 20th century. Some watched helplessly as postcard makers pillaged their original works, without ever compensating them for their art.

Tourism and Postcards

Postcards reflect the era in which they are created. They illustrate preferences and trends in fashion, recreation and especially travel. The boom in postcards was directly related to the phenomenon of tourism. Postcards were the intermediaries, the promotional tools of the tourism industry. By appropriating postcards, tourists felt like they were taking away some part of the place they had visited.

The increase in rail and water transportation in Eastern Canada after the middle of the 19th century lead to an increase in tourism and vacationing. People could now travel more often and go greater distances. This, the popularity among Quebecers of summer destinations such as Beauport, Kamouraska and Sainte-Pétronille on Île d'Orléans, and of the swimming beaches at Cacouna, Métis-sur-Mer and Memphrémagog is recorded in postcards. The spell of wilderness areas such as those found in the Laurentians, Eastern Townships and Mauricie region is also reflected in postcards.

The growth of tourism in Quebec was closely linked to pilgrimage destinations. At Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, Notre-Dame-du-Cap and St. Joseph's Oratory in Montreal, sellers of postcards profited from religious fervour. The great number of documents printed in honour of these sacred sites is testimony to the religious devotion of Quebecers before the Quiet Revolution.

Thematic Highlights of Postcards from Quebec

Quebec's early postcards were for the most part photographic, depictions of urban monuments and rural landscapes. Picturesque scenes of raw nature and winter landscapes were common. A series of postcards called "The Canadian Series" featuring traditional scenes from Quebec was also popular. The collection depicted traditional vocations and popular costumes, with lumberjacks, fur trappers and hockey players figuring prominently among them!

Special-edition postcards were often produced for commemorative occasions and after natural disasters. The 300th anniversary of the founding of Quebec City (1908) and the Eucharistic Congress in Montreal (1910) were the first public events immortalized in postcards. Floods, train derailments, and landslides were very popular with buyers and collectors alike. During the Second World War, postcards depicting army bases and soldiers ready for combat were used to whip up patriotic fervour among Quebecers. Sports and recreational activities, reproductions of paintings, female models, and architecture were other themes in the world of postcards in Quebec.

These days, old postcards are greatly sought out by collectors. Historical researchers also try to find them, using both the illustrations and the written messages as a means to sketch portraits of earlier generations. Thus it is that postcards reveal facets of the preferences and thinking of our predecessors.


Printed sources:

BAZINET, Michel. Montréal vu à travers la carte postale ancienne (1871-1940). Montreal: Private publication, 1991.

KYROU, Ado. L'âge d'or de la carte postale. Paris: Éditions André Balland, 1966.

POITRAS, Jacques. La carte postale québécoise. Une aventure photographique. Quebec City: Éditions Broquet, 1990.

POITRAS, Jacques. Les dessus et les dessous de la carte postale. Montreal: Musée d'art de Saint-Laurent, 1986.


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