This week’s Inspiring Illustrations post about photography is on the topic of the somewhat less noble yet very prolific format of the postcard. As a result of two recent projects surrounding our collections my attention has been drawn to this important medium of dissemination for photography. Firstly a group of recent graduates from the University’s Master’s programme in the History of Photography are putting on an exhibition of select postcards from our collection as part of the Format International Photography Festival. As chance would have it, the Format Festival is also featuring a second exhibition about postcards being put on by the Archive of Modern Conflict. Secondly, as a result of recently tidying up the terms we use to describe photographs in our database, I was struck by the extremely prolific reinventing and rebranding which took place around variations of established postcard printing processes.
The catalyst for all this is due to the fact that within the St Andrews Library Photographic Collection is housed the most complete archive of the Valentine and Sons Company of Dundee. The Valentine Company was quick to seize on the postcard craze at the turn of the century and was a pioneer in the production of postcards of images from their extensive holdings of photographic views of Scotland and the rest of the British Isles. Following the advent of the picture postcard in 1894, and the subsequent allowance to dedicate one whole side of a postcard to an image in 1902, the Valentines invested heavily in photomechanical printing and vastly expanded their scale of production. Adopting and refining processes such as the collotype allowed them to remain competitive not only with the likes of George Washington Wilson of Aberdeen, but also against the influx of German publishers who were masters of photomechanical printing, so much so that they were able to undercut the British manufacturers until 1914.
This post however is not about the Valentine company per say, nor about the extremely important social role of postcards in the 20th century (for this just go to the exhibitions listed above or read any number of the available periodicals on the subject), but rather it is about the number of different processes which were used in the production of photographic postcards.
When tidying up the terms we use to describe photographs in our database, a resource which I used to decipher the names used for Valentine’s postcard processes was the website of the Metropolitan Postcard Club of New York City. The various postcard processes listed in the website shed some light on trade names used by the Valentine Company in order to sell their wares. Here are a few of the colourful terms which the Valentine Company used: Mezzograph, Selectype, Carbo-type, Silveresque, Carbotone, Photo-gravure, Bromotype, Bromotone, Crystoelum Series, Photo-Brown, Colourtone, Carbo Colour, Valchrome, Collo Colour, Real Photo, Sepiatype and Velvette Gravure. Only the most dedicated postcard fanatic could make heads or tails of these, so I’m indebted to the publishers of that website! In our Photographic Collection we hold some fine examples of these which have been described using more standard terms for each process including: collotypes, photogravures, gelatin silver prints, halftone / letterpress, duotones, as well as the Kallitype / Van Dyke print.
Even as someone who is knowledgeable in photographic processes I was (and will likely remain) baffled by the terminology used by postcard companies. This confusion was however not unexpected — when it comes to the printing industry this is very much the nature of the beast.
Broadly speaking, the clearest technical accounts of photomechanical processes usually originate from the time of their inception, when they were first published under patent. This being said, it is commonly found that by the end of the 19th century, the publishing industry was enshrouded in secrecy in regards to its processes. Even in the past decades, in the case of the collotype for example, of the half dozen commercial practitioners of the process, apparently none will divulge the least shred of information about their specific technique. It is thought that historically an “aura of secrecy” would descend over the industry as soon as a given process became viable. Factory workers were pledged to secrecy, patrons were never allowed to see the production facilities, and the sources of supply would be seldom revealed. It is thought that in this line of work, printers in fact had a great deal to lose and not much to gain from divulging such information. As a result, secrecy has long been a part of the printing trade in many media. Early patents were helpful insofar as establishing rights, but it was thought that later patents were avoided due to their divulging too much information to the potential competition, causing more harm than good.
For those interested in exploring the history of this rich and socially engaged medium there is a wealth of photographic postcards in our collection which display all the charms and idiosyncrasies of this format and its associated printed manifestations. I would hazard an educated guess that we hold over 10,000 postcards in the collection, and perhaps much more (there’s still much cataloguing to be done!). Of these, 8,000 are listed in our electronic systems, and 5,000 are fully catalogued. With these kinds of figures, we should be able to keep most postcard aficionados out of trouble for at least a little while!