Postcards from the Past

Caroline Churton

The postcards shown below represent just a small selection from the extensive collection held at Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies (HALS).

The first British postcards were issued by the Post Office in 1870. The front of the card, where the message was written, was blank and the back, with a pre-printed stamp, was for the address. The use and popularity of these early cards was limited.

It was 1894 before the Post Office allowed them to be used through the mail with an adhesive stamp. The Golden Age of the postcard was from 1895 to 1916, when the number of cards posted throughout Britain grew from 314 million in 1895 to 880 million in 1914.

Early examples showed city and seaside views rather than subjects or themes, and the delicate colour of some of the earliest cards is very beautiful, making them desirable collector’s items. By 1902 subject cards had been published, featuring the Boer War and royal events, and in that year the Post Office allowed both the address and the message to be written on one side of the card, freeing up the whole of the other side for the picture. Britain was the first European country to introduce the ‘divided back’ postcard format that we are familiar with today. The size of cards had also been largely standardised.

Postcards exploded in popularity and quickly became the preferred method for sending short messages. They were cheap and reliable, with up to seven postal deliveries a day. After the First World War popularity declined, partly due to the increasing use of the telephone. As well as sending them to friends, people bought them to keep as souvenirs and a high proportion of these would have been put into albums.

Since the 1950s, old postcards have been keenly collected by a growing number of people for a variety of reasons – their postmarks and stamps, their messages (which can range from humorous to poignant), their pictorial subject matter or their topographical interest.

Old postcards are an invaluable record of how a place used to look in days gone by, and the HALS collection offers a snapshot of the past for all to enjoy.

Postcards of Hertfordshire

The postcards below are shown in alphabetical order by location and include images of towns and villages throughout Hertfordshire. Only four include the date on which they was written, but the postmarks (for the most part) provide specific dates, which range from 1903 to 1924, with one dated as late as 1955. The messages are quite varied, of course – many include ‘typical’ holiday or short personal, sometimes humorous, messages; several make reference to the First World War; one is in a foreign language and another in a ‘secret’ language; and some refer to deliveries of goods or trade enquiries.

A few of the postcards have particularly intriguing messages. For example, was the recipient of the postcard showing the birthplace of the poet William Cowper in Berkhamsted actually related to him? And what does the reference to ‘the K. of Spain etc’ mean in the message on the postcard of the Warren in Hertford? The language in which the message is written on the postcard of Bancroft, Hitchin, is very puzzling until you realize that the words are reversed as if seen in a mirror! The reference to ‘finding another 500’ made by the sender of the Hitchin Tit-Bits postcard relates to a competition organized by the popular magazine Tit-Bits – £500 was buried in a field near Hitchin and readers frantically followed clues in their attempts to find it!

Clicking on the small magnifying symbol for each image will bring up an enlarged view to enable the messages to be read more easily.


This page was added on 16/08/2023.

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