When the big boys rode into town

It’s difficult to imagine what it was like when picture postcards exploded in production round about 1903. Although the first pictorial cards began to be published commercially in 1894, it took another eight or nine years before their presence on the High Street began to make itself felt. For sure, postcard were available for most towns, cities and seaside resorts by the turn of the 20th century, but the most enthusiastic buyers were visitors from overseas, and with the exception of Valentine of Dundee, most postcards came from local firms without a strong nationwide reach. ETW Dennis of Scarborough were the pioneers in September 1894, and their earliest postcards were of their home town.

It took the muscle of the established greetings card and scrap souvenir publishers Raphael Tuck, and the far-sightedness of the entrepreneur Evelyn Wrench to really lift a niche product into mainstream consciousness. London firm Tuck’s first postcards appeared in February 1900, though at first even they stayed local – artist-drawn views of the capital and River Thames scenes – but once they’d realised the potential of picture postcards, they targeted places nationwide for their work. Wrench looked at the German postcard model and equally saw the potential for a successful business.

Meanwhile, local photographers in communities all over Britain took their cue from the postcard ripples started by Tuck and Wrench, and adapted from being studio photographers to town newshounds, and the two ends of the publishing spectrum – local and national – soon found themselves in direct competition. Let’s take the south-west seaside town of Weymouth as an example. In the first decade of the 20th century, ten small one-man (at least initially) enterprises began publishing picture postcards aimed at tourists. Prominent among them were Edward Seward, H. Cumming, Priscilla & Edward Hitch and V.J. Broomfield. They did not, however, have the patch to themselves as a host of mainly London-based publishers muscled in on Weymouth’s potential, rather like gold prospectors in the Wild West. In fact the list of them reads like a roll-call of the postcard great and good: Tuck, Ettlinger, Stewart & Woolf, Woolstone Bros., Hartmann, Hutson Bros., Blum & Degen and Stengel, all London-based. But the firms came in from far and wide – Gale & Polden from Aldershot, Delittle, Fenwick & Co. from York, Valentine of Dundee, Welch of Portsmouth, Judges of Hastings, LL from Paris, Millar & Lang from Glasgow.

It’s fascinating to imagine the competition to get retailers to sell the postcards! All the best views were repeated endlessly from different angles, but I’ve chosen just one landmark – the clock tower – to provide a flavour of the period.


Featured postcards:

  1. Classic view of the Clock Tower published by valentine and sent to Plymouth in July 1910.
  2. Seward’s real photographic cards were among the best postcard available.
  3. Published by Stengel, this postcard was sent to Southfields in south-west London in July 1906.
  4. Cumming’s photographic cards are superb. This one was posted to Devonport a week after the previous example.
  5. Nottingham-based Boots were also in on the action. This card shows the Clock Tower from a different angle on King Street, where local photographer Broomfield was based at no. 22.
  6. An offering from the London firm of Max Ettlinger, sent to Blackheath in July 1905.
  7. Stewart & Woolf postcard, posted to Kensington in September 1905.