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Constable Postcard Collection
The Constable Collection is based around a series of Wellington postcards, most of which date from 1905 to 1914. The collection is named after Mr. F Constable from Hawke's Bay who donated a significant portion of the collection to Wellington City Libraries in the 1980s. They represent Wellington's contribution to a world-wide phenomenon of collecting picture postcards which began at the turn of last century and lasted until the start of World War I.
The postcard phenomenon
Postcards were an extension of the earlier pastime of collecting Carte de Viste (small 'Visiting Cards') and larger 'Cabinet' sized photographs. These were produced by individual photographic studios who would glue albumen prints onto heavy card for general sale. Studio portraits were more common than outdoor photographs and portraits of Maori were especially popular in New Zealand. Photographers would produce as many as the local market could absorb, but there was little distribution outside of the studio's hometown and they were not generally posted as individual items.
Postcards were to explode in popularity at the start of the 20th Century for number of reasons.
Firstly the introduction of the 'Penny Post' by the New Zealand General Post Office in 1901 which reduced the rate to send a letter overseas from New Zealand to a penny. Internal postage rates were also halved and most importantly for postcard publishers, the internal rate for sending a postcard was half that of a letter.
Secondly, the development of photo-lithographic techniques which allowed photographs to be reproduced in large number at low cost. Interestingly, the world centre for postcard manufacturing was Germany and most of high quality postcards in the Constable Collection are of German origin. German printers developed the painstaking technique of hand-tinting photographs with coloured inks. These colours could be reproduced in the printing process and the result were pseudo-colour photographs with distinctive pastel tones. Clouds were often painted in and so these often have much more 'traditional' European appearance compared to the cloud formations commonly seen in New Zealand. German labour was also very cheap and this helped keep their printing industry extremely competitive.
Lastly, photographic studios lost their monopoly of the sale and distribution of photographic images, as postcards, costing a fraction of the price of a genuine photograph, became available through bookshops and general stores. They were heavily promoted and popular with shopkeepers as they took up little display space and profit margins were good.
Postcard mania in Wellington
At the height of Wellington's postcard craze, people would buy a number each week for personal collections or for mailing. New releases were eagerly anticipated. They were sent to friends and relatives with the expectation that one would receive postcards in return. Collections were often mounted in elaborate albums that would be placed in a conspicuous place in the family home for visitors to see and admire, taking second place only to the family bible. The design of the cards became increasingly intricate with vignettes, fancy edging and deep embossment all becoming fashionable. The most highly prized were the 'French fold' postcards where a number of images were printed on a long strip. These were then folded 'concertina' style to a compact size and bound with stiff cardboard covers.
Most important was their use as a means of communication in an age when people travelled less frequently, telephones were few, telegraph was expensive - but the postal service was quick, efficient, and cheap. They were frequently mailed ahead to announce a family visit, or to invite friends to parties. In fact, most of the news conveyed by postcard was trivial and mundane with the image chosen often reflecting the nature of the news. For example, postcards showing Wellington Hospital were often sent to friends and relatives of patients giving news of the progress or decline of their health. Local incidents could result in a short, limited run of locally produced postcards to publicise the event in an age when photographs were not yet appearing in newspapers. Examples in the collection include the appearance of a beached whale on Wellington's south coast, a fatal tram accident on Brooklyn hill and the aftermath of a major storm. They provided a convenient and cheap way of keeping in touch without the encumbrance of descriptive letter writing and were one of the few specialist forms of written communication to fill this role until the widespread introduction of email and cell phone messaging. In fact, 120 years ago postcards were derided by critics in the same way that email and text messaging were later to be; namely, they were believed to be a threat to the art of letter writing and people's ability to spell and use grammar correctly.
Decline in popularity
The postcard mania began to wane from about 1913. Printers started under-cutting each other which led to a massive world-wide glut of postcards. They started to be sold in discount packs, often at less than cost price. The outbreak of World War I marked the final end of the craze. The breaking of diplomatic relations with Germany meant New Zealand publishers no longer had access to their high quality postcard manufacturers and attitudes changed as people became concerned with the serious business of war. Letter writing had a huge resurgence and improved telecommunications meant short messages could be sent around the world far more reliably and cheaply than had previously been the case.
While postcards continued to be available, their role began to change to the position they hold today; pictorial images with short messages to be sent to friends and family while on holiday. While they remain common, they have never again become the global phenomenon where for nearly 15 years, hundreds of millions of postcards were purchased and sent around the world annually.