Postcards Exhibition Catalogue Essay
In On Holidays: A History Of Getting Away In Australia, Richard White proposes that as Australians we are predisposed to love travel, from a day trip to an annual getaway at the beach.
He points out that the first Australians were mostly nomadic, moving with the seasons around their traditional estates. And non-Indigenous Australians are all descended, from people who fairly recently travelled for whatever reason to live in a distant, unknown land. Australia has often been referred to as ‘the land of the long weekend’. Although in recent decades, White also wonders, have we lost our way in finding that balance between work and play that used to be so dear to us?
The exhibition Postcards: Stories from the Mornington Peninsula explores a time in Victorian history when holidaying was a grand pastime, and when the special and unique locales of our country began to be appreciated, celebrated and shared in that iconic mode of communication: the picture postcard.
Although postcards became synonymous with holidaying and travel, the earliest known picture postcard was a hand-painted design on card, posted in London to the writer Theodore Hook in 1840. He probably created and posted the card to himself as a practical joke on the postal service, since the image is a caricature of workers in the post office(1). The first known picture postcard in which the image functioned as a souvenir was sent from Vienna in 1871. Cards showing images increased in number during the 1880s, growing in popularity around the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1889 and leading into the so-called “golden age” of the picture postcard in years following the mid-1890s. The exhibition Postcards: stories from the Mornington Peninsula may be considered an exercise in ‘deltiology’ which is the name for the study and collecting of postcards. Although they had a specific function originally, historic postcards are now important as historical records. The image of place and the bit of scrawled handwriting can tell us a lot about places and values at a moment in the past(2). The image on a postcard is intended to show ‘this is what it’s like here’ and the limited space on the reverse forces the writer to be concise and economical, and to focus on the key message, a bit like the 140 character limit of a Twitter ‘tweet’ today. Alongside the ‘wish you were here’ tradition of postcard-writing is an approach that expresses the pleasurable holiday being had by the writer, in many cases intended to inspire some jealousy in the reader!
Some postcards were never sent through the post. By 1900 there was a worldwide network of postcard collectors, who would trade and collect cards often on favourite subjects. Other postcards were never sent but kept as a memento, slipped into a suitcase and later an album at home. However they were used, the main concern of postcards is place. Prior to the widespread ownership of personal cameras the holiday maker could purchase a handful of these cards at low cost enabling memories of places visited to be brought back home or posted to others. They express and evoke notions of place, especially places which are distant, novel or scenic. As a vehicle for an exhibition, postcards encourage thinking about place. They provide a way to understand how places have changed over time, and how they have remained the same.
Postcards are the document of the traveler. Thus historical postcards lead us to also think about travel, and modes of transport. Postcards: stories from the Mornington Peninsula examines a period from the late 19th Century to the mid-twentieth century, during which the phenomenon of the private motor car emerged. The impact of this technological change was immense, in particular on holiday-making and holiday-related industries. Once popular modes of holiday transport like paddle steamers, trams and trains faded into oblivion directly as a result of car ownership becoming the norm. Although convenient, the journey made in a private car was a vastly different experience to those older, grander, more dramatic forms of collective transport in which the journey itself was a large part of the fun on a holiday. In a similar vein, the tradition of collective accommodation, as seen in guesthouses and the Harley Clubhouse, has also fallen somewhat out of favour, with most holidaymakers now preferring privacy over communal activities. The exception to this change is the enduring popularity of camping along the foreshore, from Safety beach to Rye.
Indeed, if some postcards highlight change, others show what has remained much the same. Some traditions continue reasonably unchanged over hundred years: enjoying the view from Arthurs Seat; swimming, fishing and camping on the Rye foreshore.
As well as being a holiday mecca, the Peninsula has always had another role as a plentiful food producing region. In pre-colonial times, Boon-wurrung people hunted and fished the area, collecting plant food, hunting for marsupials such as possum and kangaroo and drew fish and shellfish from the sea. From the earliest days of European settlement, the shores of Westernport around Hastings were home to fishing families, many just subsisting on what they could catch to eat and to and sell. In Somerville and Tyabb the soils and climate were perfect for sustaining fruit orchards, which provided picking and packing work for many people, and facilitated the growth of those towns.
The first ‘Australia’ postcard was issued by the NSW postal authorities in 1875. Arguably, the most popular brand of Australian postcard was the ‘Rose Series’ postcards, and they abound in museum collections as a result. The Rose Stereograph Co. was founded in 1880 by Melbourne photographer George Rose. He travelled the world producing three-dimensional ‘stereograph’ images of places he visited. Around 1912 the Company first started producing postcards (the famous the ‘P Series’) and continued to do so until 1967 at which time they switched to machine manufactured colour postcards printed by an outside firm. Before that point, the company had been proud of the fact that their postcards featured real black and white photographs, produced in the chemical darkroom in the standard postcard format of 3½ x 5½inches, as distinct from the mass produced lithograph or letterpress printed alternatives by other publishers. They manufactured postcards strictly for Australian tourists and holiday-makers and it is not surprising to find that most of their images are of country towns, city streets, bush scenes and beachscapes of Australia.
It is also no surprise that the late 19th century saw the golden era of postcards. In Victoria, ‘holidaying’ began to emerge as a phenomenon in the 1870s, on the back of the newly laid, and rapidly expanding railway networks. At first the domain of the wealthy, in the twentieth century holidays and travel came into reach of the average Australian. For many people, childhood memories of holidays on the Mornington Peninsula are treasured ones. And given the widespread ‘workaholism’ highlighted by Richard White, perhaps it is wise for us to reflect, through this exhibition, on the special nature of holidays as shared and happy times in our lives.
(1) Akbar 2002
(2) Quanchi 2005
Akbar, Arifa, “Oldest picture postcard in the world snapped up for £31,750”, The Independent, 9 March 2002
Blum, R (2011) George Rose: The Postcard Era, self-published
Jim Davidson, Peter Spearitt (2000) Holiday Business: Tourism in Australia Since 1870, Melbourne University Press
Quanchi, Max (2004) ‘Postcards from the colonies: are postcards valuable as historical evidence?’ Ozhistorybytes, 4
White, R (2005) On Holidays: A History of Getting Away in Australia, Pluto, Melbourne