Wednesday 26 December 2012

Postcards from the Threshold – Dianne Hofmeyr

Albert Memorial 1904 
This is not exactly a Boxing Day post – for that you’ll have to go to Dec 26th 2011 but Essie Fox’s on Christmas cards reminded me of how each year my mother-in-law put the same old favourites on display – some going back as far as the first Christmas after her marriage.

It was finding Susannah Clapp’s ‘A Card from Angela Carter’ in my Christmas stocking that reminded me of how histories can be woven from a few sparse sentences. Clapp has written this slim volume drawing from a few postcards Carter sent to her as a friend… like a paper trail of her life. Carter’s words are terse and funny and the images on the postcards often unexpected and baring no relation to the message.

The book made me dig out some of my own old postcards from the threshold of the last century. In the early 1900’s postcards would have been what email is to the early 2000’s, just as telegrams were what texting is today. Between the short sentences, it’s often the words left out that give the glimpse into history.

The Albert Memorial postcard above is dated 1904 and addressed to a Miss Brooks of The Dairy, Kew Green. It says: Hoping you have safely arrived with love to all. J. S. Where had Miss Brooks been that she might not be safe? And who is J. S.?

One from my mother-in-law written from her Junior school, Herschel in Cape Town in the early 20’s to her parents, in rounded, childlike cursive describes cutting herself on some rocks on an excursion to the sea, then she writes: I have been doing my best to please my mistress for my sake, their sake, and your sake, so please let me come home next Sunday and bring someone with me.

Her own father in his early teens arriving from Dallas Texas, to take up a position at a Stationers in London declares to his sister: I have been made fun of in London because no one wears their hair parted in the middle and I have had to adopt a side parting.

My father receives a postcard in 1913 aged six, from his father, while he stays in the Somerset Hospital in Cape Town for a few months with tuberculosis. His father writes: Hoping you are getting well. Daddy will see you on Sunday. One wonders if this, in typical Edwardian fashion, is the first visit he’ll have from any family in the time he’s been there? (the word ‘daddy’ surprised me).

The front of the card is rather gouged and shows children in his hometown of The Strand, 30 miles away, promenading on the beach. It’s all quite jolly with boys in boaters and knickerbockers and girls walking arm in arm, compared to the rather grim exterior of the hospital on a bleak seashore next to the Cape Town harbour. I wonder if the scene cheered him up or made him feel worse.

The new Somerset Hospital, Cape Town - 1897
The Strand beachfront, Cape - 1913
So with postcards and Christmas cards now a thing of the past, what about emails and texts? Will they be collected as a record of fashion and whimsy and modern comment – a new threshold to the world? In the mean time enjoy Boxing Day... or rather... the Feast of St Stephen.


Katherine Langrish said...

Lovely post, Diane - it' a good though that postcards were the email (or twitter?) of the 19th C - they showed someone attention without requiring too much effort! And for children, like that six year old, who might not read well enough to want to plough through a whole letter, the picture must have been a comfort.

Joan Lennon said...

Re. the Strand Beachfront - why do these photos twist our heart strings the way they do? A painting of the same scene, however skilful or lovely, would not have the same effect. Thank you for posting!

Sue Bursztynski said...

People do still send postcards! :-) And Christmas cards. I have plenty of both. A friend of mine collects the free advertising postcards you often find in shops and such and sends those. Email just isn't the same! They do say something about the time and place in which they were produced and sent, definitely. The ones with this post are fascinating!

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Yes the images on free postcards are sometimes tremendous. I found the recent newspaper report of a letter found of a soldier writing to his brother from the front in 1914 to tell of the ceasefire on Christmas Day and a spontaneous rugby match between the British and the Germans, very poignant.

adele said...

I kind of collect old postcards! I love them. And I used to send them ALL THE TIME and receive them too, before the days of email. Still try to send when I can. Lovely post.