What are embroidered postcards?
The embroidered silk postcard is a common souvenir of the First World War. They are blank postcards onto which an embossed paper surround has been glued, to frame and hold a central piece of silk. On the silk, a design is hand-embroidered in coloured thread.
Who sent and received them?
The embroidered postcards were very popular with British soldiers who often sent them home. They were sold in thin paper envelopes but were seldom sent through the post in them. They were too fragile and, more particularly, they represented quite an investment – they were not cheap souvenirs. Usually they were mailed with letters. For this reason, they are often unwritten, with no marks on the back, any message having been sent in an accompanying letter.
There are a fantastic number of designs, generally patriotic or sentimental, all seeking to show the bright colours of the threads to best effect. Flags, butterfly wings, bird plumage and rainbows feature strongly. Also embroidered – usually in a single colour - are a few words.
A ‘silk pocket’ effect can also feature, into which a tiny pre-printed card can be found.
Some of the most collected cards today are those featuring cap badges of individual regiments – intricate designs often requiring great skill to reproduce in thread.
Background and production
Embroidered silk postcards do not all date from the First World War – they were used for sentimental greetings in France before 1914. First exhibited in 1900, they continued to be manufactured until the 1950s. Production peaked during the 1914-18 war, as the format proved especially popular with British soldiers. The hand-embroidery is thought to have been carried out in domestic houses as ‘out-work’ by civilians in France and Belgium, and in the UK by Belgian refugees. The designs were repeatedly embroidered on rolls of silk. These were then sent to cities (mainly Paris) for cutting up, final assembly and distribution, in what was probably at that stage a factory operation.
There was a resurgence in popularity in 1939-40, when they were also sent home by members of the second British Expeditionary Force. These later examples tend to have more muted colours, and a ‘crimpled cut’ edge to the card.
Factory-made woven cards
There are similar types of cards, which are similar in size and format to the hand-embroidered cards, but were woven by machinery. Weaving could allow more complex images, typically depictions of the war destruction of historic buildings (such as the cathedral at Louvain, and Ypres cloth hall), or recognisable portraits (such as Edith Cavell).
Looking after your embroidered postcard
Silk is a particularly difficult material to preserve, being sensitive to light, handling, and humidity extremes and fluctuations. Close examination of most cards will show some tearing of the silk, and there may be small holes developing. The card used in the First World War was also often poor quality, and today will exhibit brown staining (known as ‘foxing’) due to acids. Although visible foxing can sometimes be reduced, it is a specialist job. In most circumstances, careful storage in specialist polyester sleeves and archive-quality boxes is the most practical route to extending the life of these delightful designs.
Never frame an original silk card for display – they will quickly fade, even if placed away from direct sunlight.
Useful websites and books for further research
Large selection from a private collection are illustrated here
Copies of all these books can be freely consulted from open shelves at the Explore History Centre at IWM London.
Till the Boys Come Home: The Picture Postcards of the First World War, Holt, Toni and Valmai Holt
London 1977: Macdonald and Jane's
An Illustrated History of the Embroidered Silk Postcard, Collins, Ian
Gabrian Antiques (First Edition - 2001) 152pp Card Covers
The leading book on the subject, since updated in part through the author’s website