Friday, 17 February 2012

Elephant No. 138: Novelty Postcard

I came across a couple of reproduction postcards like this last week, and thought I'd try making one for today's elephant. I remember playing with these kinds of postcards at a great-aunt's house when I was little, although I haven't seen an original one in years.

The first known picture postcard was a hand-painted design on card stock, mailed in London in 1840. The first American postcard appears to have been an advertising card mailed in 1848, and the world's earliest commercially-produced postcards were made in 1861 by John P. Charlton of Philadelphia. Charlton patented the cards, then sold the rights to the Lipman company, which produced postcards with a decorated border but no other image.

The first known printed picture postcard with a full image was produced in France in 1870 at a military training camp, and featured piles of armaments, a coat of arms, and an inscription. Although this was considered the first true picture postcard, there was no room for a stamp, and it is believed that all of them were sent in envelopes.

The first known picture postcard, France, 1870.

In 1871, the first souvenir postcard was sent from Vienna, and in 1872, the first advertising card appeared in Britain. By the 1880s, cards with images were widespread, and 1889 postcards of the newly-built Eiffel Tower boosted the popularity of postcards, leading to what is widely viewed as their Golden Age.

In their early days, postcards were not without controversy. Because the image was not concealed within an envelope, issues arose about their propriety. Postcards considered acceptable in one country might be banned in another, and some countries refused to handle postcards with slightly risqué content, as well as anything featuring full or partial nudity. This often included images of Classical sculpture and works of art. Similarly, in 1900, the Ottoman Empire banned postcards with any content relating to the Prophet Muhammad, and postcards with an Ottoman Empire postmark predating this ban have become highly collectible.

As the craze for postcards grew, magazines for collectors were published, designs expanded exponentially, and people began compiling albums of their favourites. Millions of postcards were being sent and received every day on every conceivable subject, from the merits of laundry starch to satirical cartoons.

By the dawn of the twentieth century, the market for novelty postcards was also expanding. From approximately 1901 to 1910, novelty postcards were made in sizes including bookmark, midget and giant. They featured cartoons, jokes and tall tales. They were produced with moving parts and levers. They were adorned with things such as hair, ribbon, chain and even tiny bags of salt or sand. They were made of oddball materials, including wood, silk and leather. They featured diecut shapes and, of course, cutouts to allow the recipient to animate legs, arms or nose.

German novelty postcard, ca. 1901–1910.
The text translates as: "Here you see a sweet, beautiful maiden.
She washes her feet—and it's high time!"

As postal systems became more mechanized, novelty postcards more often than not had to be sent in envelopes, and their popularity began to wane. With the sobering effect of the First World War, content also changed. For example, in my own small collection, I have a strange postcard booklet from the First World War, which features nothing but bombed-out buildings in the Somme-region town of Albert. Increasing use of the telephone led to the further demise of the postcard, as it was easier to pick up the telephone than to dash off even a few lines on a card, take it to the post office and mail it.

By the 1970s, postcards had begun to regain some of their popularity as an advertising item. People also began to rediscover albums of vintage postcards that had been long tucked away in a family attic. Today, there are postcard associations all over the world, with highly specialized collectors, exhibitions, and auctions. Postcards that once sold for less than a single penny can now sell for hundreds of dollars, with some selling well into the thousands. My favourite in my own collection is  one that comes from a long-defunct insane asylum, with a note in pencil on the back about what a lovely time the sender was having. Hopefully she wasn't an inmate.

For today's elephant, I decided to make one with finger legs and one with a finger trunk. I started by sketching the elephants in pencil, which also helped me to determine where the finger holes should go.

Next, I went over the main outlines with a fine black pigment marker, then erased all the pencil marks. 

I then painted them with good-quality cake watercolours.

All that was left now was cutting the holes. I didn't want huge holes too much bigger than my fingers, so I traced around a button that seemed to be about the right diameter. I was going to use a circle cutter that I somehow inherited (but have never used); but even its smallest circle was too large, so I cut my circles out with scissors. The circus elephant looked strangely like a dog at this point.

And now for the fun part: animating the card. I should probably have painted my fingers grey or something for this, but you get the idea. It surprised me to see how expressive fingers can be with such limited range of motion, but it was kind of interesting to play with this. 

I goofed a bit by drawing the circus elephant's trunk too low on the card. Other than that, however, this was fun to do, and would be a great activity for kids. It doesn't take much thought to figure out where to put the holes, and it certainly doesn't take much time to draw and cut. Most of my time was spent painting, and even that didn't take long with such simple drawings.

If I'd had just a bit more time, I would probably have added in a background for each to make it look more like an actual novelty postcard. But I like both of these, and they're ridiculous enough to make me laugh.


Elephant Lore of the Day
Elephants like to play as much as any other animal, but pity the poor monitor lizard who became an Asian elephant's favourite toy. 

Madhuri and her favourite toy, Corbett National Park, India.
Photo: ©Jagdeep Rajput/Solent News and Photo Agency

In Corbett National Park in India, the female elephant Madhuri is apparently quite taken with monitor lizards as playthings. Scooping the hapless creatures off the ground by their tails, Madhuri will carry them around for days, swinging them about in the air like rag dolls. Sometimes she also tosses them high into the air, lets them drop to the ground, then picks them up and flings them around again.

Eventually she gets bored with her lizard du jour, and lets it escape—only to snatch up another monitor lizard a few days later.

Madhuri walking with her hapless plaything.
Photo: ©Jagdeep Rajput/Solent News and Photo Agency

To Support Elephant Welfare
World Wildlife Fund
World Society for the Protection of Animals
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information on a number of sanctuaries around the world)
Performing Animal Welfare Society
Bring the Elephant Home
African Wildlife Foundation 

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