The perennially popular postcard takes centre stage in Wish You Were Here exhibition.
In this age of instant communication through text messages, social networks and email, the humble postcard seems a quaint anachronism in a world completely saturated in text and images, yet for over 100 years it has been the preferred way for holiday makers to send a brief message to family and friends. Even today, despite our high tech interactive devices, you will find tourists hovering around the postcard stands, deliberating on just the right one to send back home. Some may argue that the postcard is losing relevancy, yet there’s no denying this accessible and egalitarian artform is still popular.
I confess I have a stash of postcards collected over the years from people traversing the globe so it was with some interest that I visited an exhibition at the National Wool Museum, Wish You Were Here which celebrates the history of Geelong through these ubiquitous rectangular letters.
Several hundred enlarged reproductions and original, vintage postcards are on display, offering a glimpse of how Geelong and surrounds used to look, with some cards dating back to the turn of the 20th century. The postcards reveal the growth of Geelong and nearby holiday destinations such as Queenscliff, Barwon Heads and even Point Addis.
It is fascinating to see how Geelong has changed: trams in Ryrie St, tall ships at Moorabool Wharf, a cyclist rounding the old gaslamp in Malop St. From the bronze figures striking the bell in the historic T & G Clock Tower to a cheeky look at Lover’s Walk in Queenscliff, the postcards reveal the way the community wants to be seen and remembered. The images represent an idealised record of what was valued at the time, and each postcard has its own story to tell, a testament to past lives and forgotten places.
Photographic postcards became popular around 1902 when Eastman Kodak developed postcard sized paper which enabled a postcard to be developed directly from the negative. Two local photographers active in the postcard industry were J. Lockwood and William Henry Watts. Several postcards in the exhibition are by the Watts family who ran a photography studio between 1886 and 1919 specialising in general photographs of the Geelong region and family portraits. Another early local photographer was Charles Pratt who took many of the first aerial views of Geelong and the surrounding regions in the 1920s. Pratt served in the Royal Flying Corps during the World War I and after the war, he and his brother started an aircraft factory in Geelong.
The messages on the back of the cards give us an insight into society at the time. While some notes are as banal as a dull Facebook status update, others strike with resounding poignancy. “Dear Ive, Our dear little Ella was taken to the hospital today, the Dr. thinks it might be typhoid. love from Flo.”
Only a few of the messages make any reference to the image on the card and interestingly, of the 1000 or so postcards that were scrutinised for the exhibition, the curators were surprised to discover that the well worn expression “Wish you were here” was actually quite rare – they found only one card containing the phrase.
And just as today, purists express concerns that text messages and Twitter are eroding the English language, critics at the turn of the century feared postcards and telegrams would cause the demise of the written word. As one writer lamented in Melbourne’s The Argus, 1895, “In these degenerate days of post-cards and typewriters letter-writing has become for many almost a lost art.”
If you are interested in the history of Geelong or postcards in general, you will find this exhibition a treasure trove of information. The exhibition is on until 2nd December at the National Wool Museum, 26 Moorabool St, Geelong. www.nwm.vic.gov.au
And if you have penchant for postcards, why not get involved in a postcard project? Thanks to the internet (oh the irony), postcards have experienced something of a resurgence. Postcard Projects have popped up where you can send a postcard (real ones, not electronic) and receive a postcard back from a random person in the world. Now, who wouldn’t like that?
By the way, if you are an artist who has developed a series of postcards, let us know by leaving a comment. We’d love to hear from you.