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A Stitch in Time: Exploring the History of Embroidered Postcards

Dear reader, thank you so much for taking the time to visit. For the very first post of my bookbinding blog, I would like to share with you something truly special – a historical look into the creation of antique embroidered postcards.

In today’s digital age, where communication is often instant and virtual, it’s easy to forget the charm and personal touch that physical postcards once held. Among the various forms of vintage correspondence, embroidered postcards stand out as beautiful and intricate works of art. In this blog post, we’ll delve into the captivating history of embroidered postcards, exploring their origins, popularity, and enduring appeal.

I would like to give a special shout out to Dr. Ian Collins, who is an expert in postcard history. Much of my information is summarized from his fantastic book about embroidered postcards. I highly recommend visiting his site if you are curious about embroidered postcards – he has a really cool image gallery of antique postcards with detailed histories for each unique card! All images on this blog post are courtesy of Dr. Ian Collins and taken from his site.

Table of Contents

1902 postcard with the Swiss shield and floral wreath
~1905 Swiss Alps postcard

The Origins of Embroidered Postcards

Embroidered postcards first emerged in the late 19th century or early 20th century Europe. They were presented at the 1900 Paris Exhibition and published by Adolf Grieder & Cie of Zurich (Ian Collins, 2001). The combination of delicate fabric, thread, and charming designs intrigued the masses. At first, embroidered postcards were considered an expensive luxury, but with the advent of the World Wars and mass production, embroidered postcards were gradually made accessible to the public.

Rising Popularity and Production

Switzerland is believed to be the center-point of early embroidered postcard production, which has a long history of extravagant embroidery. Swiss embroidery is highly coveted for its intricate designs and vibrancy. Indeed, St. Gallen, Switzerland is one of the largest exporters of embroidery in the world. Germany and France were also one of the main historical players of embroidered postcard production. Eventually this practice made its way to the United States, where it remained somewhat less popular compared to picture postcards.

An interesting fact about embroidered postcards lies in their make – some postcards were created with pockets and a decorative flap. This made the sorting process of postcards more difficult for postmen, so a new rule was introduced: novelty postcards had to be sent in an envelope. Unfortunately this means that many embroidered postcards found today were not stamped or dated, and the senders sometimes did not date their postcards, so it becomes more challenging for archivists to figure out what year certain postcards were produced. Nonetheless, we are sure that embroidered postcards came into prominence during the early 20th century, especially peaking around the 1910s.

Hand-embroidery machine in Calais, France

How Embroidered Postcards Were Created

The standard appearance of an embroidered postcard usually involves three key components – the silk embroidery itself, a beautifully ornate frame, and a paper back upon which the sender could write their message. Some embroidered postcards do not have the ornate frame.

In the beginning, these special postcards were embroidered by hand by peasant women who were trying to earn some money for their families. Starched fabric was stretched over a wooden frame and embroidered by hand. Handmade embroidered postcards are visually neater than their manufactured counterparts, which were created by machines starting around the 1910s. Handmade embroidery was used all the way up to the 1930s, when machines finally replaced manual labor.

For a detailed discussion on the history of embroidered silk postcard production, Dr. Ian Collins has a great article here.

The Great War (1914 – 1919)

With the advent of World War I, embroidered postcard production would take a drastic turn. These novelty items went from expensive luxuries to affordable mementos that soldiers would often send to their loved ones back home. France became the most popular producer of embroidered postcards, while Germany, Switzerland, and the United States took a back seat.

The postcards often featured a patriotic theme, with embroidered flags from countries such as Russia, Britain, France, and Belgium. Since some soldiers tended to be illiterate from this time period, these postcards with embroidered greetings were perfect little messages to send back home. For the more literate ones, soldiers were carefully monitored regarding the messages they were allowed to write, so these postcards did not talk about the war itself – rather, soldiers often spoke about the weather or general health. Postcards would display infantry or cavalry regiment insignias, weaponry, places, or patriotic symbols related to certain countries.

Interestingly, when Russia fell to the Bolsheviks in 1917 and left the War, the Russian flag disappeared from embroidered postcards and was typically replaced with either the Serbian or American flags. This certainly helps dating some postcards from that time period.

If you would like a very detailed explanation of how embroidered postcards were tied to the Great War, please refer to Dr. Ian Collins’s book. Indeed, the legacy of embroidered postcards is intimately linked to the war effort.

Inter-War Years (1920 – 1938)

After the Great War, the mass production of embroidered postcards seemed to die out as quickly as it started. Nonetheless, they continued to persist with casual civilian flair, featuring themes such as greetings, birthday wishes, romance, and holiday remembrance. Many cards have gorgeous illustrations of birds, flowers, and holiday art. This category of embroidered silk postcards is sometimes referred to as ‘Hearts and Flowers’, which is less coveted by serious collectors because they are usually interested in war memorabilia. Regardless, there are many postcards with these themes, and they are truly beautiful to look at.

The Hearts and Flowers postcards are a particular favorite of mine, and I love using them for my handmade journals. According to Dr. Ian Collins, these type of postcards have been shown to feature over a dozen different birds and animals, and the most common flower designs are roses, pansies, and forget-me-nots. Some postcards even came with beautiful little handkerchiefs tucked into the front pockets.

Despite the fact that patriotic themes were no longer needed on embroidered silk postcards, companies still represented at least 20 different countries with their flags on postcards made from this time period. Not all flags were of European origin – some postcards featured flags from South America, Japan, Palestine, India, South Africa, Syria, and Hawaii. During this inter-war period, Switzerland, France, and Germany were still leaders of the embroidered postcard business, although it had declined since the war. Most of the postcards from this time period were sent to and from France.

Second World War (1939 – 1945)

Production of embroidered postcards once again ramped up, this time in France. However, since France was occupied by Germany for three years, it did not meet the same output quota for postcards as it did during the first world war. There aren’t many patriotic postcards from this war period. Most common of the postcards from this time are the 1940 postcards, with many of them referencing France. Following the Battle of Normandy, newly liberated France immediately resumed postcard production. In summary, it seems France dominated the embroidered postcard industry at this time, with a three year cool-down period due to German occupation. Even though production resumed after its liberation, the creation of embroidered postcards continued to decline and ceased in France after WWII was over.

Post-War Period

Although France ceased its postcard production after the end of the war, Switzerland never quite lost steam in the trade. Swiss embroidered postcards were always in the background of production, and seemed to have broken through the dark clouds with some new designs that made their way to the market. Some Swiss postcards were made in the form of greeting cards written in English, which might mean they were aimed at British or American tourists.

By the 1950s, a new player entered the embroidered postcard market – Spain. Due to the rise of tourism in Spain, embroidered postcards made a surprising entrance in this country. These cards were called “Spanish Silks”, although they were produced in Switzerland. They are also not exclusive to Spain, and feature designs from other countries like Greece, France, Denmark, and more. Spanish Silks usually show an embroidered traditional costume on a person from that country, and the embroidery was done on the card itself, rather than embroidered and glued onto the back of a postcard like the earlier designs.

Conclusion

The history of embroidered silk postcards is rather intimately tied with the First World War, but it certainly exists in distinct forms from its patriotic themes. Many postcards were designed for civilians who wanted to send messages of greetings, birthday wishes, holiday tidings, and other general themes. While there was a tug-of-war between Switzerland, Germany, and France over the domination of embroidered postcard production, we must not forget to appreciate the beauty and effort of hand-embroidered postcards that were created in the early years of this industry.

Many postcards have been discovered and archived, and yet many more are probably still waiting to be found. I would like to say a big thank you to Dr. Ian Collins and other experienced collectors who not only continue to uncover these unique postcards, but also tie their existence to significant parts of history.

I hope you enjoyed this retelling of embroidered postcard history. If you would like to see more designs, I create little journals using antique postcards and currently sell them on this site, as well as on Etsy. Thank you for taking the time to read my blog post, and have a wonderful day!