Illustrating an Era
The Song Postcards of Bamforth & Co
Author: Jillian Cyca
When Mary Taylor of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan died in 1952, her collection of postcards was donated to the University of Saskatchewan archives. The album, cherished for years by Taylor as a reminder of her “dear homeland” of England, contains postcards of many sorts.1 Some depict majestic landmarks, while others depict comical and light-hearted characters. Some were sent to give congratulations, to send birthday wishes, or to show a memorable site from recent travels. All of them provide an interesting look into the past, but none are quite as fascinating as the pages of illustrated song cards published by Bamforth & Co. These postcards, produced early in the 20th century in Yorkshire, England by James Bamforth, have been sought by collectors for the past century. They feature poignant photographs and lyrics from well-known songs of the time, and - though similar in some ways to postcards today - are unmistakably from a different era. The themes, songs and uses of these cards naturally correspond to turn-of-the-century culture, and exploring these aspects provides a glimpse into a now unfamiliar world.
The song postcards came into being after Bamforth & Co. had already followed several other pursuits. Before postcards, the company was known for its production of magic lantern slides. The magic lantern, a precursor to the modern projector, was invented near the end of the 17th century to illustrate stories and songs before an audience. The invention reached its heyday in the 1870s and 80s, with Bamforth & Co. at the forefront of slide production.2 The most popular slides were those illustrating a song or hymn, displaying one verse at a time matched with a corresponding photograph. The photographs brought the story to life. Taken by Bamforth himself, they showed family members and local performers posing in front of painted backdrops, depicting scenes from each song. As the photographs and lyrics were projected with the magic lantern, the audience would sing along, making the event somewhat like a 19th century version of karaoke. Unsurprisingly, Bamforth & Co. found great success with his slides, and was producing them on an industrial scale by 1883.3
The similarities between the company’s photographic lantern slides and early silent films created a natural path for Bamforth to the world of filmmaking in 1898. In two years, he created 15 silent films and earned recognition as one of the earliest, pre-Hollywood filmmakers. It was, however, a short-lived vocation. During the next decade materials used for making film were needed for the manufacturing of WWI war explosives, and the magic lantern’s popularity faded as Hollywood became the dominant power in the film industry.4 Bamforth instead focused his efforts elsewhere. A well-timed business move led the company to its next marketable commodity: postcards.
Postcard production became Bamforth & Co.’s business focus for the next eight decades and their song postcards, made from around 1900 to 1920, are arguably the most intriguing. Because of the popularity of magic lantern slides illustrating songs, the company designed postcards based on the same idea, and even reused some previous slide negatives. With this new medium, Bamforth had tapped into the current ‘rage,’ and had consequently begun creating the legacy for which he would be known for years to come.
Bamforth’s song postcard series noticeably reflect turn-of-the-century culture, and If you please, Miss, give me Heaven is a prime example. It features the hit song “Hello Central, Give Me Heaven” written by Charles K Harris in 1901, an American songwriter known as the “King of the Tearjerker.”5 In the song, a young girl laments to her devastated father that she is sad and lonely after the death of her mother, as she attempts to communicate with her by telephone. The sympathetic operator decides to respond to the girl, leading her to believe she has succeeded in reaching her mother.
Mary Taylor Postcard Collection
“If You Please, Miss, Give Me Heaven”
This notion of communicating with the deceased is indicative of the rapidly spreading spirituality in Europe at the turn of the century. In a book on this subject, author Trevor May uses this postcard as an example of a spirituality that “claimed the possibility of communicating with an unseen world, thus demonstrating the existence of life after death.”6 While the spiritual movement in Victorian culture has since been characterized as a “monstrous folly,” it was unquestionably widespread.7 The intent to prove existence after death, gather information on first-hand experiences of it, and communicate with the deceased may have involved some amount of naiveté, but was sincerely pursued, and became an undeniable cultural characteristic. The spiritual influence in If You Please, Miss… reveals a compelling aspect of the Victorian era.
Mary Taylor Postcard Collection
Mary Taylor Postcard Collection
Another Victorian aspect of If you please, Miss... is the strong family connection. The young girl’s “desperate attempts” to communicate with her mother reflects the tradition of maintaining strong family ties, as “the family unit provided a necessary source of emotional support to the people of the nineteenth century, confronted as they were by a rapidly and continually changing society.” 8 Many of Bamforth’s song postcards relate to themes of family and emotional support, like Baby, with the lyrics “When our baby, our Benny so sweet, Came upon earth, then our joy seemed complete,” and Daddy, in which a young girl sings “We’re all the world to each other, Daddy.” The theme of family also links to the practical use of postcards as one of the most convenient ways to correspond with far-away family members.
As mentioned, society at this time was in a state of flux. By the time these postcards were made, England had experienced over a century of rapid modernization, and had been introduced to many life-altering technological advances. In If you please, Miss..., the telephone is noteworthy because of its relatively new presence in domestic life. Making a phone call required calling the central telephone office, where an operator would make the connection to the other party. This postcard displays one example of technology of the early 1900’s, reminding today’s viewer of a time when the telephone was a groundbreaking innovation.
Mary Taylor Postcard Collection
“Everybody’s Loved by Someone”
The song postcards also demonstrate the changing technology of photography. It is difficult to know when each photograph was taken, since many were reused from the magic lantern days, but they were likely taken between 1880 and 1910. By today’s standards, the artifice of the composition is painfully obvious. The skewed perspective of a painted backdrop and “snow” made by deliberate ink marks on the negative in Everybody’s Loved By Someone creates a distinct studio look, but the postcard-buying public of the 1900’s was presumably nonjudgmental in this regard. Photography was, of course, still relatively new. For postcards depicting the “unseen world,” such as If you please, Miss... and Daddy, Bamforth employed the technique of photomontage. The term photomontage refers to “the use of two or more originals to make a combined image,” and became a popular technique soon after the invention of photography due to vast creative possibilities.9 For these postcards, the use of photomontage meant inserting a portrait of the deceased character in the photograph and blurring the edges to connote them floating in thin air, creating the look of a spiritual presence. Looking back, Bamforth’s use of photomontage has become a distinguishing characteristic of his era.
The solemn tone of Bamforth’s song cards is another distinct characteristic, and reflects the mood of the years in which many of them were made, those immediately leading up to and during the First World War. All over Europe, the noble mission, the departing hero and the separation of loved ones were recurrent postcard themes.10 The Anchor’s Weigh’d is a Scottish folk ballad seen on a set of Bamforth cards, telling the story of a couple saying farewell as the young man prepares to go to battle. His lover cries, “oft’ think of her you leave in tears behind,” and it was in this spirit that wives and girlfriends all over Britain sent postcards by the thousands to their soldiers in the trenches. Sending postcards was equally popular among the soldiers, as the small size made it easy for them to scrawl quick replies, and the cards could easily pass through postal censorship.
Another somber Bamforth postcard illustrates the hymn Abide With Me. The hymn was written by Henri Francis Lyte in 1847, while dying of tuberculosis, and is a plea to God to be present in times of illness and death.11 In an era plagued by untreatable illness and high mortality, coping with the loss of friends and family members often meant relying on religious beliefs, as we have seen in both Daddy and If You Please, Miss.... Though other forms of spirituality emerged, the belief in God remained strong for many people, and the popularity of this postcard speaks to the importance of religion in their lives.
Mary Taylor Postcard Collection
“The Anchor’s Weigh’d”
Mary Taylor Postcard Collection
“Abide With Me”
Bamforth’s illustrated song cards were not the only postcards of their kind, but stood apart from the rest with the reputation of being “beautifully printed and steeped in sentiment.”12 Today, these postcards are sentimental to the point of mawkishness, and the desire for such over-the-top expressions of suffering is almost puzzling. But during their time they filled a niche. Interestingly, it has been noted that despite the sentimentality of the postcard’s printed side, the written messages on the back were often surprisingly impersonal.13 It appears as though choosing from an array of photographs and captions became an easier alternative to divulging in writing one’s personal feelings of homesickness, fear or grief. As postcard experts Tonie and Valmai Holt write, the picture postcard became “a uniquely appropriate way of expressing ... those deeply felt emotions which seemed impossible to express.”14 The ability to convey emotion through images is an element that surely contributed to the success of the picture postcard.
During the first two decades of the 20th century, the European postcard industry was in its prime. Postcards of every imaginable subject were sold in millions, and were sent and collected by all kinds of people. Historian John Fraser explains that the immediate visual attraction of the photographs, combined with the low cost of postage (less than for a letter), attracted a wide range of consumers.15 Everyone loved postcards, and they bought so many that newspapers jokingly commented that Europe was at risk of “drowning under a sea of postcards.”16 But this trend, ordinary and perhaps excessive at the time, has since become an unlimited source of historical documentation.
Bamforth’s illustrated song postcards are part of this historical record. Mary Taylor’s collection tells of her life, her family’s lives, and the lives of many from the late 19th to early 20th century in Western society. The song postcards connect to other aspects of popular entertainment, like the pre-postcard trend of magic lantern slides and, of course, many widely known songs and hymns. They connect to the cultural aspects of family, religion and spirituality, and have a profound connection to the Great War. James Bamforth’s illustrated song cards started out as a mass-produced, everyday commodity, but have since become much more than that. Along with millions of other picture postcards, they provide a vivid record of a previous world.
1 University of Saskatchewan Archives, Mary Taylor Postcard Collection, file 1: Donor Note.
2 Robert MacDonald, “Glossary and Lantern Alphabet,” The Magic Lantern Society, 2007, 15 Feb 2010 http://www.magiclantern.org.uk/alphabet/alphabetbam.html.
3 Christopher Proudlove, “Postcards with plenty of sauce.” WriteAntiques. July 2004. 15 Feb 2010 http://writeantiques.com/postcards-with-plenty-of-sauce/.
4 Christopher Proudlove, “Postcards with plenty of sauce.” WriteAntiques. July 2004. 15 Feb 2010 http://writeantiques.com/postcards-with-plenty-of-sauce/.
5 Serge Toubiana, “If you please, Miss, give me Heaven” laternamagica, La Cinématique française, 15 Feb 2010 http://www.laternamagica.fr/resultat.plaques.php?id_serie=24.
6 Trevor May, The Victorian Undertaker. (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 1996) 23.
7 Candace Gregory, “A Willing Suspension of Disbelief: Victorian Reactions to the Spiritualist Phenomena,” The Student Historical Journal, 1989-1990. 18 Feb 2010 http://www.loyno.edu/~history/journal/1989-0/gregory.htm.
8 Candace Gregory, “A Willing Suspension of Disbelief: Victorian Reactions to the Spiritualist Phenomena,” The Student Historical Journal, 1989-1990. 18 Feb 2010 http://www.loyno.edu/~history/journal/1989-0/gregory.htm.
9 Liz Wells, Photography: A Critical Introduction. 3rd edition. (London: Routledge, 2004) ,132.
10 Tonie and Valmai Holt, Till the boys come home: the picture postcards of the First World War, (Newtown Square, PA: Deltiologists of American, 1977) 116.
11 Serge Toubiana, “Abide with me” laternamagica, La Cinématique française, 15 Feb 2010 http://www.laternamagica.fr/resultat.plaques.php?id_serie=1.
12 Christopher Proudlove, “Postcards with plenty of sauce.” WriteAntiques. July 2004. 15 Feb 2010 http://writeantiques.com/postcards-with-plenty-of-sauce/.
13 Tonie and Valmai Holt, Till the boys come home: the picture postcards of the First World War, (Newtown Square, PA: Deltiologists of American, 1977) 116.
15 John Fraser, “Propaganda on the Picture Postcard,” The Oxford Art Journal, Oct 1980: 39.
16 Tonie and Valmai Holt, Till the boys come home: the picture postcards of the First World War, (Newtown Square, PA: Deltiologists of American, 1977) 8.
Fraser, John. “Propaganda on the Picture Postcard.” The Oxford Art Journal. Oct 1980.
Gregory, Candace. “A Willing Suspension of Disbelief: Victorian Reactions to the Spiritualist
Phenomena.” The Student Historical Journal 1989-1990. Vol 21. Loyola University Department of History. 1990. 18 Feb 2010 http://www.loyno.edu/~history/journal/1989-0/gregory.htm.
Holt, Tonie and Valmai Holt. Till the boys come home: the picture postcards of the First World War. Newtown Square, PA: Deltiologists of American, 1977.
MacDonald, Robert. “Glossary and Lantern Alphabet.” The Magic Lantern Society. 2007. 15 Feb 2010 http://www.magiclantern.org.uk/alphabet/alphabetbam.html.
May, Trevor. The Victorian Undertaker. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 1996.
Proudlove, Christopher. “Postcards with plenty of sauce.” WriteAntiques. July 2004. 15 Feb
Toubiana, Serge. “Abide with me” laternamagica. La Cinématique française. 15 Feb 2010
“If you please, Miss, give me Heaven.” laternamagica. La Cinématique française. 15
Feb 2010 http://www.laternamagica.fr/resultat.plaques.php?id_serie=24.
University of Saskatchewan Archives. Mary Taylor Postcard Collection. Abide With Me.
Postcard Album page 65. between 1900-1910. Database ID: 34788
-- Alone on the Raft. Postcard Album page 99. between 1900-1910. Database ID: 35246
-- The Anchor’s Weigh’d. Postcard Album page 99. between 1900-1910. Database ID:
-- Baby. Postcard Album page 99. between 1900-1910. Database ID: 35243
-- Daddy. Postcard Album page 97. between 1900-1910. Database ID: 35234
-- Everybody’s Loved by Someone. Postcard Album page 98. between 1900-1910.
Database ID: 35241
--file 1: Donor Note.
-- If You Please, Miss, Give Me Heaven. Postcard Album page 98. between 1900-1910.Database ID: 35236
Wells, Liz. Photography: A Critical Introduction. 3rd edition. London: Routledge, 2004.