Two world wars, one world cup - and the postcard

01:00 Thu 21st Feb 2002 |

Q. And the postcard

A. Yes, the postcard. As of 18 February 2002, a Briton has now been officially acknowledged as the inventor of the postcard. The postal historian Edward Proud has discovered a picture postcard sent in Britain in 1840, some two decades earlier than rival claims.

Q. What's it got to do with 'two world wars and one world cup'

A. Because for over a century it has been thought that postcards were invented in Germany or Austria in the 1860s.

Q. Not French, then

A. You're getting confused. 'French postcards' was the name given to 'exotic' photographs produced in Paris during the 19th century for the discerning gentleman's market.

Q. So, who was this noble Briton

A. The Victorian eccentric Theodore Hook. He sent a hand-coloured printed caricature postcard to himself in Fulham, London.

Q. Should we have heard of him

A. Maybe, maybe not. Theodore Hook (1788-1841) was a prolific playwright and novelist, one of those fashionable novelists who, in the early 19th century, aimed to describe English society from the inside for those on the outside. The son of a popular songwriter, Hook, while still a schoolboy at Harrow, had written the words for his father's comic operas and he went on to write farces and melodramas, but descended into debt and a life of dissolution. However, his friend the prince regent helped him up by securing him the post of accountant general to Mauritius in 1813.

In 1817 he was recalled and jailed for 2 years after �12,000 was found to have been stolen, though he himself was found guilty of negligence rather than theft. While in prison he began to write with a view to paying off some of his debts, and in 1824 his Sayings and Doings, tales with a fashionable setting, each illustrating a proverb, was published. This became so popular that he extended the three volumes to nine in 1828.

Following this success he wrote another 40 fictional works in a similar style, which some critics claim had an influence on Charles Dickens's literary development.

According to Proud, Hook's family legend claimed that he invented not only the picture postcard, but also the stamp, though this has been discredited.

Q. Isn't postcard collecting one of the world's biggest hobbies

A. Depending on which source you believe, postcard collecting - or deltiology, as it's properly known� - is the second or third biggest hobby worldwide, after stamp collecting (unquestionably the most popular) and coin collecting (possibly ).

It is estimated that in the UK alone 100,000 people collect postcards. The heyday of collecting was from 1902 to 1918, a period deltiologists refer to as the 'Golden Age'.

The best cards produced before 1914 were from Germany, where printing techniques were way ahead of anywhere else in the world. However, the war put a stop to that and ushered in its own style of postcards, including embroidered silks, sentimental song cards, cartoons and patriotic flags and bulldogs.

Modern postcards are, more often than not, of pretty average quality. The really collectable stuff is from the first quarter of the 20th century, though cards from the 1930s and 1940s are worth seeking out.

For more on Arts & Literature click here

By Simon Smith

Do you have a question about Arts & Literature?