In pictures: erotic postcards of the early 20th century
By the early 20th century, hundreds of thousands of images had become available showing women in varying degrees of undress. Printed with postcard backs, in Britain the trade in these erotic cards was hidden, and they were often sold 'under the counter' in tobacconists, newsagents and bookshops...
As historian Nigel Sadler reveals, in earlier years the aim of such images was to capture the female form rather than to titillate, and photographers could only produce images of the female nude for use by artists.
In Erotic Postcards of the Early Twentieth Century, Sadler explores the changes in social attitudes, fashions and technology through the medium of erotic postcards, and charts the journey from the partly clad to full nude. Writing for History Extra, Sadler summarises the history of erotic postcards, and shares some of the most fascinating images from his book…
For centuries, artists have depicted naked females. Therefore, it was not surprising that when photography was introduced, some photographers gravitated to the female nude as their subject matter.
The idea was to capture the female form rather than to titillate. However, as the genre progressed images became more risqué: clothing left on but unbuttoned; furniture added to suggest a bedroom; the model interacting with the camera by gazing at it.
- Bettany Hughes on the symbol of Venus
- In bed with the Romans: a brief history of sex in Ancient Rome
- History’s most fascinating muses
The authorities wanted to control the production and sale of these images. With daguerreotype images (the first photographic process) in the 1840s and 1850s this was easy, as there were few photographers, and in France photographers had to register with the authorities and could only produce images for use by artists.
As photography became easier and cheaper, more studios opened and some, mostly in Paris, started to produce risqué postcards. At this point the authorities lost control.
The heyday of the erotic postcard was between the 1890s and the 1930s, but in this instance the term ‘postcard’ is a misnomer: even though many were printed with a postcard back, they were intended to be collected rather than sent. The postcard size made it easier to hide and sell the cards ‘under the counter’.
For studios the priority became maximising income rather than creating art. In the studio, photographers created one set of images and took a series of photographs of the model – starting fully dressed and ending topless or fully naked. These were then sold in sets of up to 12 cards, and became known as ‘French postcards’, as this was where most were produced.
More like this
The heyday of the erotic postcard was between the 1890s and the 1930s
Due to the clandestine nature of the business (even though many cards carried studio logos), little is known about the studios or the photographers responsible for making erotic postcards. Very few photographers ‘signed’ their work, and even less is known about the models: they were originally believed to be Parisian prostitutes, but it in fact appears they were more likely working-class women who made money on the side by modelling.
The postcards also reflect changing ideologies in the work of artists and in society generally. The ‘new sculpture movement’ of the 1870s introduced more realistic model poses, and pushed the boundaries of acceptable taste for nude figures – this opened the way for the wider range of poses used by early 20th-century photographers.
- Sexing up history: how to study and tell the history of sex
- The Tudor sex guide
- Queen Victoria’s voracious appetite for food and sex
By 1880, ‘art photography’ had developed, because photographers wanted their work to be accepted as an art form. Some extended this into the study of naked people and posed models following the rules of painting, experimenting with light and shade. The German avant-garde ‘new age outdoor’ or plein air movement popularised naturism in the 1920s and 1930s, and encouraged many photographers to step outside the comfort of the studio to utilise natural light and scenery.
The risqué postcard genre in effect ended by the start of the Second World War, and post-war these types of images appeared in magazines and in a range of photographic formats.
One type of postcard rarely discussed when studying the First World War is the risqué image showing women in a state of undress or fully nude. This postcard, by Jean Agélou Studios in Paris, is from the start of a risqué sequence (a latter card probably showed this woman at least topless) and was sent to Miss Gladys Gamble by Corporal Black in 1916 informing her that he was in the Reading War Hospital recovering from shrapnel injuries. (© Courtesy of Sands of Time Consultancy)
At the turn of the 20th century Lucien Waléry (1863–1935) was a popular photographer who captured regular models and stars of the time like Nina Barkis (pictured below), an opera singer and dancer. He was happy photographing women both in body stockings and naked, and in the 1920s Waléry produced a series of photographs of a topless Josephine Baker (an American-born French dancer, singer, and actress). (© Courtesy of Sands of Time Consultancy)
The Loges d’Artistes were the dressing rooms at theatres in France – a natural arena for women to be getting dressed and undressed in. This is just one card from a large set from c1900, and it shows performers preparing for Faust - a play about a scholar who sells his soul to the devil. (© Courtesy of Sands of Time Consultancy)
The text in this image suggests that these ladies are preparing to go for a swim and are changing in the bathroom. Surprisingly, given the subject matter, this card was posted in Belgium in 1907 and was delivered to its intended recipient, Mademoiselle Gabrielle Van Sale. The sender is unknown. (© Courtesy of Sands of Time Consultancy)
This Italian card is attempting to achieve a pose similar to a classical painting. (© Courtesy of Sands of Time Consultancy)
The most common way of adding colour was through hand-tinting, which could result in much softer colours than real life – as shown in this image, which is also found on cards with the logo of Charles Collas and Co, the company name of a postcard producer. (© Courtesy of Sands of Time Consultancy)
The beach and seaside became a natural setting for naturist poses, partly because of the seclusion of some areas, but also as some beaches openly allowed nudity. This image was probably produced in Germany (c1920s). (© Courtesy of Sands of Time Consultancy)
This card, published by the A Noyer Studios, was part of series of a woman in a river and illustrates Julian Mandel’s skill as a photographer. He uses light, shade, and reflection to make the most of his model and to make it a work of art. (© Courtesy of Sands of Time Consultancy)
Nigel Sadler is the author of Erotic Postcards of the Early Twentieth Century (Amberley, 2015). Find out more here.
This article was first published by History Extra in August 2015
Subscribe to BBC History Magazine and receive a signed copy of 2023 edition Windrush: 75 years of modern Britain by Mike Phillips and Trevor Philips
As a print subscriber you will also get FREE access to HistoryExtra.com worth £34.99