The secret life of postcards

Picture postcards have been with us for more than a hundred years. People have been collecting them as well as sending them from the beginning. Before cameras became a common consumer item they were the only way many people could get a photograph of their street. Professional photographers it seemed roamed the streets of London taking pictures of any street they liked the look of, perhaps hoping to sell postcards to the residents. It’s possible anyway, all I know is that there are a lot of postcards of quite obscure streets taken from the 1890s to just before the First World War, Postcards like this one:

This is the view looking north down Pembridge Road from Notting Hill Gate. Most of these buildings are still there now, only the shops have changed. And the people of course.

Regular readers of the blog will know that I like a good close up. This is what I mean by the secret life of postcards. The photographer was trying to get a good picture of the street. The people in it were incidental for his purposes. But whether intentionally or by chance he captures the passers-by in unguarded moments. The girl waiting impatiently for her mother to finish taking to her friend. Or are they waiting to cross the road?

This is the Earls Court Road fully developed on the east side with a hoarding enclosing a vacant lot or building site on the other side.  There are plenty of people too.

In this case teenage girls hanging out by the shops? Two of them at least with sonewhere definite to go striding out of the picture.

A slightly less crowded scene. These mansion blocks on the western side of Elm Park Gardens have now been partially replaced by modern blocks of flats but the street is still recognizable.

In the close up the woman and her daughter are too blurred to see much detail but you can see her lifting up her skirt to protect it from the dirty surface of the road.

This is an excellent action view of Kensington Park Road looking north from the junction with Elgin Crescent. Look at the barely visible cyclist, the horses in motion and the woman leaning forward to start pushing the pram across the road. The close up adds a little information.

The woman in the foreground has noticed the camera, and maybe the man with the umbrella too. You can just about make out the child sitting up in the pram.

Maybe half a mile away, but possibly a few years apart, in Notting Hill Gate there is another bustling street scene.

You can see the Metropolitan underground station and another bus covered with adverts.

All the figures in this picture are interesting in some way, even the dog, but the two that catch my eye are the bearded man and his younger companion. Are they out for a leisurely stroll or pursuing some business venture?

Moving south here is a picture of the now demolished Kensington Crescent, an unsuccessful development in the Warwick Gardens area. The two children in the photograph are aware of the photographer perhaps even consciously posing for him.

I can’t tell if the expression is curious, resentful, bored or whether they’re just standing still as the photographer asked.

This picture shows numbers 1-14 Kensington Crescent. Normally I avoid fascinating facts but I cannot avoid telling you that Kenneth Grahame, author of the Wind in the Willows lived for five years at number 5, just before the photo was taken.

Finally a personal favourite, one of the first postcards I subjected to the scan and zoom process.

A good crisp view of Kensington Park Road showing St Peter’s Church. Try it on Google Maps street view for comparison. The pattern of the facade is still there exactly.

But naturally what I want to know is what the woman in the middle is doing with her left hand. Is she scratching her nose, and has this idle gesture been captured for posterity?

There are so many postcards full of compelling details and questions that we will probably be here again soon using the time machine to catch more of these details of everyday life.

Author’s message

From next week I’ll be tweeting a preview of the week’s post a couple of days before posting – assuming I know what I’ll be writing about before Wednesday. Follow me at @daveinlocal .


6 responses to “The secret life of postcards

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