Saucy Seaside Postcards - Their Ups and Downs Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Saucy Seaside Postcards - Their Ups and Downs

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A buxom lady wading in the water at the seaside.
Female Traffic Warden: 'Anything you say will be taken down!'
Male motorist: 'Knickers!'

Saucy postcards, with cartoons and captions such as the one above, were once as familiar to British seaside resorts as striped deckchairs, candy floss, sticks of rock and fish 'n' chips, and as saucy as a Carry On film.

A Brief History of Saucy Postcards

In 1894, British publishers were given permission from the Post Office to manufacture and distribute picture postcards, which could be sent through the post. Early postcards were pictures of famous landmarks, scenic views, photographs or drawings of celebrities, cute pets, etc. Basically, anything that could be easily drawn or photographed could be put on the front of a postcard.

It was in the early 1930s that the cartoon-style saucy postcards became popular. At its peak the sale of saucy postcards was a massive 16 million a year. It's very likely that postcard collectors, known as deltiologists, bought many of the saucy postcards for their collections1.

The saucy postcard industry offered employment to cartoon artists such as Tom Browne, John Hassall, Bruce Bairnsfather and Alfred Lees, as well as offering another outlet for Punch magazine cartoonists. There was one well-known, female artist, Mabel Atwell; however, her artwork involved cherubic children in cute, humorous situations.

The best-known publisher was Bamforth & Co. However, there were other less well-known publishers of saucy postcards, such as Davidson Brothers. The longest running is J Salmon, a company that still continues to publish and is the UK's oldest established postcard publisher.

What Made Them Saucy?

In today's liberal world of open frankness on sexual matters, the cartoon characters and antics of the saucy postcard era would hardly lift an eyebrow. However, back in those days of sexual repression, "It" was very much a taboo subject, considered to be the height of bad manners bordering on obscene to discuss. Saucy postcards were a breath of fresh air to some; others were disgusted and offended by them.

The cheeky and often sexually-implied innuendos and double meanings could be either visual or textual, though usually both picture and text played a part. No section of the community was spared; fat people, thin people, mothers-in-law, hen-pecked husbands, waiters and waitresses, lower class, middle class and upper class, glamorous ladies, doctors and nurses, etc, were all represented in cartoon characters. They were often portrayed in risqué, embarrassing or suggestive situations.

The postcards were produced in bright primary colours, and were typically displayed outside seafront gift shops on a traditional revolving postcard stand. Holiday-makers and day-trippers browsing the saucy postcards would often been seen nudging each other and giggling.

Big Brother Censors Sauce

In the early 1950s, the newly elected Conservative government were concerned at the apparent deterioration of morals in the general populus of Britain, and decided on a moral crackdown. Among their first targets were art and literature. Committees were appointed to ascertain what was appropriate in terms of taste and decency; during this time approximately 167,000 books were censored. They then turned their attention to saucy postcards.

Almost every seaside resort in Britain was appointed a Watch Committee, whose duty was to decide which saucy postcards were allowed to be displayed and sold to the public; those they considered to be unfit were confiscated. Local moral crusaders joined in, reporting saucy postcards that they deemed to be obscene to the Watch Committee, in a similar way to that of media moral crusader Mary Whitehouse.

The main target on their hit list was artist Donald McGill, known as 'The King of Saucy Postcards'. He produced approximately 12,000 designs between 1904 and 1962, with around 200 million printed and sold. McGill's popularity was sealed when author George Orwell penned the essay The Art of Donald McGill. Some of McGill's designs, as well as those of other artists, resulted in police raids and the arrest and prosecution of both the publishers and the artist.

One of the postcard prosecutions involved Donald McGill's 'Hard Rock' saucy design. This depicted a fully dressed male cartoon character holding a giant stick of rock between his legs, pointing up towards the sky, with a few non-revealing bathing suited characters in the background, and the words at the top of the postcard were 'A Stick of Rock, Cock?'

1857 Obscene Publications Act

In the early 1950s there were several local trials, ending in a court in Lincoln on 15 July, 1954 where Donald McGill was charged with violating the 1857 Obscene Publications Act. Although McGill and his lawyers presented a commendable defence, it was not enough. McGill was found guilty, fined £50 and ordered to pay £25 court costs.

The outcome of this trial had a devastating impact on the saucy postcard industry. Many retailers cancelled orders, and some also destroyed their current stock of the postcards. Postcard companies were hit hard, some going bankrupt, others only just managing to survive.

By the late 1950s the Watch Committees had disbanded, and censorship was relaxed. In 1957 McGill decided to give evidence before the House Select Committee in order to amend the 1857 Act, as he felt a national system of censorship would be open to the vagaries of individual interpretation.

The Comeback and Final Demise

In the more liberal 1960s the saucy postcard was revived, and was considered as a form of art by some people, which helped its popularity and gave it an easy ride through the decade. However, during the 1970s and 1980s the quality of the artwork and humour started to deteriorate. This, together with a change in attitude and taste of the general public and the introduction of political correctness, resulted in the demise of the saucy postcard.

One of the largest publishers of saucy postcards was Bamforth & Co. They had been producing various types of picture postcards since the 1800s, but in 1990 Bamforths officially closed down. Ten years later, Bamforths was facing bankruptcy and was given a new lease of life when a Leeds company, Fresh Faces, purchased its name and assets.

Although some British seaside resorts still sell saucy postcards, they are not as popular as they used to be. Partly due to a change in the lifestyle of the general public, nowadays in a more adventurous and prosperous Britain most people go abroad for their holidays, and with so many different attractions to choose from, the British seaside is not often seen as a first choice holiday destination.

Exhibition

Many of the early nostalgic postcards live on in the Secrets of the Saucy Seaside Postcard, a mobile exhibition funded by the Arts Council. The popular exhibition has been travelling around British art galleries, displaying up to 300 examples original pieces of artwork. There are also some examples of the postcard's production, from artist's first rough sketch, through to the final printed version.

The exhibition also includes a continuously running short silent film by Bamforth & Co, who produced silent films as well as saucy postcards, that shows footage of various artists at work in the studio.

1Deltiology (postcard collecting) is said to be the second most popular collecting hobby, with philately (stamp collecting) as the first. At the time this was written, there were approximately 100,000 deltiologists in the UK.

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