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Silk embroidered postcards first appeared at the Paris Exhibition in 1900, and they reached the height of popularity at the time of the First World War. A unique war-time industry, silk embroidered postcards were created by French and Belgian women to sell as souvenirs to soldiers posted on the Western Front. These beautiful cards were a way for the troops to express not only their love to those back home, but also their feelings of valour, loyalty and victory.
Strips of silk organza were originally hand-embroidered by women and girls in their homes or at refugee camps, to supplement their incomes, and what began as a cottage industry soon bloomed into an assembly line. The individuality of the embroidery was due to the workmanship and creativity of the village women, who worked the design from a picture and produced in batches on strips of muslin. Batches of embroidered strips were sent for starching, cutting and mounting on to embossed postcard frames, which were made available to purchase for a few francs each.
Hugely popular with British and American soldiers who bought the cards as mementos to send home to loved ones, it is estimated that some 10 million silk embroidered postcards were made. Thousands survived to be held as a remembrance or personal treasure of a horrific war. These beautiful greetings would have been sent home giving no indication of what the soldiers were experiencing, sparing mothers and wives from the true horrors of war. Most messages on the back of the cards mention only the name of the sender and recipient; some express love and concern; some became farewell notes from those who did not return.
There were many designs, from simple pictures or messages to intricate regimental crests or badges. However the most popular were the sentimental cads with their messages of love and hope, such as ‘Thinking of you’, ‘All my Love’ and ‘To my darling wife’. Birds, flowers and butterflies adorned the cards, allowing greater scope for the embroiderer – the flower designs were abundant with their secret messages of love – pansy for undying love, lilac for first love, rose for beauty and the self-explanatory forget-me-not.
Patriotic themes were also popular; words such as ‘duty’, ‘glory’, ‘liberty’, ‘England’ and ‘victory’ feature on many cards. The variety of flags on cards increased as more countries became involved in the war. Regimental themes were also greatly prized, even though they were costly; the intricacy and patterns must have been very demanding, as the actual detail was paramount to the regiments. Every imaginable unit of the British Army had their badge represented – even the Flying Corps and naval units were included.