postcards

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Hand coloured postcard of a young woman in Welsh costume, sitting on a fur rug. The photograph was taken indoors, with a painted backdrop. The hat and cap appear to be authentic, but the broad white ‘collar’ is unusual. It appears that she is wearing a white blouse under what appears to be a gown (with ‘tail’ visible behind her). She is also wearing fingerless gloves. The colours on the broad check apron may not be authentic.

 

 

 

The greatest influence on the public’s perception of Welsh costume were the thousands of different postcards of women in Welsh costume and Welsh hats which were produced between about 1900 and the beginning of the First World War. These were clearly produced as commercial ventures, illustrating what by then had become an iconic image. They were produced by almost every major, and many minor, postcard publishers in Britain and were sold in vast numbers to satisfy the postcard collecting mania of the time. Some of these 20th century postcards were slightly more sophisticated versions of the staged stereo pairs, carte de visit and other sets of photographs produced during the second half of the 19th century. Like the earlier portraits, most showed women in Welsh costume spinning or knitting (although by the time these photographs were taken, machines had taken over most of this work); washing, reading the bible or taking tea. Many of these were staged photographs with the women sitting in front of painted back-cloths and by papier-mâché ‘rocks’.

In most examples, the older women probably wore genuine costumes from their childhood, while the younger women wore costumes provided by the photographer.

A number of named individuals (Ann Davies, Ellen Morgan, Catherine Thomas) appeared in several postcards while other sets represented various activities and backgrounds. Comic postcards depicted the problems English visitors had communicating with attractive young Welsh women, and the difficulty of pronouncing Welsh place names but all showed women in variations of the traditional dress and the Welsh hat.

Much has been written on the meaning and effect of these images. At the simplest level, they represented a romantic, out-of-date, very restricted view of Welsh life. At another level they are seen as making fun of Welsh women and the Welsh language. It has also been said that they simply continued a tradition, represented in 17th century prints and drama, of stereotyping Welsh people and customs. Finally, like risqué sea-side postcards, they contained sexual innuendo about Welsh women, some quite explicitly. All of the types of Welsh woman – Mam, etc, may be recognised in these images.  It may also be said that since many of them show women at work, albeit activities which had been taken over by machines, they symbolise the constant hard work that women did to keep their families alive. The images of them drinking tea may have been an indication of the success of the temperance movement in Wales, but this habit was criticised by some (men) as a waste of time and sugar.

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‘Cleanliness is next to Godliness.’ Hand-coloured postcard of two women in Welsh costume by a wooden bench. One is wearing a Welsh hat, the other just a cotton cap with large bow under her chin. Both are wearing shawls over what appear to be long-sleeved, light-coloured gowns. They have check or striped aprons and long dresses. The colours of the fabrics are probably incorrect and it is possible that they wore light-coloured fabrics to make the applied colours brighter. (Ceredigion Museum, 1993.160.7l)

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Coloured postcard of Women in Welsh costume spinning and taking tea, c. 1900. The hats shown in this photograph are the tallest recorded, but none of these proportions are known to have survived (Ceredigion Museum : 1993.160.7m)

 

 

 

 

Further reading

Beddoe, Deirdre, ‘Images of Welsh Women’, in Curtis, T., (ed), Wales and the Imagined Nation, Essays in Cultural and National Identity (Bridgend, 1986), pp. 225-233

Phillips, Elen, View o’r Fenyw, Y Wisg Gymreig drwy Lygaid y Cerdyn Post, [A View of [Welsh] Women, Welsh Costume through postcard images] MA, Prifysgol Caerdydd, (Chwefror 2006)

Pritchard, Annette, and Morgan, Nigel, Representation of ‘Ethnographic Knowledge’: Early Comic Postcards of Wales in Adam Jaworski, Pritchard, Annette, et al, Discourse, Communication and Tourism, 2005, pp. 53-75

Welsh costume postcard collectors group.

David Rye published The Welsh Lady, An occasional illustrated newsletter for collectors of Welsh Costume Postcards between October 2000 (no 1) and March, 2012 (no. 87) (copies in the National Library of Wales). He also published indexes to the first 70 and lists of photographers in West Wales.

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