Picturing the past

Flicking through old postcards at a flea market can be a melancholic task. Tucked alongside nostalgic scenes of Devon villages and the Lake District, you’ll often come across pictures of regular people and families. Their anonymous sepia faces – babies in their Sunday best, radiant brides alongside their uniformed husbands – are now forgotten by the living. Their names faded from memory.

The postcards, known as Real Photo Postcards, gave people the first opportunity to personalise their own stationery… like a turn-of-the-century Vistaprint. Unlike commercial mass-produced printed postcards, they were produced by developing photos directly onto photographic paper the exact dimensions and weight of regular postcards. The photographs were usually taken in a studio, or the photographer would come to visit them at home. Either way, it would have been a huge event for the whole family, with an excuse for everyone to get dressed up to the nines.

It is the photos of families outside their homes that I have always been drawn to. It gives a fascinating glimpse into how people lived at the time, particularly if the postcards are written on.

The postcard above, complete with a Penny Red franked 19 April 1907 and posted in Heddon-on-the-Wall, is the latest in my collection. To save you squinting at the handwriting, it reads:

“Dear John… Shall expect you on Sunday get out at Newburn and I shall send a trap to Newburn. Love from all Cissie.”

The fact the recipient, a Mr J W Stephenson, lived in my home town of Dunston gives it more resonance. The street is still there, although I doubt Mr Stephenson himself is still knocking around.

A quick look on the internet tells me more about him. He was born in 1869 in Newburn, had 11 siblings, the youngest of whom were still living with his parents, Sarah and William, at Town Farm, Heddon-on-the-Wall, in 1901. In 1907, when he received the postcard, he was a grocer, and married and a four-year-old son called Hugh.  I can’t help wondering if that’s his parents and some of his younger siblings in the photo. One of the signs on the wall of the house reads ‘New Milk & Soda’, which suggest a farm.  Who knows who Cissie was, and if John ever made it to Newburn that Sunday. I guess I’ll never know…


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