Propaganda postcards stem from Boer War

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Propaganda postcards a 19th and 20th century hit
By Mike Smith
Although the first “official” postcards have been around since Austria introduced them to the world in 1869, it wasn't until the 1890s that private publishers in most countries were allowed to design and retail their own cards.
Until that time (specifically 1895 in Canada), postcards had to be purchased at the post office to take advantage of the special postcard mailing rate.
From a philatelic (stamp collecting) perspective, the early post office cards could be considered well designed. The imprinted stamps were very nice and often the cards had fancy borders and banners.
From a postcard collecting perspective however, early postal stationery can't hold a candle to the designs issued by the private sector in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
From both a design and propaganda standpoint, some of the most sought after antique postcards collected today were created by European printers during the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). This brutal conflict, which pitted the British Empire against the fiercely independent Boers in Africa’s Transvaal and Orange Free State, resulted in thousands of civilian casualties and a flood of anti-British propaganda cards.
Promoted by Britain’s Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain (Figure 1 at left) and cheered on by Cape Colony’s famous diamond mogul Cecil Rhodes, the three-year war achieved Britain’s aim of uniting her African colonies from Cairo to Cape Town. Joseph Chamberlain, by the way, was easy fodder for lampoonists. He wore a large monocle and always had a fresh orchid on his lapel.
In early 20th century Europe, Britain wasn't the only nation stretching her imperialist muscles. A unified and confident Germany, fresh from her victory against the French in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71), began a lengthy period of militarism and imperial expansion.
Under Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859-1941) and Admiral von Tirpitz (1849-1930) the creation of the German Imperial navy, with its ultra-modern battleships, worried Britain so much that it sparked a European arms race.
When the First World War broke out in 1914, British publishers became the undisputed masters at anti-German and anti-Kaiser propaganda. No doubt still smarting from all the anti-British propaganda created by European printers (mostly German and French) during the Anglo-Boer war, the British mercilessly lampooned the Germans at every opportunity.
The anti-Kaiser postcard shown in Figure 2 (left) is one of the more malicious examples. Note that the Kaiser had a large moustache that pointed upwards at the tips. This and his prominent nose were easy targets for clever cartoonists.
The Figure 3 postcard (below) is evidence that Canada was no slouch when it came to producing First World War propaganda cards. In this example, from a six-card series published by Toronto’s War Novelty Co., the Kaiser is taking his crown to a pawn shop to raise money to help pay for Germany’s war debt.
The First World War not only bankrupt Germany, but most of Europe. Germany’s war debt, exacerbated by the brutal penalties imposed upon her by the Treaty of Versailles at war’s end, hobbled an entire generation of its citizens. Even worse, Germany’s post-First World War economic turmoil can be directly linked to the rise of the Nazis in the 1930s.
Adolph Hitler and his fanatical propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, unleashed a torrent of pro-Nazi/anti-Semitic propaganda on the German people from the early 1930s right up until the end of the Second World War (1939-1945). Several books have been written on Nazi propaganda postcards and needless to say, the cards are very collectible today.
When the Americans entered the Second World War after the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941, a fresh batch of propaganda postcards soon entered the mail system. Interestingly, most if not all anti-German propaganda cards made in the USA focused on Adolph Hitler and/or Luftwaffe commander Herman Goering. In other words the German people as a whole were left unscathed.
A typical anti-Hitler card is shown in Figure 4 (left). Printed by an anonymous publisher in Cambridge, Massachusetts, here Hitler is portrayed as a jackass in the classic pin the tail on the donkey game.
The same logic was used for the anti-Italian propaganda cards made in the USA, where Benito Mussolini was the prime target. When it came to the Japanese however, American propaganda cards targeted everyone: Emperor Hirohito, Prime Minister/General Tojo and all the Japanese military.
There was also a racist slant to the anti-Japanese cards not evident in the anti-German or anti-Italian cards. For example, the Japanese characters were mostly drawn with yellow or green skin, had slits for eyes and large, buck teeth.
They were often portrayed as dwarf-like, and were constantly shown cowering, running away, or trying to stab an American soldier in the back. The latter theme no doubt alluded to the sneak attack on Pearl Harbour.
Michael J. (Mike) Smith is an RMC graduate (Class of '77) and ex-naval officer who has been an avid collector of Canadiana for most of his life. His current passion is collecting and writing about Canadian antique postcards. He is currently working on his eighth postcard handbook. Visit
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