JOHN M. KELLY LIBRARY
Treasures Through Time
How Postcard Collecting in the Early 20th Century Continues to Influence Women’s Travel
As a young girl, I cherished mementos brought home by family from far away countries and imagined exploring the world myself someday. Perhaps that is why I felt a connection when rifling through postcards that once belonged to Olive Plowman. Olive’s collection of travel postcards left me curious about how and why particularly adventurous, middle-class women travelled in the early 20th century.
Charles Plowman—Olive’s father—migrated from England to Toronto with his family in the late 1800s, where he and his brother opened a grocery store. Charles married a woman named Ellen and they had one daughter, Olive Plowman, in 1882.
There are hundreds of postcards in the collection addressed to Olive at numerous addresses throughout Canada and the USA from 1902-1932, indicating her affinity for travel. One of my favourite postcards is from Alice, an English family member. Alice mailed a postcard during a visit to London, with only a line of greeting on the front and a note: “I still collect P.C.s”. This made me wonder: what did collecting postcards mean to 20th century women in Western society?
The front of Alice’s postcard with greeting. Source: Plowman Postcard Collection, Special Collections, John M. Kelly Library, University of St. Michael’s College.
A Very Brief History: Travel, Women, and Independence in the Early 20th Century
The early 1900s were transformed by rapid technological innovations, which significantly impacted modes of travel. Steamers and trains made travel—once an elite past time—more accessible to the middle class.
Many women were frustrated with the domestic roles imposed on them by Western society; travel was a means of escape and independence. These women embraced new innovations of increased mobility as a means of asserting their independence. A new invention, the picture postcard, altered how they could communicate this independence.
The Postcard: Communication, Memory, and Collection
Collecting postcards was a craze for 25 years throughout Europe and North America. During the early 1900s, an estimated 200-300 billion were sold. Postcard collections were sentimental, imbued with an aura of time, place, and person. Collecting satisfied new leisure habits of a more affluent middle class and was a hobby embraced by young women. Many postcards sent between women for collection purposes demonstrated new forms of mobility available to them.
By the late 1920s, the popularity of collecting had faded as postcards were replaced by newer communication technology.
Close-up of Alice’s note: “I still collect P.C.s”. Source: Plowman Postcard Collection, Special Collections, John M. Kelly Library, University of St. Michael’s College.
The Digital Postcard: Modern Women, Travel, and Instagram
Women continue to enact independence through travel by utilizing changing technology, like the photo-sharing app Instagram, which expands on the idea of the picture postcard by altering the way we communicate about visited places in a digital context. It has transformed how we collect and share travel experiences by publicly posting photos and notes. Like the postcard, Instagram is framed by the accessibility of travel and allows users to collect and document experiences for future reflection.
The story behind this postcard reveals a complex history of women forging independence and identity in a variety of ways, even through humble postcard collections. I now know that my collection of travel mementos is more connected to my independence and gender than I thought. It is poignant to think that 100 years ago, women may have felt the same.
Kristen McLaughlin is a first-year Master of Museum Studies student at the University of Toronto, with a BA in Archaeology and a cultural resource management certificate from Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, BC. Kristen is interested in heritage policy, collections management, conservation, and public engagement with history. She loves to travel, experience new things, and hear people’s stories. She has explored Peru, Southeast Asia, Europe, and lived in England for a short while.