Vintage Postcards: Part 1 – Happy New Year

Posted on December 21, 2011 at 1:13 am
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Joyeux Noël et Bonne année! I enjoyed my trip to France last winter but I’m staying in the U.S. of A for the holidays this year, comforted by a sizable amount of imports from French Feast. When I visited my mother last December, she showed me a large collection of French vintage postcards she had come into possession. If you are familiar with my interest in old buildings, you won’t be surprised that I decided to preserve these memories of the early 1900′s. It took me a couple of evenings to scan about 150 postcards and the rest of this year to clean the damages digitally. I’ll post a few now and then, here is a first batch, appropriately timely. Merry Christmas, Happy New Year!

This young lady in the post header is the one and only Cléo de Mérode (1875 – 1966), a French dancer of the Belle Époque. She made her professional debut at age eleven. She grew into a beautiful young woman, noted for her tiny waist which was accentuated by tightlacing. Cléo de Mérode became renowned for her glamour and her image began appearing on such things as postcards and playing cards. A particular new hairdo she choose to wear was quickly adopted as a popular style for all. She became an international star, performing across Europe and in the United States (source: Wikipedia).

Joyeux Noël

Merry Christmas indeed. To the left, below, pre- Coca-Cola era Santa, aka Father Christmas, aka Père Noël, circa 1905. His appearance took a turn for the reddest later on, as we all noticed. To the right, a representation of the classic “Le Petit Ramoneur”, The Small Chimney Sweep, hence the ladder and broom. Was he cleaning the chimney for Santa to get in?

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Bonne année

This kid to the right looks too French, doesn’t she? That’s the hat, and I want it.

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You may have noticed by now the vivid dash of colors on these otherwise black-and-white postcards. They are, in fact, hand-colored. The process, also known as hand painting or overpainting, was used to heighten the realism of a photograph or for artistic purposes. Typically, watercolors, oils, crayons or pastels, and other paints or dyes were applied to the image surface using brushes, fingers, cotton swabs or airbrushes. Hand-colored photographs were most popular in the mid- to late-19th century before the invention of color photography. The so-called golden age of hand-colored photography in the western hemisphere occurred between 1900 and 1940 (source: Wikipedia).

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I find it fascinating that each and every one of these postcards had to be hand painted, making them somewhat unique even within the same series. More below, click on the thumbnails to open a larger view.

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Let’s use a kid to advertise wine, shall we? He won’t mind. One of my favorite postcard in this collection, for that reason.

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Chauds les marrons!

These postcards would sometimes tell a mini-story spanning an entire run. I wish this concept was still in use — imagine sending one postcard every day, slowly revealing the plot to a distant friend.

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In this series of five below, the sweet interactions between a kid selling roasted chestnuts on the street of Paris and a young lady who knows what she wants. Back in the days, it was popular for these kids to yell “Chauds, chauds! Les marrons, chauds!”, in English “Hot, Hot! The chestnuts, hot!”. The puns used in the captions are delicious in a cheesy way — one of them literally refers to the boy’s “burning desire” to serve his cute customer well.

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What happens when hand painting is pushed a little too far. These postcards could use more red.

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Let’s dance

I’m intrigued by this postcard below, to the left (click to zoom). What is going at the bottom? Is a stream of glitter falling from behind her dress? Most likely something was scratched and removed there, maybe an object used to support the dancer while the photograph was taken. Vintage photoshopping, here we go.

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Let’s end this first run with a few postcards of Paris. Below, the subway, line 2. Most of the subway lines are underground but a few pop in and out. I’m not 100% sure but if you zoom on this postcard, it looks like an ad for a brand of chocolate was added to a building in the back, after the photograph was taken. It looks too perfectly aligned to be real, but maybe it just is..

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Finally, the Arc de Triomphe, one of the most famous monuments in Paris. It stands in the centre of the Place Charles de Gaulle (originally named Place de l’Étoile), at the western end of the Champs-Élysées. The monument was designed by Jean Chalgrin in 1806, and its iconographic program pitted heroically nude French youths against bearded Germanic warriors in chain mail. It was the largest triumphal arch in existence until the construction of the Arch of Triumph in Pyongyang, in 1982. A United States postage stamp of 1945 shows the Arc de Triomphe in the background as victorious American troops march down the Champs-Élysées and U.S. airplanes fly overhead on 29 August 1944 (source: Wikipedia). It doesn’t look a day older. The cars have changed a bit.

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Happy holidays!

Tags: postcard, retro, vintage


  1. France Geek says:

    Love these! Thanks for sharing – really wonderful to behold.

  2. Sally Reckner says:

    I’m impressed with your scanning patience almost as much as the postcards and your always fun and informative notes. I’ll be on the look out for chimney elves this year and am looking forward to your 2012 posts. best wishes!

  3. skippymarv says:

    I like the last one. The Arc de Triomphe looks wider at the top than at the base.

  4. Sebastien says:

    @skippymarv: you are right, it *does* look wider…

  5. karen says:

    Thanks for sharing! karen…