Online Postcard Exhibition Tells the Story of WWI

An online exhibition of 500 World War I postcards, including handwritten notes and historical commentary, has been developed for E. H. Butler Library’s Web site by Andrew Nicholls, professor of history and social studies education, with Marc Bayer, information systems librarian.

The exhibition, Notes from Armageddon, provides an intimate glimpse into the emotions, culture, and politics of the era and a world at war. The site is searchable and encourages visitors to comment or even enhance the translations, as many postcards are from different countries.

Nicholls was provided the opportunity to work with the collection by a family friend, Richard J. Whittington, a high school history teacher from Nicholls’s home town of Midland, Ontario. Drawing on his knowledge of the era and extensive research, Nicholls includes insights and comments for each postcard, indicating the significance of handwritten notes in the context of the postcard image and the politics and culture of the time.

For example, Nicholls points to a postcard that bears a photograph of a dead soldier in a trench. “The governments of the combatant states forbade showing such images,” he said. “So, this postcard was most likely produced in the Netherlands or another neutral territory. For that reason, it is quite rare.”

Most postcards, however, are less graphic and more political or even humorous. One of the more interesting things Nicholls discovered while working with the collection was the sometimes odd juxtaposition of wartime imagery with written messages that gave little indication of the war. Nicholls recalls a series of notes between two sisters. “The cards portray children in military uniforms—and yet, the sisters’ messages are focused on whether or not their father should buy a lawn mower.”

First introduced in 1869, postcards reached peak popularity during World War I, according to Nicholls. “They provided fast, inexpensive communication with the novelty of being visual,” he said. “Their popularity was also spurred by the growth of public education and increasing numbers of people who could read and write.”

Nicholls received the Whittington collection in 2004. A year later, he presented a paper based on the collection at the New York State Association of European Historians conference, held at West Point. The reactions of his colleagues caused him to consider a variety of ways to take the images to a wider audience, including through a traditional publication such as a book or catalog.

Eventually, he determined that providing interested readers with unfettered access to the cards was the preferred option, and that Web-based technology could provide that. It was in light of this that Nicholls was introduced to Marc Bayer, who had recently been hired as an information technology specialist at E. H. Butler Library.

Nicholls and Bayer worked with Bruce Fox, campus photography and graphics coordinator, to put the collection into a format that was universally accessible. They see this launch as a first-stage effort, with future thematic galleries to be added, and additional emphasis placed on cards in the collection from non-English-speaking countries.