a kiss from France

akissfromfrance

I so enjoyed your translations and comments on this post, that I thought I’d continue the First World War theme with some of my favourite items in my postcard collection. Known to collectors generically as “silks”, these machine-embroidered cards first appeared around 1900, and were produced in vast quantities during the twentieth century’s first two decades. As an attractive and eminently portable form of sentimental greeting, these cards proved particular popular among British troops serving in France. Some estimates suggest that, in their wartime heyday, more than ten million were produced.

akissfromfrance2

Sources used to suggest that these cards were hand-embroidered, but this isn’t the case. Though particularly elaborate panel designs might involve finishing by hand, I have never seen one that didn’t feature machine embroidery. Using innovative Heilmann or Schiffli embroidery machines, a design could be repeated up to 400 times across large panels of organdy before being cut out, and individually assembled into framed and embossed cards. There were several factories in France and Switzerland where cards might be manufactured from start to finish, but some machine-embroiders also produced piece work from home, sending completed panels to be finished and assembled elsewhere.

The cards were usually sent in military mail pouches rather than being stamped and posted in the ‘open’ mail. Because they were protected in transit, the embroidered panels could be quite delicate in design. Many of the cards use the structure of the embroidery to create a tiny envelope:

envelope

Into which another card, with a personal greeting might be inserted.

souvenir

This is one of my personal favourites: the card would have been placed inside an envelope; the card is, itself, an envelope; and the embroidered panel also depicts an envelope-carrying bluebird.

Cards might be designed for specific occasions . . .

heartybirthdaygreetings

. . . or with specific addressees in mind . . .

dearmother

While many of the designs are conventional (though nonetheless appealing) others feel perhaps more modern and innovative.

goodwishes

and while theres a tremendous variety of embroidered designs, the same might be said of the paper-embossing, which on some cards is more elaborate than the stitching.

embossing

These cards carry human stories.

reg

And there’s a particular kind of confluence between these stories and the stitches through which they are conveyed.

bouquet

Here is one of my favourites: it is a scene unmistakably French with trees and tiny church; ploughed field and red earth . . .

scene

. . . flowers bloom at the field margin . . .

blooms

. . . framing a message of poignant reassurance.

weareallright

The roses hide. . .

rose

. . .an envelope . .

lightshow

. . . containing a message.

message

It is a simple, mass-produced, material object.

weareallright2

It is also a massive conveyer of meaning.

78 responses

  1. Thanks for sharing this sweet story, I wasn’t aware of them (I’m not British). It is impressive how much objects from the past can tell us about the people related to the objects. It is also an interesting way to learn more about unofficial history and adds a new layer in our understanding of the past.

  2. The postcards are lovely! i have a collection of antique Valentines and postcards and the attention to detail on paper is amazing. The silks are little works of art. The last one featured with the landscape is my favorite. Thank you for posting the photos.

  3. These cards are very poignant …not just beautiful. When I was growing up I visited my mothers great aunts in Edinburgh. All four were elderly single and living together …they had a collection of these cards and showed them to me…what was really sad was that four of the three had had sweethearts who were killed in the trenches. … So many young men lost….these beautiful cards are a fitting tribute to their memories and all the young women who were left behind.

  4. A delightful and informative post. I particularly like the fact that in these cards, the manufacturers have made a literal translation. In French, letters and cards are signed with words which are the direct English equivalent of “a kiss” or “kisses” where someone with English as a first language would probably write “love”. But it lends a special poignancy to these cards given the circumstances under which they were sent. Thank you for sharing your collection and thoughts with us.

  5. Kate, my mum has some embroidered khaki that her grandad did for his new born infant daughter he hadn’t met and never saw! We love it as a family heirloom and will always cherish it

  6. I have several of hese that my grandfather sent home from France in WW1. One is a Christmas card sent to my father who was only 3 or 4 years old, asking him to look after his Mother, they are so precious to me.

  7. It tells a tale of yesterday and now. A digital card just does not convey the same emotion. Thank you for the history lesson down to the very personal level. They are beautiful.

  8. OH, you do know how to set us off on a trail of history, thank you! Those machines are unreal in size, they belie the delicate work they produce. As an embroiderer (as well as spinner, weaver, knitter, sewer in my spare time!!) I really enjoyed those cards and esp. the flowers. Great.

  9. “It is a simple, mass-produced, material object.
    It is also a massive conveyor of meaning.”

    Yes! Too often, all the emphasis is placed on how supposedly valueless and impersonal modern modes of production are.

    I very much enjoyed these; I’m from Canada and had never seen anything like them before.

  10. I was thrilled to read your post today.I have a few silks of my great grandmothers from WW1 and wrote about it in a post once…thought you may be interested…

    http://farmlass.blogspot.ca/2010/11/good-news.html

    I found it so sweet how these men would take so much time to send messages to waiting family back home.
    Love your work and Bruce of course!!

  11. How incredible are these? And what treasures to behold. I feel so moved by the stories (which I do not even know) wrapped up in each one. What an intense time in history.

  12. I’d never before heard of embroidered postcards, let alone such evocative ones intended for soldiers in the Great War. Thanks so much for sharing them with us.

  13. In a simialr vein of WWI patriotism/sentimentality I have a gold locket that my paternal grandfather gave his wife before leaving for that war – he was a driver working in Kent through the war, not actually leaving English shores. The locket has the Army air corps insignia (no longer a working unit), a spread eagle on the outside of the locket, and inside, a lock of his hair – baby lock I imagine, and a portrait of him looking stern on the other side.

    So from the outside, not the usual sentiment that is associated with lockets, but one in keeping with the time and feelings of patriotism which were considered maudlin in later decades. (My grandmother was an imperious woman and I can imagine that she ‘instructed’ him to buy this!).

    This piece is much-loved by children who long to ‘look inside’ and see the secrets. When I wear it each child is rationed to ‘one look per day’.

  14. Thank you, Kate. I did not know about these cards. They are so beautiful. I’m glad you are sharing your collection with us.

  15. Thank you, Kate, for sharing these beautiful and intriguing treasures. My grandfather served in France during World War I and I have some of his letters, but no cards like these. I appreciate greatly the way in which you pointed out how these commercially produced greetings nevertheless communicate tremendous personal emotions, caring, and longing. Simply beautiful!

  16. What beautiful little treasures you have. I have never seen any of these “in person” but they are just exquisite.

  17. Beautiful, thanks for sharing Kate. For a mass produced object, they were so lovely and made with care. I particularly love the little cards to put inside.

  18. They are quite lovely, and speak very clearly to those waiting for their loved ones to return. A bit of beauty in a time of turmoil and danger softening the absence.

  19. “We are all right.” So sweet and poignant, especially considering the horrendous losses endured in that war—so many were NOT “all right.”

  20. Thanks for sharing these Kate – what strikes me about them is the whole ‘transaction’ of the gift – menfolk choosing something that they thought their womenfolk would like as a made item, and how the women, very likely to be makers themselves, (either of similar, better or lesser standard) would have considered or valued them as art /made objects. Obviously there would have been many kinds of responses, and they were obviously treasured by many, but I was thinking of my great great great grandmother (from Edinburgh, who lived most of her life in Cairns, Australia) who was quite a stern woman by all accounts, and who made many many beautifully knitted socks for soldiers, and had very high standards for made items. I suspect she would have been both touched to have received such an item, and have thought she could do a better job herself!

  21. Although the electronic (internet) age as brought many conveniences, these postcards are also a reminder of what we have lost. In my humble opinion, there is something that will always remain intimate and special about them that e-mails will never replace..

    Dear Kate, Thank you for sharing these wonderful cards.

  22. Beautifull, I didn’t know that they existed. A couple of years ago I had a embroidered birthday card made by a friend and I was so happy with it, very special.
    Thanks for sharing your rich stories…..with love from France

  23. Kate – these would make a wonderful article for Piecework. I don’t have any connection to the magazine except as a subscriber but I love to read about fiber and needlework traditions. Thank you for bringing this tradition and these gorgeous memorials to our attention. I’m an American so didn’t know about them. I am enjoying reading the other comments from others who had relatives who had them. Wonderful!

  24. What a lovely collection Kate :) Reg is writing to Mabel from Paris in March 1919 at a time when men and women (yes, the suffragettes were there) from all over the world were gathering in that lovely city to attend the Peace Conference to discuss the terms of the Armistice, and the reparations that would be imposed on the defeated nations.
    Perhaps Reg was part of the official British delegation led by the gregarious and wily David Lloyd George. Among the many leaders in attendance were Woodrow Wilson from the USA, Lawrence of Arabia, Ho Chi Minh and the irascible, bellicose Prime Minister of Australia, Billy Hughes. Oh, to be a fly on the wall at that gathering ;-)
    What history Reg was witnessing. Wilson had just produced his first draft for the noble-sounding, but inefficient League of Nations and the peacemakers were drawing new borders through the middle of Europe and the Middle East … we are still living with the repercussions of those decisions. Germany was demilitarised, the Ottoman Empire dismembered and a bewildering number of new countries created.
    Paris would have been so exciting! A victorious city awaiting Spring and a new era. No more drab wartime restraints, restaurants had thrown open their doors again, and women had unpacked their silks, furs, feathers and jewels. I hope that Reg found some pretty bits, bobs and bibelots to take back home to Maud.

  25. Thank you for sharing your collection today. I never heard of these cards before and found them beautiful but sad at the same time.

  26. My great-aunts also had those and I loved to look at them as a child. Only later did I realise the true poignancy and love behind them. For this reason I keep a photo of a young boy who was lost at sea in WW 1, only seventeen, on my bookshelf. No relation to me, and none of his left, but he symbolises so much, and I also have many of the Christmas cards he sent home to this island. It makes me happy to think that he is still remembered by somebody. Such tragic waste, and also glimpses of beauty and affection from so long ago. Thank you Kate. X

  27. I’ve never heard of these before, but they are just beautiful and so very touching. I can understand how they would be treasured keepsakes, whether or not the husband or sweetheart came home!

    When my grandfather was off fighting in the Great War, my grandmother at home in Texas crocheted a bedspread from cotton for them while he was gone. It was made in 10cm x 10cm squares, and fit their old-fashioned double bed and hung to the floor. It took her more than two years to complete! Needless to say, it’s now a similarly treasured family heirloom. And my father was named for my grandfather’s closest friend, who died of the Spanish influenza on a troop ship heading to Europe. I suspect a lot of families have similar connections to that terrible time in human history.

    And I hope Reg came home to a very, very happy and long life with his darling Mabel!

  28. So touched by the message from the young man to his sweetheart – a typical way of writing the way you speak! One of my great-aunts still writes just like this and a boyfriend I had when I was a teenager and who wasn’t very well educated also wrote to me in a similar style (and that was only 30 years ago!)… :)

  29. These are just amazing! What wonderful condition they still are in after almost a century.

    Regarding the last one: I wonder if that isn’t a depiction of a rather famous wine landscape in the Hermitage? Numerous photographs have been taken of that church along the top of the hillside. Heck, I’ve even attempted to paint it. :)

  30. These pictures reminded me of an exhibit I saw at the Omaka Aviation Heritage Museum near Blenheim in the South Island of New Zealand. The postcards there differ somewhat and, from memory, are presented as soldiers’ hand embroideries. http://www.omaka.org.nz/exhibits.htm

    Our National Library records a ‘hand embroidered’ postcard from WW1. Could that also be machinemade?

    Either way, these are such precious objects.

    Love your work!

  31. The silks themselves and the stories which fellow-readers have shared here in the comments section. . .I’m so touched. Thank you for sharing them, everyone. May we all redouble our efforts to promote peace and justice and protest the appalling waste of war.

  32. The cards are absolutely beautiful and the sentiments are very touching, your collection must mean a great deal to you.
    We enjoy sharing them.
    Thankyou

  33. Thank you for that Kate. I have a whole album of these that my great aunt Lillian (who I never met) and her daughter were sent from France by their husband and father. It is much treasured. Lillian’s husband eventually came home, unlike her younger brother Gilbert.
    I also have a printed Christmas card sent by Gilbert to my grandmother, who was the youngest sister. It is very poignant. Dated Christmas 1917, it was possibly among the last things he sent home before being shot and killed.

  34. Thank you for this post. I have a card that says “A Souvenir of the Great War” in embroidery with a hand-written note on the back that I picked up at an antique store years ago and I had wondered about it.

  35. I have one of these written to my grandmother by her brother during his military service in France in WWI. I had no idea there were so well known at the time. It too is the “envelope” style and thanks to your post I can now say that! I wondered why there was a separation between the upper and lower portion of the greeting that reads “To My Dear Sister From Your Loving Brother”. The embossed frame is no longer there nor the letter/card that would have gone inside the envelope but the embroidered card was a treasured item in my father’s possession as his mother (the sister to whom the card was sent) died when my father was young. I cannot thank you enough for clearing up the mystery of why the fabric was “split”. It makes perfect sense now.

  36. Thanks to Kate for sharing these treasures. Thanks to commenters who have really inriched my day! I love this blog and the folks who follow it.

  37. These are amazing! A-M-A-Z-I-N-G. I’ve seen WWII era silk sweetheart handkerchiefs (and have one printed with the particularly sweet message “I’ve kissed you from across 4,000 miles!”), but these WWI silks have them beat. “We Are All Right”, stitched gorgeously across the bottom, would just about make you cry! Thank you for sharing!

  38. What a treasure to find in my electronic media router! Contrast! To see such lovely, brilliant messages from a poignant time in our shared past. Does anyone remember the postcard Daisy received from Edward with the bit of silk ribbon on it? (Upstairs Downstairs) That she could receive such a precious thing seemed quite impossible, but Kate has made it clear. Thank you for this brilliant view into the past.

    • No problem. I’ve had a few problems with misuse and decontextualisation of my text & photos through reblogging, so have a blanket policy of requesting post removal. Hope you understand!

  39. My gran had a few cards similar to these. Born in the late 1800s, she had brothers who fought in the Great War. She had huge, poster sized sepia photographs of the boys in their uniforms, framed in heavy black frames, and hanging on chains on the parlour walls. The cards themselves were very small, and I remember wondering how they could have remained so clean, handled by soldiers and posted all the way from France. I was allowed to touch them, but not to play.

  40. Dear Kate,
    I very much enjoy your interesting articles. This one is delightful. I know my mother, who passed away in February, had some post cards that my grandfather sent to my grandmother from Passchendaele. I have not yet brought myself to go through her things, but hope to find them when I do. I do not know if any of them will be these lovely embroidered post cards.

    I am knitting your lovely Puffin jumper and finding it very therapeutic. The “Colours of Shetland” is very much making me want to visit Shetland soon.

    Best wishes,
    Deborah

  41. I’m late to the party. :) But I wanted to say thank you for showing such lovely thoughtful mementos. I emailed my gramma to ask if she had ever seen any of these -her father was in France in WWI- and sent her a link to your blog. She thought your blog was amazing – as do I. And – they came to visit me a wonderful surprise – she did indeed have 2 cards in her possession from her father’s travels. They have been sitting in her mother’s memory trunk. They haven’t been preserved in an archival way by any means – yet they are still as vibrant as they would have been when they were purchased so many years ago. Beautiful. It was so fun talking about my great grandpa and looking at the bits and bobs he had brought back home with him- post cards, photos, maps and such. Thank you for being the catalyst to a wonderful visit with my grandparents. :)

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