Embroidered silk postcards: Made by French and Belgian women, they were often sent home by soldiers in WWI

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Milica Sterjova
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Embroidered silk postcards were among the most frequent ways for soldiers to communicate with their families. They first appeared in the German city Krefeld at the end of the 19th century but reached their peak in popularity during World War I. The silk postcards started gaining fame after being exhibited at the 1900 World Fair in Paris. They were used in France to send greetings even before the war.

The exact number of embroidered silk postcards produced is unknown but it is believed that there were about ten million in total. A large variety of designs carrying different messages were produced from the 1900s to the mid 1950s. Postcards with patriotic motifs such as the flags of the allies, important military figures, or important days such as Christmas or birthdays were the most common. Other more cheerful designs included flowers, butterflies and birds accompanied with a few words usually woven in a single color.

Sending silk postcards home was a common practice for soldiers from all around the globe although it seems that the British were the ones that sent them most often. The postcards consisted of a piece of thick paper holding the silk which is embroidered with a number of different motifs. The silk postcards were delicate and because of this often nothing was written on them. Instead, a letter was usually sent in the same envelope. Some of the cards had a little pocket on the back where a small card could be inserted. They weren’t a cheap souvenir, an embroidered silk postcard could cost up to six times more than an ordinary one.

A postcard sent by Lance Corporal James Alexander Walsh to his Aunt. He was killed in 1917. Author: State Library of Queensland, Australia.

It is believed that the postcards were initially handmade and later made by machines. The ones made by hand were the work of Belgian and French women in their homes. The women would embroider the same pattern on a larger piece of silk than send it to a factory for cutting and later inserting the paper mount.

Silk postcard from Manchester addressed to Miss Stone.

Many of these women workers, some removed from their homes because of the war, found a much appreciated source of income in the postcards. In Britain the postcards were made by Belgian refugees. The stories about cards being made by hand were questioned because of the large number of cards produced and the fact that the designs are often repeated.

Silk embroidered postcard sent to Emily Mary Brown from Alex, ca.1916-17. Author: State Library of Queensland, Australia

By 1915 the demand for these quite expensive souvenirs was so high that production was moved to the factories. The embroidery machines would apply different colored threads one after another until the final product was ready. For example all the red parts of the design were made first, then the blue, then the next color and so on. Machines offered the possibility for more detailed images and more complex designs. Since the early 1900s it is believed that the postcards were available in about 10,000 different designs.

An embroidered silk postcard. Features a heart with an arrow through it, bows and blue daisies and the message “From your true love”. Sent to a Miss Emily Mary Brown. Author: State Library of Queensland, Australia.

A British soldier would have paid half of his daily salary for a silk postcard while for French soldiers, who were paid less than the British, a card would be relatively even more expensive. Soldiers sent them to their loved ones and some of the remaining examples of the silk postcards carry quite disturbing stories depicting the awful horrors of the war. Sometimes soldiers wrote directly from the trenches in the middle of an air raid or an attack.

Embroidered postcard sent from Basil (Herbert Basil) Abraham to his sister Olive from France, c.1915. Author: State Library of WA. CC BY 2.0

Mainly associated to World War I, the embroidered silk postcards saw a brief resurgence at the beginning of World War II thanks once again to British soldiers. These had simpler designs than the previous ones and never became as popular. The last known postcard of this kind bears the date 1956.

Embroidered postcards from World War One. Author: Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library. CC BY 2.0

Embroidered silk postcards are valued by collectors especially by the descendants of the soldiers fighting in the war. The postcards are prone to damage because silk is a very fragile material. Also the paper that was used was of low quality so visible brown staining known as “foxing“ appears on the card stocks.