Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Love, kiss and home

Embroidered silk postcards from the First World War are known as WWI Silks. An estimated 10 million were made by French and Belgian girls and women and sold to Allied servicemen on duty in France. The cards were mailed home at no charge to the sender in Military Mail pouches, and became treasured mementos from "the boys over there”.

Ref: First World War silk embroidered card from the Ephemera Collections, c. 1914-1918, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries
Many of the Silks featured symbols and greetings important to Allied troops: fern fronds for New Zealanders, maple leaves for Canadians; flags; battalion and regimental crests; and patriotic messages such as 'United We Stand' or 'Victory and Liberty'. Especially favoured were cards with Sister, Mother, Father, and the words love, kiss and home.

Ref: First World War silk embroidered card from the Ephemera Collections, 1918, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries
According to author and historian John Laffin, it took between 4-8 hours to embroider each postcard but as demand grew the quality declined.

Ref: First World War silk embroidered card from the Ephemera Collections, August 1917, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries
The delicate, tender embroidery contrasted with the gruesome realities of the First World War, giving no indication of what the soldiers were experiencing and sparing families back home from the true horrors of war. Most cards bore a cheerful greeting, tying in with government authorities who suppressed news of the terrible conditions, lost battles and casualties in order to encourage recruitment.

Ref: First World War silk embroidered card from the Ephemera Collections, October 1916, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries
Novelty postcards made from card and silk featured in the Paris Exhibition of 1900, but a new market developed during the First World War via nuns in convents around the soon-to-be invaded areas of Belgium and Northern France. The nuns had long been embroidering church vestments as well as commercial items to support their ministry. After 1915 they organised refugee women and girls to embroider these complex, war-themed souvenirs in their homes or at refugee camps. Gradually, production was moved to factories and included machine embroidery. Usually 25 identical designs were printed onto rolls of silk/organdie, although some rolls have been discovered with 400. Once embroidered, they were cut and mounted onto card backing and sold in shops across France, through the YMCA’s recreation centres and at training facilities.

Ref: First World War silk embroidered card from the Ephemera Collections, 1917, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries
Today, WWI Silks are often in excellent condition as a waxed envelope was provided with them for mailing, and soldiers would often slip these inside a second envelope for protection. Nor were postage stamps attached as they were sent home through the military mail system. Finally, their recipients took great care to preserve the Silks, saving them in keepsake boxes or framing them to hang above the mantlepiece.

Ref: First World War silk embroidered card from the Ephemera Collections, September 1917, Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries
The Silks are popular with collectors of military memorabilia, particularly those featuring regimental badges, or unusual images like bi-planes, or spelling mistakes such as a Christmas card showing an English pudding with mistletoe and the words Tranch Pudding. A WWI Silk recently sold for $150 on an online auction site. During the war, the cards cost half a day’s pay for a regular British soldier or two days pay for a French one.

You can purchase fascimile/replica greeting cards of the Silks pictured in this post, which are drawn from the Ephemera Collections of the Sir George Grey Special Collections. These cards are available from the Sir George Grey Special Collections and at the research centres around the region. See the poster below for more information.

Ref: poster advertising the Silks greeting cards available for purchase from Auckland Libraries
Author: Leanne, Central Auckland Research Centre

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