Song Postcards of the Early 20th Century

(c) by Gart Thomas Westerhout

(published in the Kinjo College Academic Journal, March 2011)



In the early 20th century, popular music was disseminated mostly through performances and sheet music, and through the budding recording industry. In Great Britain and the United States, the first two decades of the century saw the rise and fall of another medium of sharing music: song postcards.  These came in many forms, among which were: a) miniature reproductions of sheet music, b) a song title and corresponding drawing, and c) cards which featured photographs of live models and song lyrics (and in some cases, a line or two of music). For the most part such postcards featured popular songs and hymns. In this paper, I will concentrate on the live model postcards. 



The postcard itself first came into being in Austria in 1869, and was approved soon thereafter by postal authorities and others around the world. Until about 1900, only the address was permitted on the back, so both illustration and message had to be squeezed onto the front. Once this restriction was lifted, the postcard industry, already popular, grew even faster. 

The live model cards owe their existence to illustrated song slides, which flourished in the same era. The stereopticon, or magic lantern, is a slide projector used for education and entertainment as far back as the 17th century. Illustrations were painted or transferred onto glass slides and projected onto a screen or wall for the edification and entertainment of groups small and large. Traveling projectionists set up wherever they could find a suitable space and potential audience. With the advent of photography in the mid-19th century, many slide manufacturers began producing slides of people and places, and soon models were posing for slide stories. In 1894, Edward B. Marks and Joseph W. Stern decided to use live models to pose for a set of slides to accompany their song “The Little Lost Child,” and the illustrated song was born. Growing in popularity year by year, the illustrated songs saw their heyday around 1910, presented as part of a bill of entertainment at movie halls and vaudeville shows in the US and Britain.  Some early song postcards were spin-offs of illustrated songs and published by the same companies, capitalizing on the growing postcard boom. But after a few years, song postcards took on a life of their own independent of illustrated song slides. 



Besides the promotional sheet music postcards, most song postcards from the early 20th century published in the USA were put out by DeWitt Wheeler or Scott and Altena. Both of these companies were producers of illustrated song slides, and published some of their slides as song postcard sets. But whereas an illustrated song would have 12 to 16 slides in general, postcard sets ran from two to four cards. Songwriter and publisher Charles K. Harris produced a series of at least eight of his songs (lettered A-H), four cards to a set, using black and white photos identical to the colorized song slides, and adding a line of the chorus beneath, complete with the melody line. Collect all four cards of the set and you have the complete chorus. 



Judging from what is still available in the used postcard market today, the four most active song postcard publishers in Britain were Bamforth’s, Valentine, Tuck, and Rotary. Each had their own style, and by sheer number, Bamforth’s seems to have dominated the market. 


James Bamforth started out as a portrait photographer in 1870, and started producing slides in 1883.  In the last years of the 19th century and again from 1913-1918, Bamforth’s made moving pictures, and the company is hailed today as a pioneer in the field.  Between 1900-1920, two of the company’s main products were comic postcards (using live models) and live model song postcards. Both of these types first came out in black and white, but by 1910 most if not all of the cards were in color. Bamforth’s produced some 600 sets of song postcards before abandoning the series shortly before 1920. (In the same era, Bamforth’s also started making comic cards with drawings that became known as “saucy seaside postcards,” which sold in the millions between the 1920’s and the 1980’s. These cards are what Bamforth’s is best known for today. Indeed, the song postcards are now relatively unknown outside the field of postcard collecting.) By perusing my own collection as well as the complete list of Bamforth color song cards, I have come up with ten categories, though of course some songs could fit into two or more categories. 



1)Hymns and religious songs  James Bamforth was a religious man, and this is reflected by his choice to produce song cards for many of the popular hymns of the day, especially in the early days of Bamforth song cards. Some titles went through several different editions, with the same lyrics but different photographs.  “The Rosary,” by Ethelbert Nevin (1862-1901), was released in ten different sets over the years, the most editions of any song. Little remembered today, 100 years ago Nevin was very well known as a composer of light classical music and songs. The photos for “Ora Pro Nobis,” meaning “pray for us,” featured Bamforth himself as one of the models. 

2)Romance  This group includes songs of love and longing, and are generally happy in nature. Representative of this genre is “By the Light of the Silvery Moon,” a 1909 song by Gus Edwards and Edward Madden that has been recorded by many performers over the last 100 years and has appeared in many films as well. It is considered one of the standards of music of that era.  

3)Heartbreak  These songs, featuring models both male and female, depict lovers in distress after being left by their sweethearts. “A Broken Doll” (Clifford Harris and JW Tate, 1916) features a jilted woman dreaming of her lost beau, and utilizes the collage effect so popular in illustrated songs: we see her memories of their happy days together pictured in a dreamy cloud within the larger photo of her alone. 

4)War-related  With the outbreak of the First World War, the number of songs about soldiers and war increased rapidly. This period also saw the reissue of earlier love songs with unaltered lyrics but photos to indicate that it was a soldier who was being missed. A good example is the song “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” still well known in the English-speaking world today. Written in 1912 by Jack Judge, it catapulted to fame in 1914 when it was recorded by the famous Irish tenor John McCormack and sung as a marching song by Irish and British troops in World War I. The contents are typical of the war-related songs of the time, expressing a longing for home rather than a call to arms.  The lyrics are about an Irishman working in London who writes a letter to his sweetheart back in Tipperary, and the photos in the original issue of this card set reflect that. In a reissue, the man is a soldier writing to his sweetheart from the battle zone, though the lyrics remain the same. 

5)Regional/ethic   Irish and Scots music (or imitations thereof) was very popular in the early part of the 20th century, reflected in the popularity of singers like John McCormack and Harry Lauder. These were usually stereotypical songs of love for the old homeland or a bonny colleen or lass. “Coming Through the Rye” is a song set to the words of Scots poet Robert Burns (1759-1796). It is known today in Japan as “Kokyo no Sora.” A song written in 1899 by Chauncey Olcott, “My Wild Irish Rose,” is still popular around the world, especially among barbershop singers. 

6)Nostalgia, home, family   This category includes songs of longing for the old days, for the days of youth, for life back at the old homestead. In a time where the population of big cities was growing rapidly, such songs capitalized on nostalgic sentiment. Of course, love and dedication to Mother was also a theme reflected in cards. “Home Sweet Home,” written in 1823 by Henry Bishop and John Howard Payne is a classic representative of this genre, known in Japan as “Hanyu no Yado.” 

7)Americana  The frontier spirit of 19th century America is reflected in a goodly number of song postcards. “Down Home in Tennessee” (Walter Donaldson, 1915) is a sung by a fellow on his way home to the old south. The first card shows him sitting on his suitcases at a train station, and the successive cards show how he will be welcomed at home. Other songs depict pioneers around a campfire or in a rustic American cabin, again longing for home. 

8)Workplace/social commentary  Other songs comment on the workplace: several songs were written about the difficulty and danger of working in the mines. “Heroes of the Mine” (Will Geddes, 1909) tells the story of a fire in a coal mine (an all-too-often occurrence) and the brave actions of those who rushed to the rescue. Some songs sought to teach a moral lesson. “All for the Sake of Society” depicts the sad tale of a woman who leaves her daughter home alone so she can go out for a night on the town, only to return to find the house afire and her daughter dead. 

9)Pathos/bereavement   In light of the number of songs about the death of a spouse or a child,  it seems that the early 20th century public liked a sad story. “Are There Any Little Angels Blind Like Me” (R. Donnelly, L. Wright, 1910) is in the words of a blind child, while the writer of “Baby’s Letter” (songwriter and date not found) asks when Mother (who has died) is coming home.  

10)Miscellaneous  Other themes represented on Bamforth song cards include lullabies, comic songs (surprisingly few considering the popularity of music hall and vaudeville), and poems by the likes of Longfellow and Tennyson. (Comic songs are better represented in the earlier black and white song cards.)   Bamforth also experimented with different styles and formats of postcards, reissuing popular numbers as single card “song greetings,” half-sized song postcards given away with magazines, and others. 



Song postcards can be approached, studied, and enjoyed from many different aspects.

1)The songs   Through these cards, we can get a sense of what sort of music was popular in the day. In the case of Bamforth cards, we can judge the popularity of a song by the number of different editions published – while some cards had only one edition, others had two, three, four, or as many as ten. 

a)Lyricist/composer  For those researching songwriters, song postcards are a medium that sometimes capture songs that are hard to find in any other form today.  However, most song postcards list the publisher but give no credit to lyricist or composer.

b)Recordings  For the more popular songs, it is possible to track down contemporary recordings, many available free online from library and other sites, since they are all out of copyright. 

c)Sheet music  Generally the song cards with a reduced page of sheet music were published by the song publishers themselves, likely as a way of advertising the full sheet music and as an extra source of income. An internet search can often come up with a copy online for perusal or, in the case of more popular songs, for purchase. 

d)Content   From a socio-historical perspective, it is fascinating to see what sorts of songs were best-sellers, at least in the postcard world. We can learn much about the customs and mores of the day. 

2)Design/photos/artwork – We can trace the changes in Bamforth song card design over the twenty years, from straightforward to dreamy to nearly art-deco. It is interesting to spot the same model in different song postcard sets. Bamforth often used his family or members of the community as models for his slides and postcards.

3)As a time capsule   We can learn about the clothing and the changes in fashion of the time, as well as the themes that were popular. 

4)Written messages  A completely unique aspect of vintage songs cards that have been posted is, of course, the message. Some people bought song postcards (singly or in sets) for a collection, but of course many people posted them to friends and family. Particularly interesting are sets of postcards that are mailed over a period of days or weeks from a single writer to a single recipient. For the most part messages tend to be homey, referring to family health or reporting personal incidents, but we can also find references to song or films or news events of the day. 

5)Stamps  The collecting of stamps is another hobby entirely, and for the postcard collector it is an added bonus – over the years we can see the increase in postage, and the variety in postage stamps in the USA and England. 

6)Publisher  It is common to categorize postcards by publisher, and since most song cards credit the song publisher this is an added resource.  

7)Date   Though song postcards themselves are usually not dated (except in the case of miniature reproductions of sheet music), we can learn the approximate date of a card by its postmark. 

8)Genre  We can also divide cards according to their type, either by subject matter as above (Irish, war-related, comic, etc) or by type of card (black and white, color, single, set, notes, lyrics only, photos, and so on).



Song postcards of the early 20th century give us a varied and fascinating look into the music, mores, and milieu of life 100 years ago. The art, the content, and of course the songs themselves are a window into the past, with the added bonus of sometimes banal but sometimes intriguing messages from one person to another, both long passed – a bit like peeping through a keyhole of time. 



Though song postcards can be found in antique shops and at postcard fairs as well as on eBay and other internet auction sites, and scattered references to them can be found online, at this writing I have not come upon any website or organization dedicated solely to the subject of song postcards. 


Websites: - a start of a website introducing various types of Bamforth cards and films  - Wikipedia’s brief entry on Bamforth does not mention the song postcards, but has a very good list of Bamforth films. 



Alderson, Frederick. The Comic Postcard in English Life. 1970: Charles E. Tuttle Company, Rutland, Vermont. A history of funny postcards in England, with a thorough introduction to Bamforth and mostly black and white reproductions of various cards, including song cards.  

Green, Benny. I’ve Lost My Little Willie! – A Celebration of Comic Postcards. 1986: Arrow Books Limited, London. A nice overview with numerous reproductions in b/w and color, with a handful of Bamforth song cards included. 

Phillips, Tom. The Postcard Century: 2000 cards and their messages. 2000: Thames and Hudson, London. A fascinating stroll through 100 years of cards, including some song postcards, all reproduced at half size in color and including part or all of the messages on the back and commentary from the author. Includes a nice introduction to the history of postcards.

Scherer, Robert and Bertram Silman. The Scherer-Silman Bamforth Postcard Catalog 1981: Self-published by Silman, Birmingham, Alabama. A list of thousands of Bamforth cards, including song cards, comic cards, view cards, and others. With black and white small reproductions of about 200 cards.

The Illustrated Bamforth Slide Catalogue. 2009: The Magic Lantern Society, United Kingdom. A DVD-rom with over 4,000 images of Bamforth slides, over 600 readings, and other information along with a fully illustrated booklet about the history of the slides and the Bamforth Company, including song postcards. An invaluable and engrossing resource. 



















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