In our sexual histories series, authors explore changing sexual mores from antiquity to today.
We often hear that we are living in a corrupting, visually saturated, consumer culture, which threatens the innocence of girlhood. But representations of young girls in the European postcard trade at the turn of the 20th century cast doubt on this notion of an ideal, more innocent past.
From the mid-1890s until the first world war, Europeans had a love affair with collecting postcards. Created in 1874, the Universal Postal Unionestablished standardised postal regulations at accessible rates for its member nations; this greatly contributed to the postcard craze. In bigger cities, cards needed just a few hours to arrive at their destinations. The world was at one’s fingertips.
Rival publishers vied for attention with collectors’ competitions, impressive exhibitions, and artistic innovations. It did not take long for alluring postcards to flourish in the light-hearted social context of the time. European publishers showed great ingenuity in avoiding local censorship. They played with the boundaries of what was socially and legally acceptable.
Yet the trend of erotic postcards did not just bring cheeky smiles and cheerful eroticism. A quick look at one Italian postcard (c. 1900) highlights more disturbing aspects. Elevated on a pedestal, a pre-pubescent model is the privileged object of our gaze. Side lightings magnify her blond mane, and sculpt her flawless skin. A neutral backdrop focuses the attention on her statuesque body. This little goddess is a work of art.Read more