Many of the leading illustrators and photographers who created the postcards of the
Edwardian and later periods specialized in exploring the cute and the comical possibilities of cats. Seen as the embodiment of qualities as far apart as wisdom and winsomeness, cats have been illustrated in hundreds of ways, in images varying from the satirical to the saccharine-sweet.
There are few more rewarding fields for cat-loving collectors than picture postcards. In the heyday of the postcard, roughly the first 25 years of the 20th century, several fine artists and photographers specialized in cat studies, producing literally thousands of cards to collect. Some are more or less lifelike studies of cats and kittens, but the majority depict fantasy situations, with cats dressed or apparently acting like people.
The pre-eminent name among the artists is that of Louis Wain. He first found fame as a book
illustrator, but one of his publishers was the firm of Raphael Tuck, also a major producer of postcards. Tuck reproduced three of Wain's humorous illustrations in 1902, the first year that British postal regulations allowed the whole of one side of a card to be taken up by picture. They proved a great success and over the next 20 or 50 year several other firms, including Faulkner, Valentine, and Nister, produced Wain cards.
Wain's whimsical designs usually included several cats, sometimes clothed, sometimes not, involved in basically human activities. Similar subjects painted by a Frenchman, Maurice Boulanger, were mostly issued in sets, including 'In Catland'. His cards were sold with captions and titles in French, German or English, though they were all printed in Austria, then the home of the best colour printers in Europe. Boulanger cats are recognizable by their long whiskers and triangular eyes.
The main German cat artist was Arthur Thiele. His plump, kittenish cats were often drawn in charming, sometimes sentimental
parody of fashion plates.
Helena Maguire was perhaps the best of the more naturalistic artists, specializing in cute and fluffy cats and kittens.
Among cat photographers, there are two main names to look out for. E Landor's studio studies of cats and kittens involved a wide variety of bizarre props, and were usually hand-tinted before they were printed, while an American, Harry Whittier Frees, used to dress up dogs, as well as cats, for the camera.
CAT COLLECTOR'S NOTES
Much of the interest in postcard collecting is in the search, and having a particular theme, like cats, to collect adds to the fun. General postcard dealers will have a selection for you to look through, but prices will be lower at auctions and postcard fairs. The latter are run by collectors' groups that you can contact through your local library, and advertised in magazines dedicated to postcard collecting. Fairs may be your best bet for finding examples of work by famous artists.
You'll also find postcards offered for sale at general antiques fairs, flea markets, boot fairs, jumble sales and charity shops. These
non-specialist sources rarely sort through the cards, but set one price for all, so it's always worth looking through them. You may find an undiscovered gem to add to your collection.
Don't forget to flick through any albums offered for sale. The seller may agree to take out a card or two you particularly want, though it is often just as easy to buy the whole album and sell on those you don't want.
Old postcard albums can be a useful way to store your collection, but have one major disadvantage; only one side of the card can be read, and every time you take a card out or put it back into the album you run the risk of damaging the mounts or, worse, the corners of the card. Some photograph albums offer a reasonable alternative, though you should always store postcards so you can easily retrieve them; you should never stick them down. Serious collectors tend to store their cards in the custom-made, loose-leaf, transparent plastic pockets sold by dealers.
It's important to keep your cards in good condition, clean and dry. Soiled or damaged cards aren't really worth even the low prices that you'll be asked for them. Badly scuffed corners, creases and faded images all make a card virtually worthless, as does foxing, the brown stains caused by damp. Look at the back. If the card has been used, it should have a stamp; these were sometimes steamed off, and this
always leaves traces.