To quote Saucy Postcards -
"Characters would mostly be well endowed young women, well built older women, hen pecked husbands and red nosed drunks. Subjects usually involved either the beach, hospitals, nudist camps or indeed anything where a sexual content could be included. The predominant feature being double entendre (A word or phase having a double meaning especially when the second meaning is risqué) and spoonerisms (A transposition of the initial sounds of two words)."
They reached the peak of their success between the World Wars - at 16 million a year sold by one count - and by the 1980s were in serious decline, due to changes both in travel destinations and in sexual culture. I was last in England in 1991 - almost twenty years ago now - and at that time you could still find these fairly widely available. Most of the companies producing them have since gone out of business, though Bamforth postcards (the best known of the lot) are presently available online.
Here are a few sites with lots of pictures.
Perhaps the most interesting story to come out of seaside postcards is that of Donald McGill, who began designing them all the way back in 1904 and is credited with selling an estimated 200 million postcards. In his 1941 essay "The art of Donald McGill", no less a cultural landmark than George Orwell calls McGill, "not only the most prolific (but) by far the best of contemporary post card artists". As one would expect, Orwell's comments on McGill and his work are unusually incisive and worth quoting at length:
"Your first impression is of overpowering vulgarity. This is quite apart from the ever-present obscenity, and apart also from the hideousness of the colours. They have an utter low-ness of mental atmosphere which comes out not only in the nature of the jokes but, even more, in the grotesque, staring, blatant quality of the drawings. The designs, like those of a child, are full of heavy lines and empty spaces, and all the figures in them, every gesture and attitude, are deliberately ugly, the faces grinning and vacuous, the women monstrously paradied, with bottoms like Hottentots. Your second impression, however, is of indefinable familiarity. What do these things remind you of? What are they so like? In the first place, of course, they remind you of the barely different post cards which you probably gazed at in your childhood. But more than this, what you are really looking at is something as traditional as Greek tragedy, a sort of sub-world of smacked bottoms and scrawny mothers-in-law which is a part of Western European consciousness."
Orwell goes on to examine the different themes and sub-themes of these cards, the way in which their rather unique humour works (and its antecedents in low-brow British revues and music halls). I find the following Cervantian reference to the appeal of these postcards particularly interesting:
"What they are doing is to give expression to the Sancho Panza view of life, the attitude to life that Miss Rebecca West once summed up as 'extracting as much fun as possible from smacking behinds in basement kitchens'. The Don Quixote-Sancho Panza combination, which of course is simply the ancient dualism of body and soul in fiction form, recurs more frequently in the literature of the last four hundred years than can be explained by mere imitation...evidently it corresponds to something enduring in our civilization, not in the sense that either character is to be found in a 'pure' state in real life, but in the sense that the two principles, noble folly and base wisdom, exist side by side in nearly every human being.
If you look into your own mind, which are you, Don Quixote or Sancho Panza? Almost certainly you are both. There is one part of you that wishes to be a hero or a saint, but another part of you is a little fat man who sees very clearly the advantages of staying alive with a whole skin. He is your unofficial self, the voice of the belly protesting against the soul. His tastes lie towards safety, soft beds, no work, pots of beer and women with 'voluptuous' figures. He it is who punctures your fine attitudes and urges you to look after Number One, to be unfaithful to your wife, to bilk your debts, and so on and so forth. Whether you allow yourself to be influenced by him is a different question. But it is simply a lie to say that he is not part of you, just as it is a lie to say that Don Quixote is not part of you either, though most of what is said and written consists of one lie or the other, usually the first."
Not everyone agreed with Orwell of course. About a decade after Orwell's essay appeared, the government of the time sought to crack down on these works of questionable morality.
Their prime target? Not surprisingly, Donald McGill. He was charged under the 1857 Obscene Publications Act, and plead guilty (paying a fine) in order to avoid gaol - later giving evidence to amend this same act when the state became more agreeable to free speech, and the postcards underwent something of a reappraisal and resurgence.
By the 1960s, some people even considered them as being art. Collectors revered the postcards and they have gone up remarkably in value. Earlier this year, a collection belonging to British comedian Ronnie Barker of The Two Ronnies was sold for 60,000 pounds.
Nonetheless, McGill himself died a poor man and was buried in an unmarked grave. An hour long film on McGill appeared on British television two years ago. I haven't seen it, myself. Here is a few minutes of it.
I will leave the last word to Orwell --
"It is...that...other element in man, the lazy, cowardly, debt-bilking adulterer who is inside all of us, can never be suppressed altogether and needs a hearing occasionally. The comic post cards are one expression of his point of view, a humble one, less important than the music halls, but still worthy of attention. In a society which is still basically Christian they naturally concentrate on sex jokes; in a totalitarian society, if they had any freedom of expression at all, they would probably concentrate on laziness or cowardice, but at any rate on the unheroic in one form or another.
It will not do to condemn them on the ground that they are vulgar and ugly. That is exactly what they are meant to be. Their whole meaning and virtue is in their unredeemed low-ness, not only in the sense of obscenity, but lowness of outlook in every direction whatever. The slightest hint of 'higher' influences would ruin them utterly.
They stand for the worm's-eye view of life, for the music-hall world where marriage is a dirty joke or a comic disaster, where the rent is always behind and the clothes are always up the spout, where the lawyer is always a crook and the Scotsman always a miser, where the newly-weds make fools of themselves on the hideous beds of seaside lodging-houses and the drunken, red-nosed husbands roll home at four in the morning to meet the linen-nightgowned wives who wait for them behind the front door, poker in hand.
Their existence, the fact that people want them, is symptomatically important. Like the music halls, they are a sort of saturnalia, a harmless rebellion against virtue. They express only one tendency in the human mind, but a tendency which is always there and will find its own outlet, like water. On the whole, human beings want to be good, but not too good, and not quite all the time."