Commemorating the Great War: Next-of-Kin Plaques

One of the most interesting exonumismatic items of the modern era comes from the first World War.

In 1917, while World War I raged, the British government set up a committee to create a memorial plaque to be sent to the next-of-kin of any British subject who died as a result of the war (this included those who died in training or from natural causes, so long as it was determined to be war-related.) A competition was held to design the plaque; the deadline for judging had to be extended when over 800 entries poured in from around the British Empire. The top designs won cash awards, and Mr. Edward Carter Preston’s design won the competition. His design features a large and powerful Britannia, with a growling lion. (Oddly enough, the zoo at Clifton in Bristol wrote to the Times to complain that the lion looked too small and feeble to properly represent the might of the British nation.) Two dolphins adorn the background near Britannia’s head to symbolize British naval power, and at the bottom of the design, a second lion sinks its teeth into a bird symbolizing the German nation. The initials of the designer appear above the lion’s foot. “He died for freedom and honor” appears around the rim of the design, per specifications from the design committee (for the women who died, the pronoun was changed accordingly.)

 

Several variants of the plaques exist. The manufacturing of the plaques moved to the Woolwich Arsenal munitions factory after production stalled at the original Acton facility. The Woolwich plaques feature a distinctive symbol, a W with a line across the center to form an A, stamped on the plaque’s blank reverse. The “H” in “HE DIED” on some plaques is narrower than others. Preston, the designer, made this change to accommodate the addition of an “S” for female honorees. The original wider H is mostly found on plaques for Army members. In addition to the designer’s initials, some plaques have a batch number stamped near the lion’s rear paw.

 

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Scroll sent to next-of-kin of deceased servicemembers

These memorial plaques were created in the hundreds of thousands, with over six hundred known plaques presented to the next of kin of women who died in the service of the British Empire. Each recipient of a plaque also received a scroll, sent separately; both arrived with signatures from the king. Many of the war dead never had a plaque created for them, since no next of kin could be found. This may have been caused by poor families living in rental properties and moving without leaving forwarding addresses, names changing due to marriage, or even a soldier having no living next of kin for a plaque to be sent to. Record-keeping and information technology of the time simply had no way of tracking many families down.

 

Given the durability of the bronze plaques, the sheer number of memorials produced, and the honored status of the plaques, many are still in existence. (The scrolls, being much more fragile, are harder to find.) They are also known as a Dead Man’s Penny (though they are over 4 inches across), Widow’s Penny, or the Death Plaque. Miniature plaques can also be found; most are found with no names engraved on them. The prominent theory is that these were produced commercially, in hopes that other families members of a slain soldier might want their own memorial, and buy a small version to have engraved with their serviceman’s name on it. As these are found in abundance with no names, it does not seem to have been a profitable concept.

 

As with any memorial object, these plaques became objects of varied use. Many were displayed in homes with the accompanying scroll. Some were tucked away in attics or basements for storage. Many were lost or sold. But some were more creative, and more emotional.

 

In a small rural cemetery in Cork, Ireland, the Burke family has kept a family plot for decades. One stone stands out in particular. It has a concrete gravestone, topped with a stone cross, and bearing the plaques for three men: Stephen, Cornelius, and Edward Burke. The men themselves are likely not buried here, but the memorial plaques keep the record.  (For more details about the Burke family and this grave marker, please read the excellent post on the Irish Garrison Towns blog.)

A Brief History of the Postcard

For as long as the postal system has existed, people have been posting cards in the mail. The cards just weren’t labeled as postcards yet.

The first known “postcard” lookalike went through the mail in 1840, painted on the front and sent to English writer Theodore Hook with a penny black stamp. Rumors say he sent the card to himself as a taunt to postal workers, judging by the postal worker caricatures painted on the card.

Postcards officially happened in 1861 when H. L. Lipman bought the patent for commercially available cards. Said cards had a decorative border and not much else, allowing plenty of space for writing the address on the front and a full space on the other side for the note. Writing took priority over any pretty pictures.

1905DuPontMillpcardback

A postcard with an undivided back.

The first postcard with a printed image came in 1870. Camp Conlie, a training camp for soldiers in the Franco-Prussian war, made a lithographed design with the inscription “War of 1870. Camp Conlie. Souvenir of the National Defence. Army of Brittany”. However, these cards may have been sent in envelopes, making them less postcard-like.

The Edwardians brought postcard fads to a whole new level. They used postcards (thus renamed from “private mailing cards”) for sending information on every little thing going on in their lives, not unlike today’s text messaging and social media. This was the age of postcards with undivided backs, when people could only write on the front of the card.

An Edwardian postcard showing a little girl with a crown of flowers.

An Edwardian postcard.

During WWI postcards were popularly sent from soldiers. These “silks” were high quality cards and frequently passed from soldiers to family members as a way of greeting.

In the 1920s, dyes grew brighter and postcards became embossed to help with the new kind of ink. Humorous postcards also became very popular around this time.

Linen postcards entered the market from 1931 to 1959. Though not actually made out of linen, these cards had a linen-like texture to them. Many popular postcard companies made these at the time, like Curt Teich, E. C. Kropp, and more.

A typical British seaside postcard

A typical British seaside postcard

In the 1950s, Donald McGill and other artists made numerous successful British seaside postcards, many of which made innuendos and double entendres. The British government became concerned about Britain’s morals and made the decision to prosecute Donald McGill for obscenity. Though his postcards weren’t the most risque at the time, he was more popular than other postcard artists, making him the messenger to other risque postcard artists.

The 1980s did see a resurgence of seaside postcards with much more risque images, this time without the restrictions of the 1950s to stop their publication. Less saucy postcards of the British seaside still continue in popularity today.

In later years, postcards have become a conglomeration of subjects, with no one subject or material being more popular than the other. But postcards still stand their ground as essential tourism items and ways to say hello to loved ones in print.