Our new Pinterest site: World War One Romance

World War One romance

As in previous years, we are collaborating with the National Valentine Collectors Association (USA) to highlight an aspect of valentine production.  This year, we strike a more sombre note, with valentine postcards from the First World War. This forms part of our commemoration of WWI, mainly through the John Fraser Collection of Propaganda Postcards.

Although we show a few examples from the USA, valentines themselves were, unsurprisingly, uncommon in the war years.  Instead, separated from their loved ones, men and women sent tokens of love in the form of postcards to and from the trenches to keep their romance alive. Sentimental postcards, often showing couples pining for each other across the miles, were sometimes produced in series, chronicling each verse of a popular song.


Woven silk postcards were produced by French women for soldiers to buy and send home. The greetings are by no means confined to valentines, but include  birthdays, Christmas, New Year, good luck cards and souvenirs.

Pin cushion valentines were often produced by disabled soldiers for rehabilitation. Elaborate designs often incorporated regimental colours.

“The Girl Behind the Man Behind the Gun”: An Impossible Expectation for Women in WWI? Guest post by Nina Foster

The John Johnson Collection participates in a scheme run by Oxford University’s Department of Art History, through which students can gain experience of the curation of collections. We have been fortunate to welcome Nina Foster, who has been working on posters in the First World War.

Throughout 2015, the John Johnson Collection will remember the First World War through the plethora of propaganda posters and postcards in the collection. While many of the posters were directed towards young men, encouraging them to enlist to the army immediately, there were also many posters aimed at women. The First World War offered some women their first opportunity to have a job, which would set a precedent for women’s rights campaigns throughout the early twentieth century.

Postcard in the John Fraser Collection, bearing 'The man behind the gun' slogan (JFP/GB5(61)

Postcard in the John Fraser Collection, bearing ‘The man behind the gun’ slogan (JFP/GB5(61)

The images of women in WWI posters reveal the tension between the need for women to work “like men” during the war and the desire for them to remain true to the Victorian ideal of a feminine woman. The poignant slogan (used by the Queen Mary’s Auxiliary Corps among others) “The Girl Behind the Man Behind the Gun” pointed to the importance of women during the First World War but who that girl really was, or should have been, remained ambivalent.

Women say go poster

(C) John Johnson Collection



Some posters, such the famous “Women of Britain say GO!”  depict women as timid, frightened and almost trapped in the home while their husbands went off to the front line. The young boy clutching on to the skirt of his elder sister who in turn embraces her mother for support, drives home the message that women and children could be taken together as helpless victims of the war who needed to be protected by men. No doubt this was a successful persuasive tactic from the propaganda poster companies for encouraging men to fight but it proved to be an unsustainable way of depicting women as their position in society changed throughout the war. As Diana Condell and Jean Liddiard note in their book Working for Victory: Images of Women in the First World War, the war presented an opportunity for women to go beyond the traditional feminine role and to gradually immerse themselves in the public sphere. However the prospect that women could now do the same jobs as men posed problems for the idea that women were powerless and in need of protection from the war. How could a woman be both helpless and helpful for the war at the same time? It would seem that as the war progressed, posters were asking women to do both, arguably an impossible combination.

Posters now began to show women in masculine, military style uniform looking confident, commanding and self-assured such as the flag-wielding woman of the Queen Mary’s Army Auxiliary Corps recruitment poster.

Queen Mary's Army Auxiliary Corps poster (top) bty0003This poster claims that to join the QMAAC was “the Supreme test of British Womanhood”, a decidedly different take on womanhood than can be seen in a contemporary poster depicting the horrors of the bombing of Scarborough.

Poster relating to the bombing of Scarborough






Here women are grouped with children as defenceless victims of German evils and the poster resonates visually as well by depicting a young girl holding a baby. It is clear that posters from this era expected two very different things from contemporary women; on the one hand they had to be weak, guardians of the home, the very thing that men were fighting to protect and on the other hand they had to play their part in the war, to do the jobs men had left behind even if it meant abandoning their traditional “feminine” role.

This clash of ideals prompted the production of some very strange propaganda Women's Land Service Corps posterposters. One poster in the collection for the Women’s Land Service Corps shows a man leaving the responsibility of the land to his wife. The overwhelming pinkness of the poster is perhaps intended to conflate the new workingwoman and traditional feminine attributes of the ideal Victorian woman. The strange, unreal aesthetic of this image is due to the attempt to combine these two views of women, which increasingly came to contradict each other throughout the war.

The Girl Behind the Man Behind the Gun really had an unstable identity; was she strong or weak? Helpless or helpful? World War One posters alternated between these two contrasting ideas of ‘supreme British womanhood’, seeking to reconcile the irreconcilable. Images of women were a pivotal persuasive tactic employed by the printers of propaganda posters. Depictions of women were used both to encourage men to protect their homes but also to encourage women to embrace their new roles as modern working women.


Sugar and spice… but what are Valentines made of?

pinterest screen shot

The new John Johnson Pinterest site aims to answer this question by finding examples of each element of valentine manufacture. We draw on valentines not only from the John Johnson and Harding collections at the Bodleian,  but also from Nancy Rosin and the National Valentine Collectors Association (USA), with whom we are delighted to collaborate again this year, from the Museum of London (whose 1871 valentines are online)  and from Michael Russo.  This is only the beginning. We hope that collectors and institutions will draw our attention to other elements to be found in valentines and allow us to pin examples of these, so that we can build up these Pinterest folders into a scholarly resource for anyone interested in valentines.  Please send contributions to jjcoll@bodleian.ox.ac.uk

The manufacture of elaborate valentines in the Victorian era fascinated Charles Dickens and continues to intrigue us today.  These were true confections, made by hand: imaginative, but repetitive. While the printing and embossing was done by men, each of the  female workers (referred to as ‘nymphs’ by Dickens) added a precise piece to the ensemble: a colour from a watercolour pot, a scrap, a paper or fabric flower, a tinsel ornament, a shell, a glass bead, gauze, lace, netting….  The results, protected in boxes, were luxurious love tokens, far from the cruelty of  crude contemporary ‘comic’ valentines.


Dickens’ article published on Febrary 20 1864 as Cupid’s Manufactory (All the Year Round, volume XI, pp 36-40) is now online through the wonderful Dickens Journals Online project (University of Buckingham).  Flamboyant in style, the article describes in meticulous detail the process of  making valentines at the (unnamed) manufactory of Joseph Mansell and lists the componenents he saw being applied to the embossed lace paper which is the basis of most elaborate valentines.

This page from the Illustrated London News of February 14 1874 shows the whole process, very much as described by Dickens ten years earlier, but at the premises of George Meek and the workshop of Eugene Rimmel.

For more information about valentines in the context of the John Johnson Collection, see the two posts on this blog (February 2012, February 2013) and the online pages from The season for love (exhibition 2010). For the wider context, see the valentine entries from The John Johnson Collection’s Ephemera Resources blog.

2013 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 4,400 times in 2013. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 4 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Work experience in the John Johnson Collection: a guest post by Amy Shaw

Amy did work experience in the John Johnson Collection in October 2012. She writes:

In October I was fortunate enough to gain work experience looking at the John Johnson collection. This was a really valuable experience which helped me to understand the complexities of cataloguing printed ephemera and allowed me to see some of the collection. I was struck not only by the volume of ephemera but additionally by the range of the collection.

One of the aspects which I found particularly interesting was the opportunity I was given to look at some book jackets from before 1960 as I had studied this period in History and was therefore informed about the contextual background to what I was viewing.

Additionally I was given the chance to explore some of the online facilities offered by the collection which allowed me to see how this collection is made accessible to the public. These facilities enable people to look in detail at an item or to search an individual and see if/where they are mentioned within the collection. These online facilities were brilliant as they were a quick way of viewing the range of the collection and enabling individuals to focus on a single item in detail, and indeed, view the collection as a whole.

I was also able to see how ephemera are used in exhibitions and to look round the Dickens exhibition which was recently displayed at the Bodleian library. This was a really interesting exhibition which enabled me to witness the thought and planning which goes into displaying exhibitions and how ephemera is carefully chosen and displayed to the public.

In October the collection was in the process of acquiring and cataloguing a new donation of games.  It was really interesting to see games from the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth century in order to evaluate how entertainment has developed over the years. It also enabled me to view the complicated cataloguing process which each item has to undergo.

In summary, my time at Oxford was invaluable; it has enabled me to focus on how History is used in the modern world and allowed me to look at the John Johnson collection which was fascinating. I am really thankful to Julie Anne Lambert for allowing me to visit the collection and gain an insight into her line of work. The collection itself was really interesting and thought provoking with regard to how our world has changed particularly with regard to entertainment.

New website for the John Johnson Collection

The John Johnson Collection has a new website, with revised content. The Bodleian’s new style web pages have prompted us to look afresh at our site and make changes. We would value comments on its usablity, especially in relation to finding information:  jjcoll@bodleian.ox.ac.uk

Screen shot of new John Johnson Collection website

The new John Johnson Collection website

‘The poor man’s encyclopaedia’: An exploration of the depiction of fine art on cigarette cards. A guest post by Hannah Wills

In the introduction to The (New) World Tobacco Issues (Cartophilic Society of Great Britain, 2000) Gordon Howsden refers to the common description of cigarette cards as ‘The poor man’s encyclopaedia.’ From birds of paradise, to the monarchs of England, to fine art – the subjects depicted on some cigarette cards indeed seem to explore themes that when collected present a repository of knowledge about both the natural world and the culture and history of man. In particular, I have been interested in the depiction of fine art subjects on cigarette cards; the use of images produced by the great masters seems to form an interesting tension with the fact that artists who produce the images for cigarette cards are largely anonymous.

Cigarette Cards: The vigil by John Pettie and Ulysees deriding Polyphemus by JW Turner

The vigil by John Pettie. and Ulysees deriding Polyphemus by JW Turner. Badminton: Spinet series 1, no. 25 and 26. Lillington 22

What kind of art is it possible to find in a fine art series of cigarette cards? Subjects range from classicism, such as the works of Ingres and David, to Dutch genre scenes, including those of Pieter de Hooch, and even works produced by English painters, such as Turner.  Upon examination of such cards, what is perhaps most notable is the sometimes crude transposition of the images onto card or silk. Whilst it is clear that this is most likely due to the realities and limitations of available printing methods (naturally it is impossible to depict in miniature form an image that is faithful to the original in both colour and form) this might suggest something interesting about the function of such cards in a collection. Arguably, the works depicted all belong to the Western canon; the collector is reminded of the great masters and their works by the crude miniature copies that sit in their collections, standing as encyclopaedic metaphors for the works themselves.

Verso of cigarette card: Joanna of Aragon (Raphael)

Verso of Joanna of Aragon

Cigarette Card: f Aragon by Raphael. Badminton: Spinet series 2, no. 38

Joanna of Aragon by Raphael. Badminton: Spinet series 2, no. 38. Lillington 22

It is interesting to consider the purpose of collecting symbols of works of art, as represented by a fine art series. Fine art has long been associated with moral improvement; Winckelmann, a German art historian of the 18th century, often said to be the father of the history of art as a discipline, was among the first to praise the moral edification to be offered by the consideration of classical art. Such a view has been promulgated and strengthened up until the modern day; the notion of art as ‘good for the soul’ is arguably a key factor behind the rationale of the art museum. Perhaps cigarette cards depicting fine art can be located within such a discourse. In accumulating such cards, the collector is not only acquainting himself with the Western canon, but also furnishing himself with a kind of culture and civilisation. Such an assertion chimes with the fact that classical and Renaissance subjects feature fairly prominently within such series; tied to notions of the Academy, classical history painting, which sits at the apex of the hierarchy of genres, was often thought to provide the greatest moral improvement for the viewer.

Returning to the notion of the ‘poor man’s encyclopaedia’, it might be suggested that in the production of such series of cards, cigarette companies sought to provide individuals who may not have acquainted themselves with culture on a regular and conscious basis, with some form of cultural contact. Individuals would have collected these images of old masters alongside their collections of popular culture, seen in film star series, the natural world, and the history of England. Within such a spectrum, fine art forms one facet to a multi-dimensional encyclopaedia, acquainting individuals with a myriad of fields perceived as important to notions Western knowledge and culture. Cigarette card collections might indeed be described as encyclopaedias.