Academic journal article African Research & Documentation

Communications from the Field: Missionary Postcards from Africa

Academic journal article African Research & Documentation

Communications from the Field: Missionary Postcards from Africa

Article excerpt


Over the past five years, the Yale University Divinity School Library has been acquiring a significant collection of postcards that document missionary work in Africa and Asia. The majority of these postcards have been made available by one vendor who has scoured flea markets and used books stores through Europe. The collection of more than 4,000 postcards complements other holdings in the Yale Divinity Library's Day Missions Collection. The Day Missions Collection makes up approximately one third of the Divinity Library's 500,000 volumes, and constitutes the bulk of its manuscript and archival collection. Since its foundation in 1892, the collection's scope has enlarged from a fairly narrow focus on training missionaries to become one of the preeminent collections documenting the thought, history, and practice of world Christianity. More than 1,000 postcards from the Divinity Library's collection have been digitized as part of the Internet Mission Photography Archive ( and the American Theological Library Association Cooperative Digital Resources Initiative (http: //

The postcard phenomenon

The "Postcard Era" was a distinct historical phenomenon occurring in the years between the Spanish-American War and the First World War. Postcard collecting was widespread in Europe by the turn of the century, and the fad had caught on fully in the United States by 1905. At its height, postcard collecting was the subject of considerable satiric commentary, including the following by John Walker Harrington, published in American Magazine in March 1906:

Postal carditis and allied collecting manias are working havoc among the inhabitants of the United States. The germs of these maladies, brought to this country in the baggage of tourists and immigrants, escaped quarantine regulations, and were propagated with amazing rapidity.... There is now no hamlet so remote which has not succumbed to the ravages of the microbe postale universalle.... Unless such manifestations are checked, millions of persons of now normal lives and irreproachable habits will become victims of faddy degeneration of the brain....1

The earliest picture postcards produced in Europe were not legal for mailing purposes but this had changed by the mid-1890s. The Post Card Dealer, a trade journal in the U.S., reported that 1,161,000,000 postcards were sent through the mail in Germany in 1906. Figures for the same year in the United States and Britain were 770,500,000 and 734,500,000 respectively. An explanation for these phenomenal statistics is not hard to devise. Advances in printing technology had made high quality but relatively inexpensive postcards readily available to the public for the first time. Practical aspects of the late 19th and early 20th centuries further set the stage: interest in far off lands surged as improved transportation and communication increasingly facilitated travel to far corners of the earth; the world scene was largely free from wars. As noted in Ian McDonald's work The Boer War in Postcards:

The postcards were more than just pictures. They were a leap into the world of wider communication which has been such a feature of our own century. They suddenly made people more aware of the world around them...2

Postcards that offered visual evidence of missionary work overseas were part of a larger trend that catered to the West's fascination with distant lands. In an essay in the book Delivering Views : Distant Cultures in Early Postcards, Christraud Geary notes that

In the second half of the nineteenth century physical and cultural anthropology emerged as major academic disciplines that also bolstered expansionist and colonizing efforts. Photography soon became one scientific means to document and survey all aspects of societies that had come under colonial domination..... Postcards helped to perpetuate and encode images of Africa, and they greatly appealed to the Western imagination. …

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