Celebrate Charles Dickens’ 200th birthday with antique postcards

This article was originally published in Antique Trader
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Charles Dickens terrified me.

We first crossed paths when I was 5, visiting my grandparents in Saginaw, Mich. A neighbor invited us to hear a recording of “A Christmas Carol.” I sat mesmerized by clanking chains and ghostly voices. They seemed to follow me to the big room with the closet where I slept alone in a bed with a ceiling-high carved headboard.

Charles Dickens 200th birthday vintage postcardsDickens was one of 24 authors in an American series by John Winsch, copyright 1910. It’s marked in the lower left-hand corner in extremely faint letters that require a magnifying glass to be seen. The high quality of the printing makes it a gem.

Dickens introduced me to fear. I recently reread “A Christmas Carol,” and it was every bit as chilling and engrossing, although I no longer expect spooks to come out of my grandmother’s big walk-in closet.

As an author, Dickens had the exceedingly rare ability to make his characters come alive. Kind-hearted, evil or morally ambiguous, they endure in some of the best novels ever written. He created them to inhabit a Victorian world of poverty and injustice, one he knew well.

Dickens’ father was imprisoned for debt, along with all the family members except Charles, who was sent to paste labels on boxes in a shoe-blacking factory. “David Copperfield,” his most autobiographical novel, gets its realism from his own experiences.

Feb. 7, 2012 is a big day for admirers of Dickens. It’s the 200th anniversary of his birth in 1812. Very few novels are popular after the death of their authors. An exceedingly small number become “great” literature, but almost no one would deny that Dickens deserves his place in literary history. He wrote page-turners with humor, heart and pathos. My introduction to him was scary, but my grandmother’s complete set of Dickens still has pride of place in my library.

As a postcard subject, Dickens is a rewarding challenge. By the early 1900s, he was a national icon in Britain and appeared in many highly collectible sets. “The American Postcard Guide to Tuck” by Sally Carver (1976) was the first to call attention in the U.S. to the six-card sets designed by notable postcard artists. She lists eight series, including three with character sketches and three “In Dickens Land,” featuring scenes from his novels. KYD and Harold Copping signed some.

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Dickens was included in Tuck’s series 9098, “Homes of Literary Men.” According to the caption, he coveted the old house three miles from Rochester when he was a boy. As a successful author, he was able to buy it and lived there from 1860 until his death in 1870.

 

Charles Dickens 200th birthday postcardsAn envelope protected a series of six postcards sold at The Old Curiosity Shop in London. Many Tuck series survive in near mint condition, thanks to the protective covering.

Tuck’s series were typically sold in sets of six, protected by illustrated envelopes. Raphael Tuck and Sons was the first postcard firm to cater to collectors, so these sets were often kept intact rather than being mailed. Even when the envelopes are worn, the cards tend to be in mint condition, something collectors love.

Tuck’s sets are only the beginning of a Dickens collection. In the days before movie favorites and rock stars, authors had big followings. Dickens was often included in sets of famous writers, including an American one published by John Winsch in 1910.

Naturally, the home of such a famous author was destined to become a museum. Postcards picture the home where he lived and worked, as well as just about any place he was known to frequent. (You can still have a pint in one of his favorite London taverns.)

Charles Dickens 200th birthday postcardsThe most prized postcards are those in the “Characters from Charles Dickens” series, published by Tuck in series 540 and signed KYD. Here’s ‘’umble’ Uriah Heep, a character to give you the creeps in “David Copperfield.”

With the plenitude of celebrities vying for attention today, authors aren’t showing up on postcards the way they were in the early 1900s, but it is possible to find later cards.

Recently I came across a series of silhouettes signed with the initials FES (or FEB, or FOG) — anyway, a series by an artist who needed penmanship lessons. No publisher is listed, but one card was mailed from England with a smudgy postmark and a stamp from the early 1950s.

Dickens endeared himself to Americans when he toured to give readings from his novels in 1842 (protesting slavery) and again in 1867 when he was plagued by poor health. He loved acting and played all the parts when he read from his works. He also performed in plays in Britain, deserting his wife — the mother of his 10 children — for an actress. (He was talented, not perfect!)

So, Charles Dickens, you’re forgiven for frightening a child and remembered for your truly wonderful novels. Happy 200th birthday!

Barbara Andrews has contributed postcard articles to Antique Trader for more than 35 years. She’s an author of women’s fiction, working in partnership with her daughter. 

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