What Grandpa never told us
Postcards were the pornography of choice for the two or three decades around the turn of the last century. They weren't meant to be posted (though some of them were), but they were postcard-sized.
Photography was a relatively new technology; it was expensive and exclusive - quite unlike today's selfie-obsessed times - yet the technical and artistic quality of many erotic postcards is astonishing.
Most were made in France, predominantly Paris, though some came from elsewhere. The business was never quite 'proper' and depictions of nudity were banned in France in 1908, so publishing was a clandestine trade. This perhaps explains why so little is known about the women who posed, the men who snapped them and the companies that distributed the finished product.
What we do know is that these women are old enough to be our grannies, or possibly our great-grannies - I'll leave that to you - and deserve our admiration and thanks for leaving such a plethora of beautiful images at which we now marvel a hundred years later.
Enjoy my collection of vintage erotica.
Posing nude for photographers was perhaps not an altogether respectable occupation for a young lady at the turn of the last century. This may explain why the models’ involvement in postcard production was largely anonymous and, even today, is often written off as merely a day-job for career prostitutes.
However, some of the beauties you’ll find in my collection of vintage erotica are known to us. Miss Fernande is ubiquitous; Alice Prin became famous as ‘Kiki of Montparnasse’ and posed for artists Francis Picabia, Jean Cocteau and Man Ray as well as for saucy postcards; Jeanne Juilla was a noted beauty and won the Miss France and Miss Europe titles in 1931; others whose names we know are Tania Mirova, Maude d’Orby and Maudelynn. Discover more about these doughty women here.
The saucy postcard market was dominated by a handful of Parisian publishers – Noyer, the Agélous, Corona, SAPI, Leo de Pradet, Papeteries de Levallois-Clichy, Studio Oliviery – followed by a large number of smaller marques. The clandestine nature of the nude photography business (officially illegal in France after 1908) seems to have led to the adoption of a number of survival strategies, including name changes, obliterating printed logos and publishing anonymously.
It seems likely that ‘Sapi’ was a reincarnation (and anagram) of ‘Pisa’, though it must be doubtful whether the ruse was enough to fool the authorities. Lucien Waléry published some of his cards under the name ‘Yrélaw’, which could surely have been easily decoded by the simplest gendarme. One publisher used a ? as its logo, perhaps mockingly. Discover more about these illicit publishers here.
Risqué French postcards
The men – they were all men – who took the snaps for erotic postcards were more than creative artists. With photographic methods still developing (literally), they also had to be technicians – their cameras had no ‘Auto mode’ button. Most were society portraitists as well as pornographers (let’s be honest) which may have lent them a modicum of respectability, and so their involvement is occasionally acknowledged on the saucy photos that they also took.
The photographers who pop up most commonly are Julien Mandel; the Agélou brothers, Georges and Jean; Paul Nadar; and Lucien Waléry. They often worked for multiple publishers. Deltiologists soon get to know their styles (if only by the furniture in their studios) and identify their work even when they are not specifically credited. Discover more about these pioneering artists on my stories page.