top of page

Exhibition: Plowman Family’s Postcard Collection

Updated: Mar 6, 2023

For our INF1005H research project, we chose to study the

1912 Valentine & Sons Photo Postcard of St. George Street in Toronto.

2021 Google Maps street view of St. George house seen in 1912 postcard (109-year difference)

The Plowman Family Postcard Collection, located at the University of Toronto’s John M. Kelly Library, provides a snapshot of the family’s interactions with family and friends from 1902 to 1932.

Charles and Samuel Plowman were born in England in the mid-nineteenth century and later relocated to Toronto, running a business together in the city. Charles eventually married Ellen Anderton and they had a daughter in 1882 named Ella Olive Alberta. Olive, as she is referred to in the Postcard Collection, eventually married Francis McCann in 1920.

Plowman Family Postcards at the John M. Kelly Library - Photo was taken by Julie-Ann Mercer

The period the Plowmans collected and sent postcards is referred to as the ‘golden age’ of the postcard craze. Postcards were a quick, affordable way of keeping in touch with friends and family and provided an alternative to long-form handwritten letters. You could send a postcard on any subject from scenic travel imagery to a photograph postcard of yourself.

Edwardian Postcards:

With the Plowman family's postcard collection spanning from 1902 to 1932, it came to pass some notable historical events like the change in Great Britain’s monarchical rulers from King Edward VII to King George V in 1910. (1)

We saw this change in the postcard collection through the usage of stamps. However, we did not see the first King George V stamp until 1913., almost three years after the death of King Edward VII!

The Edwardian Postcard era was named after the ruling monarch King Edward VII who was in power during the golden age of postcards. At the height of the postcard craze in 1910, the Great Britain postal office saw an estimated 800 million postcards pass through their facilities (some of them being from the Plowman family). (2) Per capita that would mean an average number of postcards sent was twenty-five per person yearly.

The imagery and content on Edwardian postcards ranged on countless subjects like seasons, events, holidays, landscapes and so much more. Some postcards even depicted local/regional events as a form of advertising. (3) Since these postcards were new, colorful and visually stimulating mediums, people (like the Plowman's) also kept them as mementos or souvenirs. (4) With limited access and funds for personal cameras, these postcards were inexpensive souvenirs that often depicted a place that people would like to remember.

1906 Private Postcard from Toronto showing the images of two people who were part of an Evangelists' event in Massey Hall featuring R. A. Torrey & Mr. C. M. Alexander.

We found a postcard showing the destruction of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. The postcard was not sent but is assumed to be kept as a souvenir to show an image of a house that a member/s of the Plowman family lived in. This is assumed based on the script found on the backing of the postcard:

"The House with cross we lived in 10 years"

Some of the top postcard production companies found in Great Britain were: (5)

Raphael Tuck and Sons


Davidson Brothers

C.W. Faulkner

Rotary Photographic

Valentine and Sons.

Through our observations of the Plowman collection, we came across three of the six top Edwardian postcard producers.

1908 Christmas Card series by Rotograph Co. N.Y. City from Rochester, N.Y:

(Left) From Edna to Olive & (Right) From Mother Minnie to Mrs. Charles Plowman

Printing Technologies:

One noticeable theme in the Plowman Family Postcard Collection is the different forms of printing technology. The printing industry made substantial advances during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries because of the invention of lithography in 1796, which changed the industry since it introduced a cheap way to mass produce text and images, making printed communication more affordable and accessible to the lower and middle classes. (6) The technological advances in the printing industry are evident in the Plowman's postcards since we see examples of hand-coloured collotypes to chromolithographs to photogravures.

This postcard with “Easter Greetings” is likely a photolithograph or collotype, two of the first photograph reproduction processes.

Photolithography is a way of reproducing photographs using a lithographic process, which prints images on a stone by using ink and chemicals.

Collotypes are similar to lithography, but use a gelatin-coated plate and chemicals to print images. (7) After the image was printed, it was coloured by hand to fully capture the fine details of the flower.

The publisher, Raphael Tuck & Sons, was based in England. Some of Raphael Tuck & Sons’ postcards show the publisher contracted colouring work in Germany, such as the postcard “Ivy” which notes the postcard was “Handcoloured in Berlin.”

The next postcard “Outing Club” is a “litho-chrome” or chromolithograph, published by the Buffalo News Company.

Chromolithography was an exciting advancement in printing technology since it allowed lithographers to layer colour on a print through the mechanical printing process, instead of having to hire colourists to hand colour the prints after they were made, like in the previous two postcards. (8) This postcard was also printed in Germany, which shows it had a thriving printing industry at this time.

Note: chromolithography is the same process, but uses multiple stones to add colours to the print.

The “Foot of Wish Tower” is a photogravure postcard, which means it was printed on a light-sensitive gelatin-coated plate and etched with chemicals, unlike a chromolithograph which is printed with chemicals on stone. (9) This printing process makes the image appear sharper and retain its photographic quality, whereas the chromolithography process has more of a watercolour painting quality.

Another printing process we see in the Plowman Collection is a mezzograph, which is a printing process trademarked by the publisher Valentine & Sons.

This process has a heavy painterly quality, unlike the sharp, photograph quality of the photogravure process. The mezzograph is a hybrid printing process; it uses a combination of photolithography and collotype printing to layer or overprint colour on the image. (10) A fun fact about Valentine & Sons is that this publisher is now known as Hallmark! (11)

Photograph postcards were another affordable printing method, which popularized collecting personalized messages and images of family, friends, and famous people, such as actors. (12)

The postcard “Miss Mabel, Miss Betty & Mrs. Seymour Hicks” depicts people in the garden, which was a popular background setting. Gardens were associated with femininity, signaled “the health of home and family,” and were encouraged during the twentieth century as a “healthy and useful activity for women.” (13)

Here are links to other examples of Rotary photograph postcards in the National Portrait Gallery’s collections:

Within the Plowman postcard collection is another example of a photograph postcard, which was given to Olive Plowman.

The photograph was not mailed, showing that photograph postcards were also given to recipients as keepsakes.

Valentine's Day Postcards:

Valentine's day is one of the top five favorite holidays in America. With this project taking place in February, we wanted to focus on a contemporary subject. Within the Plowman collection, we found three Valentine-related postcards. One of the cards is addressed to Mrs. Charles Plowman (Ellen) from her husband. The other two cards are addressed to Olive with one being from her dad Charles and the other remaining anonymous.

In early Valentine's Day traditions, “a large number of valentines were sent anonymously.” (14) The Victorian era ushered in the common practice of anonymous Valentine cards. This was due to the increased “less personal practice” of postcard mailing which made it easier to give anonymous Valentine’s Day cards. (15) The less personal practice was adopted due to the habits of Victorian fathers. According to Kalapos (16), Victorian fathers: “were very strict and would not allow their daughters to receive any sort of correspondence unless they had first read it and decided whether or not it was suitable.”

This explains why the second postcard addressed to Olive is left without a sender's name. The Valentine’s craze coincided with the postcard craze which inspired a new form of “holiday enterprise card industry.” (17)

^ (Front)

Anonymous 1911 Valentine's Card from Toronto to Olive.

The script on the postcard matches the same script from the 1908 Valentine's Day cards.


Anonymous 1911 Valentine's Card

from Toronto to Olive >

1908 Valentine's Day Cards from Rochester, N.Y:

From Clint to Olive (right) & to Mrs. Charles Plowman (left)




1. Magnus, p.1

2. Williams, David M. The Postcard, 18.

3. Williams, David M. The Postcard, 27.

4. Williams, David M. The Postcard, 21.

5. Williams, David M. The Postcard, 21.

6. William Mills Ivins, Prints and Visual Communication (Cambridge, M.I.T. Press, 1969), 158.

7. Dusan C. Stulik and Art Kaplan, The Atlas of Analytical Signatures of Photographic Processes: Collotype (The Getty Conservation Institute, 2013), 5.

8. “John Johnson Collection: now and then,” A Bodleian Libraries blog about printed ephemera, accessed February 7, 2023,

9. Dusan C. Stulik and Art Kaplan, The Atlas of Analytical Signatures of Photographic Processes: Photogravure (The Getty Conservation Institute, 2013), 4.

10. Stulik and Kaplan, Collotype, 27.

11. Valentine & Sons was bought in 1980 by Hallmark Cards. For more information, see Robin Lenman, “Valentine, James, & Sons,” in The Oxford Companion to the Photograph, Oxford University Press, 2005.

12. Rebecca Preston, “‘Hope You Will Be Able to Recognise Us’: The Representation of Women and Gardens in Early Twentieth Century British Domestic ‘Real Photo’ Postcards,” 2009, 781-782.

13. Preston, “Hope You Will Be Able to Recognise Us,” 786, 778, 790.

14. Forbes, Bruce David. In America’s Favorite Holidays, 69.

15. Kalapos, Gabriella. Origins of modern holidays, 54.

16. (15) Kalapos, Gabriella. Origins of modern holidays, 54.

17. Forbes, Bruce David. In America’s Favorite Holidays, 70.



A Bodleian Libraries blog about printed ephemera. “John Johnson Collection: now and then.” Accessed February 7, 2023.

Cure, Monica. Picturing the Postcard: A New Media Crisis at the Turn of the Century. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018.

Forbes, Bruce David. “Valentine’s Day.” In America’s Favorite Holidays, 1st ed., 45-78. University of California Press, 2015.

Ivins, William Mills. Prints and Visual Communication. Cambridge, M.I.T. Press, 1969.

Kalapos, Gabriella. Fertility Goddesses, Groundhog Bellies & the Coca-Cola Company the Origins of Modern Holidays. Toronto [Ont: Insomniac, 2006.

Lenman, Robin. “Valentine, James, & Sons.” The Oxford Companion to the Photograph. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Magnus, Philip (1964), King Edward The Seventh, London: John Murray

Preston, Rebecca. “‘Hope You Will Be Able to Recognise Us’: The Representation of Women and Gardens in Early Twentieth-Century British Domestic ‘Real Photo’ Postcards.” Women’s History Review 18, no. 5 (2009): 781–800.

Stulik, Dusan C. and Art Kaplan. The Atlas of Analytical Signatures of Photographic Processes: Collotype. The Getty Conservation Institute, 2013.

Stulik, Dusan C. and Art Kaplan. The Atlas of Analytical Signatures of Photographic Processes: Photogravure. The Getty Conservation Institute, 2013.

The Toronto Postcard Club. “Valentine & Sons Publishing Co.” Last modified February 7, 2022.

University of Toronto Discover Archives. “Plowman Family.” Last modified February 7, 2022.

Williams, David M. “A New Medium for Advertising: The Postcard, 1900-1920.” European Journal of Marketing 22, no. 8 (1988): 17–34.


INF1005H S LEC109

20231: Information Workshop 1 - Storytelling, Memory & Authenticity

Research Project - Plowman Family Postcard Collection

Journey with us to the U of T Archives

Experience walking to the John M. Kelly Library to research Plowman Family Postcard records

94 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page