Every postcard can tell a story and give us a glimpse into the past. As we continue to remember the centenary of the First World War and the people of Leeds involved, we would like to focus on the postcards of Vincent William Sternberg. Several years ago, Leeds Museums and Galleries were given a donation of around 100 postcards created during the First World War by this Adel schoolmaster.
Vincent William Sternberg (or V.W.S. as it is written on most of his postcards) moved to Headingley when he was fourteen and began designing postcards in his twenties. After 1920 he appears to have stopped creating postcards. In 1929 he became schoolmaster at the Church School in Adel, Leeds. What make his cards interesting is that many of them were created during the war years.
Designed in France
On seven of these cards Sternberg has written that they were designed in a ‘dugout in Flanders’ or ‘France’. Interestingly, the cards made on the battlefield are particularly cheery and cheeky. You wouldn’t even know a war was happening if it wasn’t for the word ‘Flanders’ or ‘France’ written on the border. There are a couple of exceptions however. One postcard designed in Flanders has a young girl and a dog covered in red, blue, and white ribbons with a caption reading: ‘Another Blooming Victory!’
Curiously, his cards that were not designed on the battlefield have a much more open connection with the War. One card shows a picture of a young girl holding an umbrella with the caption underneath reading: ‘Here's a card to let you know, while you are in the trenches, that you are still remembered, by one of your old wenches’.
Many of these sorts of cards have a gloomy air and a large portion of his designs focus on the women who are left behind. A particularly moving card has a girl sadly sitting on a tombstone that says the word ‘Miles’. The caption underneath reads: ‘Miles upon miles & miles upon miles, you've gone away from me, and yet I can't forget your smiles for my thoughts are e’er with thee’.
The Sternberg collection offers great examples of propaganda postcards. This type of card gives a biased promotion of the war. His cards display the war effort in an idyllic yet melancholy way. The hardships of the war are evident without being openly mentioned, but the main theme centres on faithfully supporting the war effort.
Not all of his postcards focus on daily life. Many of them display simple, rural themes. One postcard currently on display at Abbey House Museum shows a puppy staring playfully at a bee with the caption underneath reading ‘to bee or not to bee’.
This wide variety of designs would have made Sternberg’s postcards accessible to many people. Postcards before and during the First World War were inexpensive ways to send a quick message and they were also popular to collect. The pictures used would not only have been considered visually pleasing, but they would have encompassed the emotions that were felt by the people sending them.
When you received a postcard, there was only so much you could say in the space provided, which is why the drawings could be quite powerful. Of course, sometimes people talked about things that were completely unrelated to the picture.
One card has a picture of a young girl wrapped in ribbons sitting on top of a telephone pole with the caption 'I do not wish to grumble, but, take things as a whole, with you so very far away, I do feel up the pole’. On the back of the card, the writer casually talks about visiting German prisoners in Norton. This postcard was written after the war in August of 1919. It offers a look into the attitude of British people towards the remaining German prisoners.
Each postcard tells its own story and provides a look into the lives of ordinary people during the First World War. If you would like to find out more, be sure to visit the Leeds City Museum where several of Sternberg’s postcards will be on display.
By Renee Goble, MA placement student