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Thursday, August 25, 2011

Russell Hamilton's Postcard Collection: Pragmatic or Romantic?

I went into the collection of postcards that British petty officer Russell Hamilton assembled for his wife during his travels, somewhat expecting to find news and interesting tidbits of his experience overseas, or perhaps even sweet words to his love at home. I was, it turns out, mistaken on both counts. These postcards (intermingled with some photographs of Hamilton's own) do not represent correspondence but rather a set of souvenirs, most likely presented en masse to Mrs. Hamilton upon her husband's homecoming. Yet, I could not be disappointed, nor should I be so quick to dismiss Hamilton as a romantic, as this group of images, with its apparently careful aggregation, does in fact fulfill what I was secretly hoping to find in the beginning. 

My wish for news of his travels is met by the collection's many photographs, most of which with descriptive information scrawled on the reverse side. Hamilton visits a rock in Oman painted with the names of visiting English war ships, encounters a group of women road-builders in Somalia, and meets the Sheik of Kuwait and his followers, some of whom cover their faces, "fearing the evil eye of the camera."   

I also find romance in this collection, though it is achieved quite subtly (as one really could only expect of a man of Hamilton's time and position). Included in Hamilton's assemblage of postcards is a set of twelve hand-tinted Japanese postcards, each depicting a scene in the daily life of a geisha named O-Koto-San. With their English captions these postcards were clearly intended for purchase by visiting English-speakers (in particular the British, as this was during the Anglo-Japanese Alliance). From researching these postcards I discovered that the set consisted of only twelve that Hamilton brought home, and seemed to be a popular souvenir, as one can easily find these same postcards for sale on collectors' websites (though, due to the nature of hand-tinting, there may be differences from set to set).

One could argue that geisha at this time represented a mysterious sort of erotica to visitors, thus explaining the popularity of these postcards to male visitors. Yet, these particular images are not evocative in the slightest (with one possible exception, captioned "While her maid makes ready her bed, O Koto-San indulges in a smoke, and thinks of her soldier lover"). In the most straightforward of terms, these postcards, with their vibrant colors and chaste, posed scenes, appeal a more feminine sensibility, as if their manufacturer knew they would be bought by husbands and taken home to wives. Thus by carefully acquiring each postcard in the set, I think that Hamilton was demonstrating his sensitivity of his wife's tastes, as telling her she was on his mind while he was gone.

Megan Quint
Intern, Freer-Sackler Archives


  1. At first glance once can easily conclude that the photos are pragmatic but if you'll look at it closely, a tinge of romance is budding at every corner of the photographs.

  2. Mel I completely agree with you! The Japanese hand-painted photographs are popular around here for that exact reason. Thank you for sharing!

  3. Delighted to have found your post. I have just inherited a huge collection of antique postcards - "O-Koto-San" and friends included. Great to find a context for them.