BLEUETS OR A POSY OF BLUE FLOWERS MIGHT LAST FOR ONE WEEK BUT THE FLOWERS BECOME SPENT AND DIE.
However, a silk postcard of these blue flowers might last almost a lifetime – as many soldiers in the First World War valiantly hoped. They wrote cards and letters to let their loved ones know that they were missed – even in the theatre of war. They sought to be remembered and to be never forgotten.
Their silk postcards were sent across the sea to loved ones and those fondly remembered. On receipt, these little artworks would have been cherished and stored for decades from public view. Some of this militaria has found its way to the Research Centre at the Australian War Memorial (AWM) in Canberra.
The silk postcard is made of paper, embroidery silk and fancy ribbons. Sometimes it is written on in blue ink or in pencil. As an object of arts and crafts, the silk postcards provide historical examples of different forms and styles of hand embroidery. These days, hand embroidery is used even on popular sporting items such as baseball hats and caps.
As a historical artefact, conservation of this textile material and paper fabric on the silk postcard belongs to a specialized tradecraft. Silk is a difficult material to preserve as it is sensitive to light, packaging and handling. It is also sensitive to the impact of climate change. This includes the extremes of humidity and fluctuations in temperature and dampness. These are some of the climatic impacts which quietly impact on the shelf life of a silk postcard.
If you were to closely examine most silk postcards, you would probably see some tearing of the silk and some small holes developing in the textile. In World War 1, the silk material used was often of poor quality. Within 100 years it will have experienced a range of climatic temperatures and moisture. The postcards will probably have some brown staining which is known as foxing. Foxing is due to acidotic content affecting the textile material and paper used – either the silk itself, the thread used in the embroidery and or the paper used for the postcard.
The signs of foxing can sometimes be reduced by conservation and repair. However, this is a specialist job to be undertaken by someone trained in the art of conservation of textiles. The AWM has a team of trained conservationists and archivists whose job is to restore and maintain the silk postcards as historical wartime artefacts. This is an ongoing process of cultural maintenance as the items stored at the AWM have a finite existence.
Jennifer Milward, online research manager in the AWM’s Research Centre suggests, “… in most circumstances, careful storage in specialist polyester sleeves and archive quality boxes are the most practical route to extending the life of these delightful designs.” She says that the silk postcards should never framed for display because the items will quickly, even if placed away from direct sunlight.
The AWM’s website contains a guide to its silk postcard collection which includes many postcards of bleuets: www.awm.gov.au/collection/accessing-records-at-the-memorial/findingaids/guide-silk-postcard-collection.
The AWM also hosts a blog post “Saying it with flowers” at www.awm.gov.au/articles/blog/saying-it-with-flowers. The blogs include an entry on 24 April 2010: “I no what home is now has the saying is no place like home” aka I know what home is now as the saying is “there’s no place like home’. Another blog, posted on 29 April 2010 is “I think these cards well got up”.
The background to the development of the wartime silk postcards is based on therapy through craft, or in a more industrial setting, it is known as rehabilitation through labor. Heritage experts will tell us that we can marvel at the manual dexterity of these craft works because the postcards themselves are significant and rare.
As the industrial machine revolution in France began to progress, mechanization began take over the cottage-style industry of silk postcards. Over time, the individual manufacturer of the home-based cards gave way to more industrial, factory-based trade production.
These silk postcards depict the dark and light side of life. They were the pathfinder for modern postcards. They were created not for leisure and pleasure but for rest and recuperation of injured soldiers.
The families of the French military understood the suffering of the injured and maimed from the First World War. They wanted the French nation to take care of these soldiers because they understood and appreciated the necessity to help these veterans play an active role in society.
According to Ms Milward, “… they decided to organize workshop in France where the maimed soldiers manufactured cornflower (art) with petals made out of fabric and stamens out of newsprint. Those flowers were sold on many occasions.”
The income of this activity gave the male and female veterans some autonomy. As a result of this charitable works, Ms Milward says the French Cornflower (bleuet) became the symbol of reintegration through work.
Remembrance Cornflower (Bleuet de France) is still sold during military remembrance commemorations such as on 8 May (VE Day) and 11 November (Remembrance Day) each year.
Ms Milward says the flowers are sold “… by the volunteers of the “L’Oeuvre Nationale du Bleuet de France”, a charity organization supervised by the Office national des anciens combattants et victims de guerre.”
This organizations main goal is to collect money to finance social charity to support former servicemen and widows of war. In addition, it seeks to support soldiers wounded during peacekeeping operations and those people who have become victims of terrorism. It is also a symbol of gratitude for the sacrifices which soldiers made to defend their country and their ideals.
As in the language of flowers, the French cornflower (bleuets) represents delicacy and timidity. The words ‘Fleurs de France les Bleuets’ carries a message of pure, innocent intention. The little bleueuts are a symbol of memory for, and solidarity with veterans and orphans. It is considered similar in use, and in the philosophy of meaning, to the Commonwealth red Remembrance poppy.
Sources provided for more information:
Ian Collins (2001) An illustrated history of the embroidered silk postcard, Radlett, United Kingdom, April, https://sites:google.com/site/embroideredsilkpostcards/information/book-available
Tonie Holt and Valmai Holt, (1977) Till the boys come home: the picture postcards of the First World War, London, MacDonald and Jane’s, pp. 160-3, NLA q 769.5 H758.
John Laffin (1990) World War 1 in postcards, Alan Sutton, Gloucester, Chapter 8, Sewing silks for soldiers. South Melbourne, Sun Books, NL 769.499403 L163; Previously published: Gloucester, England, Alan Sutton Publishing, 1988.
Malcolm J. Roebuck (2000) Stevengraphs Bookmarks and Postcards, etc: World War 1 Postcards, https://stevengraphs.com/
Heino Strobel (2012) The Beginnings of Machine Embroidery in Saxony, Plauen, Saxony, http://www.annatextiles.ch/machine%20embroidery/strobel_2_english.pdf
Pat Tomczyszyn (2000) “With Love from the Trenches: Embroidered Silk Postcards of the First World War”; Gérald Baril (2000) “Costumes du monde : réinterpréter le patrimoine matériel”, Material Culture Review, Research Reports / Rapports de recherché, Printemps, Volume 51, Spring, (see http://culture.cbu.ca/mcr/back.html). #
Text copyright Fiona Rothchilds 2019 with contributions by Jennifer Milward (2018).
Photographic images copyrighted by Fiona Rothchilds 2019.
Uploaded 11 March 2019.