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What a Difference a Century Makes: Postcards of England, Then and Now

What a Difference a Century Makes: Postcards of England, Then and Now
Howard Webb

"Some places," says Howard Webb, "I know very well from a hundred years ago, but I've never been there myself."

Such are the problems of a postcard collector. Webb, when he's not working at a London investment bank, has amassed over a thousand early 20th-century postcards of the Greater London area. And unlike many rival postcard aficionados, Webb posts his finds online -- along with a current day snapshot from Google Streetview.

Since 2010, Webb has posted hundreds of match-ups on his blog, Postcards Then and Now. Each week, he tries to set up two comparisons that reveal how much or how little England has changed in the last century.

Sometimes, he finds amazing coincidences. In the postcard below, which shows the small town of Knaphill in 1913, there is someone leaning out the window of the tobacconist's.

Google Streetview, in addition to recording a great deal of suburban development and a notable lack of tobacconists, also happened to capture someone leaning out the window!

Often, though, Webb finds the transformations, particularly the commercial "modernizations" of the 60s and 70s, disheartening.

"I wanted to call the blog: 'What Have We Done?'" he says. "Most of England looked a lot prettier than it does now, and people were a lot better dressed. I try not to be judgmental though, because life was pretty horrible a hundred years ago. Can you imagine going to the dentist?"

Webb is attracted to those juxtapositions that show the greatest contrast, like the decline of Six Ways, below. The biggest difference between then and now? Lots of cars, and bigger roads to carry them.

"It's amazing how many streets have been widened since then," Webb notes. "And how street infrastructure and cars can change the look of a place."


Acton, West Midlands, Six Ways. Circa 1910.

In a typical brief, informative entry, Webb writes:

"Aston is a city within the City of Birmingham, in the West Midlands of England. Six Ways was a major road junction, a thriving hub of activity. It has now been replaced by a dreary roundabout. The only building that has survived from the postcard's period is the gabled building almost exactly above the roof of the red car in the Google Street View."

It's not just the cars which make the streets seem so prominent today, but also the ubiquitous street furniture -- the signs, lights, paint and railings that are designed to draw the attention of drivers and pedestrians both. "It's never easy on the eye," Webb writes.


Epsom High Street. Circa 1913.


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In other cases, the building stock and roads patterns are almost exactly the same. The changes lie in storefronts, signage, technology, dress. And of course, the introduction of color, which does no favors to England's drab gray skies.


Sutton, Surrey, Burgess Road. Circa 1935.


Walthamstow, St. James Street, North East London. Circa 1910.

Why did people bother to photograph and sell such quotidian images of city life? Postcards, Webb says, were the text messages of their day. "We had a brilliant postal service, and you'd get same-day delivery in some places. People would scribble a message for someone in the same village or town. Lots of them are from teenage girls, basically."

Because their quickly scrawled contents were more or less public, the messages tend to be dull. But the way the cards were used is reflected in their photographic content. Churches are very common; pub postcards, which Webb likes, tend to be less so.

He speculates that this reflects the market of postcard-senders. "I think that's because a girl writing to a friend is much more likely to say, 'This is the church I go to every Sunday,' instead of 'This is the pub my daddy gets drunk in.'"

For making historical comparisons, though, the landscapes of the everyday are much more revealing.


Uxbridge Market House. Circa 1912. W.H Applebee of Ashford.


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St. John's Hill, Battersea, South West London. Circa 1910.

All images courtesy of Howard Webb, Postcards Then and Now.

HT Google Maps Mania.

Henry Grabar is a freelance writer and a former fellow at The Atlantic Cities. He lives in New York. All posts »

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