Amusing Advice: Postcards and Wellness

This display works alongside an exhibition at St Nicholas Priory, on Wellness & Wellbeing, that ran in 2022. The postcards below have been digitised and displayed here for you – an amusement to prompt reflection on (y)our approaches to wellness.

At St Nicholas Priory, our exhibition talks about shifts in the practices of doctors during recent centuries. In particular, in the 19th-century, impact of numerous new diagnostic tools and the ‘germ theory’.

But positive medical changes had unintended consequences. They helped to undermine what many see as the ‘holistic care’ of earlier times. It was built in the community and based on a view of healthcare that should treat the whole body. 

Doctors consolidated their views about diseases as independent ‘entities’. This was different from the idea that each disease (and so the treatment) was shaped by a patient’s own characteristics. This might have also been called personalised medicine.

Increasing reliance on medical practitioners, changing social conditions, and the growing manufacturing and commercialism of medicines, encouraged a decline in responsibility for ‘self-care’, evident around 1900.

The eyes of beholders viewed physicians in different ways…

The decline of self-responsibility for health was uneven. Pockets of individuals actively promoted maintaining personal health. Some see this as an emerging social movement.

Noticeably, from around 1900, picture postcards, were becoming a popular form of communication. They were illustrated – sometimes satirically – and showed the many approaches to maintaining health.

What do you think?

Some cards seem to question the power and practices of doctors.
What do you think of the card here: ‘Uneedn’t Call a Doctor! Go to Work!’ 

Note the giant patient and minuscule doctor.  But who was in charge? 

The sender of the card wrote: “After careful consideration of your symptoms, I found this most appropriate card for this occasion. You have tried ‘Rest Cure’ – Suppose you try this.”

Postcard, mailed in 1910.

Our selection of postcards can prompt reflection on today’s constant reminders to take self-responsibility for our health, wellness and wellbeing.

One common issue is:

How do we deal with the bombardment of, sometimes, conflicting information from the government, doctors and advertisers?

Have a think, and as you browse our postcards, can you see any issues with what is presented?For example, how does those cards on physical fitness reflect notions of gender, and even Britain’s imperialism of the time?

The Blues

Many cards talked of ‘having the blues’. In some ways, this covered facets of what today is referred to as mental health.

Some observers linked prevalence of ‘the blues’ to growing urban and industrial developments. Nowadays, innumerable health issues, including wellness, are still associated with the environment. 

For some, the ‘blues’ were akin to a ‘nervous breakdown’, as noted on one of the cards here.

Whatever, your views we can all recognise smiles and good humour promoted on many ‘prescription’ cards, c. 1905 onward as in the examples shown.

Notice that not only can a chiropodist be a ‘cheerupodist’.

Have a Change!

One clear recommendation for dealing with the blues was to have a ‘change’, a change of air, captured on many pre-World War I cards.

Trips to the seaside, sometimes for ‘healthy’ or ‘sea’ air became commonplace (but maybe offset by social activities).

Seaside towns were less expensive than many fashionable spas that had become increasingly popular in the 1800s. Spa treatments to improve health delighted cartoonists.

Spas had become very popular around 1900 and offered a wide range of treatments (not all orthodox).

European spas were popular among the wealthy. The card mailed (1907) from Franzenbad (now in the Czech Republic) shows a wealthily dressed women looking aghast at the mud bath. The message notes about twenty Americans at the spa.

1907 postcard

Physical Education

The promotion of exercise, through community sports, body building, cycling and other activities, became increasingly evident during the late 1800s. 

Urban and industrial developments were considered to account for the poor health identified among many young World War I recruits. Cards, directly and indirectly, reflected and encouraged the entrepreneurial promotion of physical activity. 

These postcards here, an important means of communicaation at the time, are a testament to the popularity of the activities and advice offered on ‘wellbeing’. 

But what do you think? How do you see ‘wellbeing’ and what advice do you think we should be giving? 

Let us know: