Postcard showing side-burned sailor is named Gdańsk’s oldest – but experts baffled by series of ‘mysteries’
A postcard sent in 1888, but produced the year before, has been named Gdańsk’s oldest postcard following a three month hunt by the city’s museum.
Sent on February 29th, 1888, the postcard depicts a side-burned sailor puffing on a pipe, as well as the iconic crane building standing on the city’s quayside.
The postcard’s recipient was a company director called Berhard Lahs who lived in the Silesian town now known as Kamieniec Ząbkowicki.
According to the spidery handwriting, the card was sent by the Morstein family from Gdańsk from what is now ulica Kowalska (number 22).
Dr Andrzej Gierszewski from the Museum of Gdańsk which launched the hunt said: “It’s an extremely valuable postcard.
“Even just the date, the February 29th, is hardly commonplace.”
But this has proved to be the least of the postcard’s quirks.
Dr Gierszewski said: “Firstly, we know that the postcard was produced in 1887 because it was printed with words to the effect of ‘Best wishes for the New Year’ – so you have to ask, why would someone send such a card at the end of February.
“Furthermore, the existence of telephone directories meant that we were able to check where the Murstein family actually lived – and it didn’t correspond to the address they sent the postcard from. We’d love to know why this was.”
Hailing from the collection of Tadeusz Zając, the postcard – officially recognised at a prize-giving ceremony held a few days ago – was uncovered after the competition won the hearts of the public as well as the attention of the press.
Dr Gierszewski said: “Our idea was very warmly received, especially the way it was marketed as a ‘Wanted’ campaign.
“However, you have to remember that not many normal people have postcards of such an age lying around, so by in large it was more about getting our message out to collectors.”
Officially kicking-off in late-May, ‘Wanted: 19th Century Postcards From Gdańsk’, saw the opening of an exhibition presenting around 150 postcards from the era.
However, it was also directly tied in with a call to action – a direct plea to the public to dig out their old postcards.
Offering a prize of PLN 1,000, one specific aim of the museum was to see if an older postcard could be found than one of the Westerplatte lighthouse sent on July 20th, 1889.
The winning ‘sailor’ postcard was not the only rarity on show, however.
“Personally speaking, I’m surprised at the quality of many of the postcards,” says Dr Gierszewski. Produced in those years on lithographic stones, the postcards were the result of a highly complex process.
“It was a very precise method.
“A separate stone would have to be prepared for each colour that was used, so if a postcard featured four colours, four stones would be needed.”
Considered the ‘silent heroes’ of the postcard industry, the presentation of one such stone has been perceived as something of a coup for the museum.
But neither have the actual postcards been short on surprises.
Dr Gierszewski continued: “Some of them have a real wit and humour to them in their depiction of fun and chaotic scenes at the annual Dominican Fair.
Illustrating this perfectly, one colourful postcard shows crowds scattering as jungle animals seemingly break free from a menagerie.
Others, meanwhile, are finished with metal, thereby giving the glinting impression of windows lit at night.
Yet more standout simply for the story behind them. “It was once quite common to be able to purchase ‘two-part’ postcards,” said Dr Gierszewski. “By that, I mean postcards whose ‘whole’ image had been split to form two separate postcards.”
Dated from 1899, the museum have one such postcard in their possession. Picked up by the museum’s Jerzy Wojciech Wołodzko (“the mastermind behind the exhibition,” says Dr Gierszewski) in a Gdańsk antiques shop, it depicts a panorama of the Old Town.
Though nothing special at first glance, Wołodzko happened upon the second part of this pair two months later at an online auction in Germany.
Dr Gierszewski said: “To find the missing part of this set – written and sent by the very same people – was an extraordinary coincidence.
“Again though, we found ourselves asking what kind of circumstances led to these postcards becoming separated.
“Just deciphering the postcards can be a challenge – you have to realise, that the German language was very tricky in that era, and with the space for text often being so small it wasn’t unusual to find us trying to work out what was being said using a magnifying glass.”
More pertinently, whilst many might appear banal, they offer a one-of-a-kind insight into the customs and culture of the time.
Dr Gierszewski said: “Sure, you can learn about the evolution of the postcard, but you also get to learn things that can’t be found by looking in an archive. These postcards were written by real people with real feelings, so they provide a genuine glimpse into what people were actually thinking.”
Although the award given to Tadeusz Zając marked the official closure of the exhibition, staff at the museum are adamant that the hunt for the city’s oldest postcard still isn’t over.
“We remain open to entrants,” said Dr Gierszewski. “We’ve had some leads that suggest there could be a postcard that pre-dates our winner by as many as eleven years, so we are not stopping our search just yet!”