Collecting McGill Comic Postcards

In Britain comic postcards and a holiday by the seaside are forever connected.  They were saucy and full of innuendo and they are also of a time when sexual matters were not discussed as freely as they are today.  Comic postcards are at the same level as the ‘Carry On’ films and both of them are important facets of classic British humour.  While in their hayday you could have purchased a comic postcard for a few pennies, today they are very collectable and especially the ones designed by Donald Fraser Gould McGill and collecting McGill comic postcards has become popular.

McGill was born in 1875 and trained as a naval architect.  His drawing talents were discovered by chance when someone saw a card he had made for a sick nephew.  He sold his first design to Asher Pictorial Postcards in 1910 for six shillings, it was to sell over two million copies.  McGill is a perfect example of how being around at the right time can be a huge advantage.  As we get into the late Victorian era the annual holiday had become part of British life, since the advent of the railways meant that it was easy to get to the seaside. Bournemouth opened its pier in 1880 and Blackpool illuminations and the tower were finished in 1894.  Also in 1894 the General Post Office gave permission for private companies to print their own cards for postal use and the age of the postcard had arrived.

McGill’s style was often described as ‘toilet humour’, ‘obscene’ and ‘smutty’ and his designs were based on fairly racy themes, usually depicting fat bottomed, mature ladies and curvy young women.  While the postcards were crude they were also very funny, although the jokes would nowadays probably be described as sexist and inappropriate.  You will never find nudity on a McGill postcard, he relied solely on the double entendres, in other words – it’s all in the mind of the beholder.

While McGill is best remembered for his comic postcards his early works dealt with other issues too and many of the postcards he produced during the Great War feature puns of patriotic themes.  His anti-German propaganda designs for Inter-Art Co are now rare and difficult to find.  They were published in different series including ‘Birthday Tommy’ and the ‘Patriotic’ series.

Was McGill successful in his liftime?

Not if we measure success in terms of money.  His output was prolific, it is estimated that he did about 12,000 designs and sold between 200 and 300 million cards.  His design ‘Do you like Kipling?’ sold over six million copies alone.  Despite that, people did not think his work collectable during his lifetime and he made very little money, being only paid about 3 guineas (£3 3s) per design.  When he died in 1962 he left an estate of just £735.

What was society’s response to his work?

In a 1941 essay on the genre of the saucy postcard George Orwell states that McGill’s cards ‘were the most perfect in the tradition’. Unfortunately saucy postcards caught the attention of local watch committees, or censors and in 1953 police raided local postcard vendors in several towns, including Cleethorpes, Penzance and Ryde on the Isle of Wight and seized controversial cards.  The Chief Constable of Lincolnshire brought a prosecution against McGill under the 1857 Obscene Publications Act.  McGill was then 79 years old and pleaded guilty in order to avoid a jail sentence.  Fuelled by the ‘moral directives’ of the new Conservative government the censors had their day.  Four of McGills cards were banned – ‘Stick of Rock, Cock?’, ‘The Master Cometh’, ‘Wives of the Strikers’ and ‘There are lots of ways you can make women feel’ and McGill was fined £50 with £25 costs.  This had a huge impact on the postcard companies and many of the smaller ones were forced out of business.  There was a revival in the sales of the seaside postcard in the 1960s but then petered out as tastes and social direction changed during the 1970s and 1980s.

Is it difficult to obtain McGill’s postcards?

Because his output was so prolific it is easy and affordable to collect his work.  Postcards can be had between £1 and £5.  Classic, rare or banned cards such as ‘It Girl’ and ‘The Bookie’ would probably cost more.  Stamps indicating whether the card was ‘approved’ or ‘disapproved’ would increase its value.  The cards are easily obtainable via the internet or from specialised postcard dealers and, as always, check out your local auctions and antique and collectors’ fairs.  If you want to become a serious McGill collector, originals can be purchased at auction or from specialised dealers and prices range from £200 to £2,000 and it is likely that the value will go up.

McGill’s work was included in the exhibition ‘Rude Britannia’ at Tate Britain in 2010 and I think he would have been most surprised to see his work hung in the Tate Gallery.

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