Dirty Postcards

I went on my first trip to Europe in the autumn of 2007. My friend Dan lent me his REI backpack for the journey and, to return the favor, I sent him a dirty postcard from every country I visited. By the time I returned to Portland, he and his wife had been bombarded with smut from the UK, France, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands. Alas, I couldn’t find a dirty postcard for sale anywhere in Vatican City.

It’s been my experience that France has the best and most plentiful supply of dirty postcards in the old world. It should come as no surprise that they can be found in just about every postcard rack within the city limits of Paris but they tend to be of the vintage, “artistic” variety. So lots of black and white shots of women at least as old as your great-grandmother’s long-dead parakeet. The Brits, meanwhile, seem to prefer theirs with a certain degree of shame and cheesy double-entendres. If there’s nudity, it’s depicted in cartoon form.

Everything below the jump line? ‘Tis NSFW. Consider yourself warned….

Here in Holland, anything goes. Every tawdry gift shop in Amsterdam’s red light district has an obligatory postcard rack filled with images that would get this blog shut down by WordPress in no time flat. The “Dutch Bush Guide” postcard immediately springs to mind. There’s also plenty of marijuana-themed cards for all the 18 year-old British kids who blast over on Easy Jet to get their smoke on.

Simpsons-themed cards are still popular. “Stoner Simpson” is a perennial favorite, as is “Bart Marley.” There’s also a Family Guy card that shows Brian the dog, mouth agape with a bong in his paws, staring at a cross-dressing Stewie who, in defiance of any sense of common decency and no less than 500 local ordinances, is seen standing in a red light window with a defiant high-heel raised to the heavens.


I should also mention the “Mellow Birds,” the latest addition to the city’s collection of cartoon pothead postcard parodies. Those guys have been sooooo boring since they moved to Amsterdam.

You can read a short history about boring/normal postcards here. Allegedly, the first one appeared in Austria in 1869 but they didn’t take off until the Paris Exhibition of 1889. They became a huge fad between the 1890s and the 1920s. There’s no telling where the first *dirty* postcard originated but there’s a good chance it was Paris.

According to this site, the increasing prevalence of cameras in the early 20th-century encouraged plenty of lusty photographers in the City of Light to create “art nude” cards in order to cash in on the craze. American GIs stationed in France during World War 1 surely enjoyed these tasteful depictions of the female form for their artistic merits alone. Everything from “Slave Leia” (thanks, trendy, early-20th century obsessions with the “mysterious Orient” and archaeological discoveries in the Middle East and Africa!)  to sexy French maid costumes to the modern pin-up have roots in these cards. This one freaks me out though:


In the decades that followed, dirty postcards were often the subject of censorship, especially in the United Kingdom. Donald McGill was an artist responsible for tons of saucy British “seaside postcards.” Famed author George Orwell was a fan and even wrote an essay about him in the early ’40s. Unfortunately, he ran afoul of UK censorship laws in the 1950s. At nearly the age of 80, McGill was hauled into court in 1954 and charged with breaking the Obscene Publication Act of 1857. He was hit with a series of fines but didn’t serve jail time.

As a result, thousands of dirty postcards were destroyed and numerous retailers cancelled orders. Several UK-based companies that produced these postcards went bankrupt soon thereafter. Over the course of his career, McGill created over 12,000 postcard designs that were printed over 200 million times. Despite the popularity of his work, he died a poor man.

Years later in 1967, a rock group in the UK called Move caused a stir when they released a postcard depicting then Prime Minister Harold Wilson nude on a bed to help promote their new album. The plan backfired and Wilson filed an injunction forcing them to apologize and donate all the profits to charity. Even in the year 2012, dirty postcards are *still* being cracked down upon in the UK. Last September, a gift shop owner in Eastbourne was visited by the police after a local woman complained about his raunchy postcards.

A Google search on the history of dirty postcards in the United States didn’t turn up much but I’m sure they’ve created plenty of controversy over the years.


When I returned to Europe in the winter of 2011, I sent off a round of dirty postcards to some friends back home. Just last month, my old pal Sho returned the favor by sending me the only one he could track down during a trip to Bali (see above). Neither he or I are able to determine if it’s ironic or if this is just poorly-translated English at work. Feel free to offer your opinion in the comments section below.

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