History of Postcards in Central Asia

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, postcards became enormously popular both for carrying messages and as collectors items and souvenirs. Literally tens of millions of postcards were produced in a single year, and the business was highly competitive. Postcards were made to order for clients in small and large cities on every continent. Postcards soon became one of the most important ways that images of foreign locales and people were transmitted and understood around the entire world.

Postal cards without ornamentation became available for government use in Russia in late 1894. Soon, “otkrit” or “open” letters were available for sale as printed cards with illustrations and a small space for writing on one side (only the address was allowed on the back) in Moscow, Kiev, and Riga.  The first postcards with Central Asian images date to just before the turn of the century. [fig. 39-41] The “otkrit” were quickly adopted both for local use and for sale to the tourists that first arrived in substantial numbers around the same time. Firms located outside of Central Asia printed many of the postcards. Before the 1917 Revolution, Kunstanstalt Friedewald und Frick in Berlin, Sherer, Nabholz and Co. in Moscow, and Granbergs Brekfort in Stockholm appear to have been the largest outside firms. Central Asian firms located in Andijan, Ashkabad, and Kokand are also credited on early postcards. 

Traveling salesmen from large postcard companies solicited orders in distant locations, at the same time collecting and even taking photographs to enhance their available stock. Photographs with Central Asian images were also produced for the great international fairs of the period, where they were sold in vast quantities. (It is interesting to note that the Bukharan Emir Abdulahad Khan had tremendous enthusiasm for fairs and expositions, and sent items for display from his personal collection to at least twelve international exhibitions.

In Central Asia, the use of postcards as both document and personal remembrance represented a natural extension of the series photographs by artists such as Hordet and Pankratiev. In previous years, series photographs such as cabinet cards of the “sights” of Central Asia, were purchased as souvenirs of journeys or longer stays in Central Asia. The tropes of the series postcards that followed were virtually identical to the series photographs: bazaars, native wares, eating houses, spectacles, fairs and entertainers, and compositions including anonymous but colorfully dressed natives before a monumental building or a shrine.

Many essentially documentary photographs made by an earlier generation of photographers were reproduced as postcards with the generalized titles characteristic of the genre. The earlier photographs were not only a ready source of pre-existing, and therefore inexpensive postcard “stock” photographs, they also showed a more traditional and exotic way of life. Sometimes these reused images bear incongruous or implausible messages – there are printed greetings in colloquial Russian from steppe nomads and less than friendly native girls. With the exception of portraits of native rulers, postcards do not identify human subjects by name, at most they identify them by occupation or as ethnic “types.”

The earliest images found on Central Asian postcards, dating to 1897-1898, are often lithographed drawings drawn from photographs.  Photographs made specifically for postcard production range from relatively uninspiring views of government buildings and shop fronts (a means of advertising commonly employed in Europe and the U.S. as well) to the more dramatic "native" themes. A photographic image could carry multiple meanings, but the message of the postcard was purposeful and unambiguous. The Central Asian postcard provided a pre-defined, encapsulated vision of an exotic culture or else it celebrated monuments of empire. If there was any possibility of misunderstanding the visual content of the image, the caption clarified it. Many images on postcards are titillating or deliberately exotic; crippled beggars, lepers and dervishes, faked executions and contrived harem scenes. Until the Soviet period, postcards rarely departed from the familiar, colonial themes of native types, landmarks, local handicraft production, markets, and public entertainments.

The rapid spread of photography and the development of new printing techniques such as the invention of halftone screens in 1888 and rotary presses in 1900 permitted an infinite choice of subject, treatment, and quality of production, from simple line drawings to good quality photo-prints.  More romantic subjects like luxuriously clothed Central Asian men and women lent themselves easily to the addition of very dramatic colors. Colored postcards are far less common than simple black and white printed ones, but it seems likely that these colored postcards were more treasured and likely to be preserved, and that they originally formed an even smaller proportion of the total postcard production.

Postcards were sold in several shops in Tashkent and Samarkand, and carried by at least one store in Margelan, Kokand, Andijan, and Namangan. It is likely that no less than three thousand different Central Asian postcards were made before the Revolution.

Source: Boris Golender, Okno v proshloe, Turkestan na starinikh pochtovikh otkritkakh (1898-1917), “Window on the past, Turkestan in antique postal cards,” (Tashkent: 2002).