Pinup History Part 2: The French Postcards

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At the beginning of the 20th century a new sex icon emerged, the erotic nude of the French postcards. Her coy expressions and provocative poses captured the eyes of many a fellow and she set even the most civilized gentleman's blood aflame with her scandalous temptations.

Vintage French Postcard

French postcard from the early 20th century.

Although erotic photos were produced all over the world, Paris was the true epicenter of the industry and it was not long before the photos themselves became known simply as "French Postcards" regardless of their origin. Early photographers, eager to take advantage of the remarkable new technology of the daguerreotype camera, set to work producing hundreds of postcard sized pictures of the attractive dames of Belle Epoch Paris.

The images were modeled after the respectable "art nudes" accepted in fine art and were originally distributed in La Beaute magazine. This periodical served as a catalog of images with 75 nude poses per edition and was distributed for "artist's use" to many an aspiring Michelangelo at tobacco shops and street dealers. Not surprisingly, the bulk of the foreign troops passing through Paris developed an "artistic flair" while in the City of Lights and proved to be one of the main patrons of La Beaute.

1910 Postcard Pinup

1910 French postcard like those sold in La Beaute.

The French postcards mark the beginning of the idea of the pinup as a particular character in the collective conscious' fantasy. These early pictures set the standard for decades to come both in style and form. The poses struck by the models of the 1910s and 20s have become staples in pinup and boudoir photography and the blend of risque sexuality with playful humor have defined the attitude of the pinup ever since.

The Original French Maid

Along with the usual tropes of the naughty French maid, the beauty caught in the act of undressing and the randy ingenue, Orientalism was a very popular theme in erotic postcards. The wonder of the archaeological discoveries made in the 19th century in Egypt and India had Europe all abuzz with the exoticism of the "Orient." The scant harem consort or bare chested slave girl became common characters in the fantasies of the photographers.

Orientalism in French Postcards

Above, a snake charmer enchants more than the cobra. Below, another example of Orientalism's influences.

The Exotic of the Orient

While photographs were the main media of the French Postcards, some illustrators were also busy painting provocative images for postcards. The Parisian Leo Fontan's leggy images solidified the stocking fetish for generations to follow and infused the pinup with a level of voyeuristic humor.

Leo Fontan's Illustrated Postcard

A Fontan illustration from the 1910s.

In the US, a Creole photographer by the name of E.J. Bellocq began making portraits of the prostitutes of the New Orleans' red light district. Because the images were considered obscene at the time he often scratched out the faces of his models to obscure their identity. His pictures are especially interesting because they exude the allure of the fictional pinup within the reality of the subject's life.

E.J. Bellocq Photograph 1910

A Bellocq photo from 1910 depicts a Bayou prostitute.

At this point in history explicit sexual images were still considered taboo as vestiges of Victorian modesty lingered on. The majority of the women who posed in the postcards were nameless models, dancers or prostitutes and while they were considered ideal as sexual objects, they were certainly not respected as individuals or considered members of the civilized classes. It was not until after the end WWI that an embrace of the risque transferred a level of respect to the pinup as a sex symbol. Up next: The pinup becomes an icon and the glamorous days of the 20s-30s pinup starlets.

A selection of vintage French postcards.