The World Behind the Postcard

Figure 1. The Zwerdling Postcard Collection: Pictures of Nursing home page, http://www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/picturesofnursing/index.html. Accessed 9 April 2015.
Figure 1. The Zwerdling Postcard Collection: Pictures of Nursing home page, http://www.nlm.nih.gov/exhibition/picturesofnursing/index.html. Accessed 9 April 2015.

The Zwerdling Postcard Collection: Pictures of Nursing, housed on the U.S. National Library of Medicine’s website, is an exhibition that uses the ephemeral postcard as a path into understanding the culture of nursing (Fig. 1). Each visual aid works to clarify the societal attitudes surrounding the profession. The introduction to the exhibition details this focus, saying: “By documenting the relationship of nursing to significant forces in 20th-century life, such as war and disease, these postcards reveal how nursing was seen during those times.” It is exactly this theme of revelation that reimagines the subject of nursing through an unconventional medium. As one opens and clicks through the images of postcards topics of gender, service, art, and more are elucidated.

Hygea “The First Nurse,” 1933. Via Ring Sanatorium and Hospital Inc., Arlington Heights, MA.
Figure 2. Hygea “The First Nurse,” 1933. Via Ring Sanatorium and Hospital Inc., Arlington Heights, MA.

The first subsection of the exhibition entitled, “Picturing a Woman’s Mission: Service to Humanity” pictorially details the ancient roots of nursing. European postcards of the 19th and 20th century recreate archetypes of maidens, angels, and goddesses—women pouring Grecian urns and red cross workers adorned with wings (Fig. 2). Moving down on the navigation bar the user next explores the dawn of nursing as a career in “Picturing Nursing as a Career”. Postcards show women working behind school desks, standing in front of cars, and hovering over sick soldiers. Here the nurse breaks from her mythological world and enters the modern era as a woman with agency and power. She is no longer stiffly posed in mythological recreation, but very concretely in the real world.

Figure 3. Nurses from the George A. Brewster Nurse Training School pose for a group portrait, Jacksonville, FL, 1908. Via U.S. National Library of Medicine.
Figure 3. Nurses from the George A. Brewster Nurse Training School pose for a group portrait, Jacksonville, FL, 1908. Via U.S. National Library of Medicine.

In an attempt at comprehension the next section of the exhibition, “Picturing the Gender of Nursing” addresses the misconception that only women were and are nurses. Several postcards work to expose the masculine presence in the profession. Flowing with the idea of inequality the next group titled “Nursing and Respectability” discusses the racial hierarchies entrenched in 19th century nursing. Postcards aim to expose a rich history of African American nurses who were often discounted as not being the “ideal” nurse despite their exceptional capabilities (Fig. 3). Once again the postcards act as devices for confronting and understanding the societal conception of who a nurse is thought to be. These small pieces of paper illuminate both cultural injustice as well as cultural appreciation.

Figure 4. "Oh, something about a pretty girl and a wounded soldier with a happy ending", ca. 1918 Created by Rez Maurice. Via The Regent Publishing Co. Ltd., London.
Figure 4. “Oh, something about a pretty girl and a wounded soldier with a happy ending”, ca. 1918
Created by Rez Maurice. Via The Regent Publishing Co. Ltd., London.

Finally, the exhibition ends with a look at 19th and 20th century artistic renderings of nursing culture in “The Art of Nursing”. Vividly colored postcards show calm women tending to children and helping doctors. These postcards harken back to the ancient archetypes established in the exhibition’s first section. However, these idealistic representations begin to delve into an undercurrent of sexuality resulting in nods to the familiar pinup genre of postcards (Fig. 4). The exhibition viewer does not have to end his or her experience at the bottom of the navigation menu, however. With a quick flick of the eyes back to the top of the page one may open the “Education” section for lesson plans pertaining to nursing or surf the “Digital Gallery” for more sumptuous images. These options tantalize the viewer, softly asking them to engage further and go deeper into the world behind the postcard.

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