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 The collectors series: Postcards of Nursing

Nursing Postcards

The collectors series: Postcards of Nursing

anna magnowska

Michael Zwerdling is a nurse and collector. He is the author of Postcards of Nursing, a beautiful and compelling book which traces the history of nursing through postcards from all over the world. The postcards provide an insight into how nurses have been portrayed throughout the decades, from the perspective of different countries and depicted in an array of styles - from early photography to the Italian Futurism art movement, Art Nouveau and Manga.

We see the nurse as mother figure, the nurse as war hero, as a protector, nurturer and sex symbol. The nurse is also used as a figure of propaganda, brought in to bolster war efforts for both the Allies and Nazi Germany. We see nurses selling us tinctures, medicines and bread - if nurse says it's good for you, then you can be sure to trust her. And it is mainly the female we see being represented in the postcards - a testament to the traditional perception that nursing is a woman's domain. It's doubtful that any other profession has inspired such a wealth of visual representations, which continue to evolve as the role of the nurse evolves. 

The book is equal parts an important historical document as well as a beautiful collection of images. 

PRN interviewed Michael and he kindly gave us permission to show some of the images from his book. Michael's website is: 

You can buy his book from  AMAZON  and Barnes&Noble 

Click on the images below to see a selection from the book. 

PRN: When did you first start collecting the postcards that would eventually become the Postcards of Nursing book?

MZ: I started collecting postcards around 1980 or so, began with mythological figures, moved to various other topics such as photographs of women dressed in American flag costumes, foreign advertising, U.S. real photo advertising. I discovered that as my collection tastes changed, I could generally sell my older collections  and recoup much of the money I spent acquiring them.  I also discovered that by becoming a bona fide dealer, I had earlier access to shows, which, among other perks, allowed me to get some of the better cards before they were offered to the general collecting public.  Finally in 1984, I took the first of several trips to Europe, especially to spend time in Paris, which was the postcard capital of the world at the time. I discovered that due to the value of the franc vs the dollar (a franc cost only 10¢) and the relatively lower cost of postcards there, I was able to buy enough to pay for the trip and even make a profit.  Although I had not yet begun to specialise in nursing postcards, I did acquire remarkable posters with nurses on them, especially foreign advertising cards, which I was collecting at the time, including anti-TB cards.  By the time I decided to become a nurse, in 1990, I had established connections from all over the world when I started specialising in nurses.  I announced the establishment of the Zwerdling Nursing Archives, in June 1996 at the American Nurses Association’s centennial convention in Washington, D.C.

PRN: Was it always your intention to publish a book?

MZ: I had always wanted to be a writer of some sort, but never had a desire specifically to publish a book on nurse postcards.  One day, while driving home from work - I was an ER nurse in DC at the time-I chanced to see a billboard in a gas station which said, "A dream is a goal with no energy behind it," and it just struck a chord.  I decided to write a book about nursing postcards. 

As it happened, by that time, I had a website and from that was licensing postcards for use in publications and so on. Someone pointed me to a site which explained how to set up a book proposal. After I completed the proposal, I met with an editor who liked it. After going through the editorial review process, about a year from the time I had the idea, I had a contract.  Two years after that, I had a published book. 

PRN: Which postcard, or set of postcards, were the most difficult to source and have you had to travel far and wide to collect some of the postcards?

MZ: All of them required research into the artist, or the subject, or the story behind the photo or image.  As for travelling, yes, I travelled to France, England, Belgium, Holland Germany, and all around the US visiting postcard shows,.  I had folks from all over the world sending me nursing postcards. When the collection in entirety was sold to the NLM it contained 2300 items. The book shows about 650.

PRN: Do you have a favourite image that you think sums up what it is to be a nurse?

MZ: Yes, but it's not one you'd guess.  Modern nursing has so many specialties and nursing functions, that it is difficult to choose one to represent them all.  My favourite happens to be an image of Hygeia (below left), whom if you read about her, will reveal herself to be the epitome of the caregiver, scientist, healer and has the attributes which make a superior nurse. I also like the powerful, mythical image from the Red Cross (below right) . 

Click on the images to enlarge.

PRN: As a male nurse you obviously can’t help but notice you are not heavily represented in most of the postcards – have you ever found any historical depictions of male nurses at all?

MZ: The very first nursing postcard ever published refers to male nurses. There are another five historic images of male nurses in the book: I've acquired several more but they were not included in the book. Modern nurse postcards often show men (see postcard below). 

In pre WWII times, nursing was not generally thought of as a profession for men, the exception being psychiatric nurses, who were useful because of their ability to manhandle unruly patients, and sanitarium nurses because the sexes were often separated for treatment in sanitariums, with male nurses tending to male patients.   In the military, corpsmen did many of the functions we now associate with nurses.    

Suburban Hospital. Bethesda, Maryland. 1999.

Suburban Hospital. Bethesda, Maryland. 1999.