Political In the Personal: Postcards of the Dreyfus Affair

Rebecca working on a computer.




Walter H. Annenberg Professor of History

Project Summary

My project, “Political In the Personal: Postcards of the Dreyfus Affair” views the postcard as a multi-authored object in which artists, publishers, writers, senders, and recipients all contribute to the political and cultural meaning of the postcard. Like the re-postable Facebook posts, tweets, and Instagram memes that clog our everyday media diets, the postcards of the early 19th century sat at the intersection of the personal and the political. Political postcards offered individuals a chance to react to news and change the meaning of the card’s political message by adding their own personal message.

My research took me to the Lorraine Beitler Collection at Penn’s Kislak Center for Rare Books and Special Collections, the Centre Charles Peguy in Orléans, France, and the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire du Judaïsme in Paris, France. At each archive, I documented the pertinent information on each card including a description of the card, publisher, publisher location, date of production, series number, and whether or not the postcard was used in any way. Postcards were then photographed if they had significant indications of usage.

Though the usage marks on each postcard have yet to be fully analyzed, some interesting patterns have emerged in the analysis of postcard publishers and publisher locations. Most pro-Dreyfus (Dreyfusard) cards were produced outside of France and seem to target both a German and a French speaking audience. Berlin, Brussels, and Venice have emerged as centers where forceful pro-Dreyfus cards were produced.

So far, anti-Dreyfusard cards are more likely to carry a similarly anti-Dreyfusard message, while Dreyfusard cards that show indications of use tend not to carry messages that are affiliated with the card’s original political meaning.

My summer research allowed me to access a much larger pool of documents than those I found in Penn’s collections. This project is pushing me to think about media networks, personal participation in politics, and popular media in much more complex ways. The opportunity to delve deep into a topic through original research has forced me to become a more thorough scholar and a more comprehensive thinker.