Exploring WWI Postcard Propoganda
by JESSICA DeMARINO ’19
Emily Durell ’19, communications & history co-major
A typical day in Emily Durell’s life starts early, sometimes with a trip to the Schumo Center. Out of the door by 8 a.m., the senior communications and history co-major snags an omelet from the dining hall before logging an hour or two with her internship managing social media for Albright’s student and campus life division. Her next few hours typically consist of running around to classes, tutoring peers in writing and random meetings. As vice president of concert choir and co-administrative representative of the Albright Angels, most of her days also include two hours of evening rehearsal for vocal ensembles.
“I typically camp out in the library and do homework until about 9 or 10 p.m., and I’m asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow,” says Durell.
But as active as she is in serving on the President’s Student Advisory Council or completing freelance design work, it’s really her ongoing research into World War I postcards that consumes the majority of Durell’s free time. In fact, what began as an independent study project has expanded into two years of regular research, a website, conference presentations and a book.
Her work, “Les Petites and Die Postkarte: Children and Family in European Great War Postcards,” focuses on hundreds of WWI European postcards that — using images of children and families — depict visions of masculinity, the concern about the of the future of countries, strained relationships between the battlefield and homefront and changes in family dynamics.
The postcards were originally inherited by Albright Professor of History Guillaume de Syon, Ph.D., and shared with Durell at the beginning of her junior year. Having had prior knowledge of German history from coursework with de Syon, Durell was immediately fascinated by the recurring theme of children on the postcards.
“This seemed to be an incredible opportunity to work firsthand with historical artifacts and learn how they relate to what I’ve learned in both of my fields of study,” says Durell.
Using a broad range of sources to collect information pertaining to gender, fatherhood and family, Durell researched relationships between the homefront and fighting front and the notions of childhood used on the historic postcards. Her background in history and communications offered her a framework to pursue historical and textual analysis of the postcards. “It was an interdisciplinary study that was mostly a history thing, but it was really informed by my communications training,” explains Durell. “Professor de Syon woked with me every step of the way, providing translations, guiding my research and offering invaluabe insights.”
Durell showed that the postcards’ propaganda was mostly designed to decrease people’s fears and sadness pertaining to the war. The cards aimed to help adults cope with harsh realities of the war and the effects the war had on children and family. “If we picture children in these contexts, it becomes charming and less threatening,” says Durell. The postcards also distorted reality by depicting the war as fun. Children acting out adult experiences served to make the war easier to process. And while French postcards focused on the need for reproduction and the alleged barbarity of the Germans, German postcards encouraged masculinity that incorporated active parenting and patriotic service.
Over time, Durell’s study morphed from a collaborative research project with de Syon, to an honors module, and finally to a senior thesis — effectively permeating most of her college career.
“It’s been my baby,” says Durell, proudly. “You don’t get that experience from most undergrad assignments.”
Working with Heidi Mau, Ph.D., assistant professor of communications, Durell has also begun work on a book to share her research findings and photographs of the postcards she examined.
“This opportunity has been so special because it’s given me the chance to work like a real historian,” says Durell. “I’ve been able to apply what I’ve learned in my communications and history classes to actively investigate a historical topic, which is much different from sitting in lectures.”
With more than 100 individual postcards cataloged and researched, Durell takes great satisfaction in presenting her study and representing Albright at academic conferences.“Whenever I am telling people about Albright, I say the biggest doors have been opened for me,” says Durell. “It’s been neat to take something like history that people think is really boring and present it in ways that get people really excited.”