For more than a century, images of nurses and nursing have been featured frequently as the subjects of postcards--so much so that nursing postcards offer a visual history of the profession and shine a light on the cultural values that inform perceptions of nurses. The imagery that decorates these mailers and mementos reflects popular ideas about gender, race, class, national identity, and work, illustrating nursing's changing place in society over the decades.
"Pictures of Nursing: The Zwerdling Collection," the History of Medicine Division's newest display and online exhibition, explores nursing history by examining the different ways in which the profession has been depicted in a curated assortment of postcards.
The exhibition features a selection of items from the Zwerdling collection, an archive of 2,588 postcards compiled by American nurse Michael Zwerdling, and recently acquired by the National Library of Medicine, Bethesda, Md.
Curated by Julia Hallam, professor of communication and media at the University of Liverpool, "Pictures of Nursing" highlights a variety of representations of nursing, including as religious and traditional archetypes; middle class, respectable career women; gender-based stereotypes; and skilled health workers, rendered in the artistic styles of the 19th and 20th centuries.
The postcard is a fleeting and widespread art form influenced by popular ideas about social and cultural life in addition to fashions in visual style. Nurses and nursing have been the frequent subjects of postcards for more than 100 years. In fact, no other art form has illustrated the nursing profession so profusely using such a variety of artistic styles and images.
These images of nurses and nursing are informed by cultural values; ideas about women, men, and work; and by attitudes toward class, race, and national differences. 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.
This unique archive consists of postcards with images of nurses and the nursing profession from around the world, produced between 1893-2011, with many examples coming from the "Golden Age" of postcards--roughly 1907-20.
Nursing as a profession began about 150 years ago in the U.S. and United Kingdom, led by social reformers like Florence Nightingale. A career in nursing offered new opportunities for women, such as economic independence and...