Our generation might prefer nudes, but these photographs were so much more artistic.
Erotic images have always been a lucrative business. Sex sells, and that is the reason behind the multi-million dollar empire that is Playboy Enterprise. The magazine helped revolutionize sexuality in the 1950's, and to this day, it's still a popular publication all over the world. The magazine then announced it would stop publishing nude pictures in 2015, however a year after the first nude-free issue came out, the decision was reversed. Throughout history, there has always been some form of nude images for people to enjoy and look at. For instance, Francisco de Goya painted “The Nude Maja,” Pablo Picasso, the “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” and Playboy blazed the trail for nudie mags, but before this magazine was distributed around the world, people would rely on "French postcards."
Don't let the word “postcard” trick you into believing that these erotic photographs printed on cardboard weren’t sexy. On the contrary, French postcards were graphic and held a high artistic standard that launched the careers of many photographers and models. Although not all of them were French, the postcards were mainly produced there and the word "French" made them sound more sophisticated. During the 20th century, photographers would make a decent amount of money photographing women in the nude or posing suggestively. In fact, you could hire one of these photographers (they weren't cheap, though) to do a couple's or solo photo shoot to give as a gift. Imagine what these photographers would think about the filtered nudes people send these days.
Because this kind of photography was frowned upon by many, the US ended up banning the postcards, so people couldn't mail them. Lovers couldn't exchange nudes, and models and photographers would hide their real identities to protect themselves from the authorities. A photographer that transcended as an expert in the field was Jean Agélou, or "JA," as he would sign his work. He became famous for his nude pictures, especially the ones who featured one model whose name is believed to be Fernande Barrey, but people know her simply as Fernande. She became the most photographed French nude model of the early 1900s.
Meanwhile, in the US, the photographs were sold at local stores and tobacco shops, but discretion for the purchase of these contraband products was a must. Demand and appreciation for the art led American photographers to follow the technique, and many erotic flappers were printed on cardboard. The postcards went from European women looking at themselves in the mirror, to American secretaries being seduced by their bosses. Yet, in the eyes of the photographers, French postcards were not pornography. The shots truly captured female beauty and subtle eroticism.
The difference between French postcards and today’s smartphone nudes is the fact that French postcards are considered art by historians and critics. While the latter are simply a kind of add-on to texts and interactions on social media, French postcards were intended to be images people sold and exchanged for years, and sometimes carried the photographer's name on them. They were carefully designed, staged, shot, and printed, just like regular commercial and artistic photography.
For many people, it's hard to think about people having sex or even talking about sex a hundred years ago. We like to think we've invented everything. However, people have been having sex, talking about it, and creating art about it for thousands of years, and French postcards are a great example of this.