Wish You Were Here! Postcard Images of Nurses

The National Library of Medicine (NLM) has launched a fascinating online display, Pictures of Nursing: The Zwerdling Postcard Collection. Based on an exhibition currently open to the public in NLM’s History of Medicine Reading Room, the online version is a digital gallery of over 500 postcards collected by Michael Zwerdling, RN. The postcards, produced between 1893 and 2011, depict nurses and the nursing profession through photographs, cartoons, reproductions of posters, advertisements, and other materials. As noted in an Introduction to the online collection, “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 these times.”

The digital postcards explore five themes. “Picturing a Woman’s Mission: Service to Humanity” displays images of nurses as classical and Christian archetypes, including healer, angel, or warrior. “Picturing Nursing as a Career” reflects the rise of nursing as a profession, allowing women a new path to economic independence, opportunities for travel, and meaningful community work. “Picturing the Gender of Nursing” contains postcards promoting the popular stereotype of men as physicians and women as nurses or hand maidens, as well as postcards that challenge this stereotype with group photos of male nurses dating back to as early as 1908. “Nursing and Respectability” examines the influence of race and class on social definitions of the “ideal” nurse, and includes rare postcard images of African-American nurses. Finally, “The Art of Nursing” reflects popular culture depictions of nurses, ranging from sentimental images to the nurse as a sex symbol. This section also contains images used by the nursing profession to counteract such gendered and sexist imagery.

In addition to the digital images, the online exhibit, Picture of Nursing: The Zwerdling Postcard Collection, contains educational materials, including lesson plans for grades 9-10, learning modules for undergraduate students, and a list of additional resources and readings.

*Parts of this article were reprinted from The Zwerdling Postcard Collection: Pictures of Nursing Web site.

~Mary Lou Klem