Putting the art into “tart”: Live Twitter Q&A

One of the most exciting #MuseumWeek themes is #AskTheCurator. Stephen Lowther, the Wellcome Library’s Ephemera curator, will be joining us for a live Twitter Q&A Friday 28 March to answer questions about the Library’s notorious collection of ‘tart cards’ – those naughty calling cards found in telephone boxes. Submit questions in advance below or join us on Twitter on Friday 12.00-13.00 GMT to ask your questions live.  Here’s a bit of background about the collection from Stephen to get you started.

Among the various collections in the Wellcome Library, the printed medical ephemera collection aims to complement the more academic and mainstream collections of books, journals, archives, prints and paintings. By ‘ephemera’ we mean anything published as a standalone single sheet, whether informative, educational, functional or advertising.

We have many works on sex, gender, sexually transmitted diseases, AIDS, sexuality, sexual problems and sexual psychology. In 1991, the Wellcome Library (on the Euston Road) was in the middle of London’s sex trade (King’s Cross, Baker Street, Mayfair) and local telephone boxes housed an ever-changing selection of photocopied, coloured cards advertising prostitutes’ services. It made sense that we preserve some of these for posterity, building up a chronological document telling the story of what was being offered and who was offering it, as well as the evolving design and reproduction of the cards themselves. The ephemera collection now houses about 4,500 cards (from 1991 to the present day) in 20 box files.

A selection of the cards from the collection.

A selection of the cards from the collection.

Design changed from borrowed, photocopied and hand-drawn images with dry transfer Letraset type through to the full colour, digitally produced cards that appear today. The first colour ones we have appeared as one-offs in 1992, with colour becoming standard by late 1996. Black on day-glo card was popular in 1993. Desktop publishing arrived in the 1990s and photocopying moved to print in about 1994. Nipples in photographs were blocked out by coloured stars (so as not to offend public decency, one assumes) until 2012, when the first nipples began to appear.

Trends are quite apparent. For instance: transsexual prostitutes appear from about 1999; and ethnic-minority prostitution increases (possibly reflecting trafficking of young women, which became much more common after about 1999, although Asian and black women were apparent from the start of our collection). There are students (paying their way through college?), and teams of two or three young women advertising “lesbian” sex (2007). Interestingly only four men feature in the collection (West End Luke, Naughty Jason, Man-to-Man Dave and Man-to-Man Grant), around 1994, the men preferring to advertise in the back of the weekly gay free press at the time.

A selection of the cards from the collection.

A selection of the cards from the collection.

Staple services included ordinary sex (“Roses are red, violets are blue, St. Valentine’s coming and so may you” – February 1992), oral sex (Miss Deep Throat), electrocution (“Get a BUZZ at Madame Electrique’s”), ‘schoolgirls’ (“Naughty schoolgirls want some fun, dress me up and spank my bum”), spanking, whipping (“No school dinners here, only lashings of discipline CORRECTLY GIVEN”), domination (“human doormat required” and the Venus Man Trap), bondage, cross-dressing (“Femininity found”), “rubber rumpus with Madame Sin” and Naughty Sammy Nipples.

The landline numbers advertised were cut off and replaced with others (and others…), but the mobile phone crept in and is now standard on all cards. The business is also shifting online as phone boxes become less commonplace. Cards advertising websites (e.g. “girlsinthebox.com”) appeared about in 2009.

One of the hand-drawn varieties of card.

One of the hand-drawn varieties of card.

The cards have become part of London’s colourful social landscape. Tourists take photographs of them (as well as taking a few cards as souvenirs), children have actively collected them and swapped them in the playgrounds (like Pokemon cards, only you didn’t pay for these). Westminster Council has passed laws outlawing them and despite officials going round removing them on a daily basis the cards still appear with relentless regularity.

A full history can be found in Caroline Archer’s successful book ‘Tart Cards’ (West New York, NJ: Mark Batty, 2003).

Any questions? Join us on Twitter on Friday 12.00-13.00 GMT to ask your questions live or leave a comment below.

Stephen Lowther is an Assistant Librarian (Cataloguing) and Ephemera curator at the Wellcome Library. To see the full collection, just join the library. Check out the Wellcome Library blog for more articles about the resources and information available.

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