A postcard from the past

Exciting new acquisition for the Shell Heritage Art Collection

This spring the Shell Heritage Art Collection was lucky enough to acquire an exciting addition to its collection.

On the 6th March, Collection Manager Nicky Balfour Penney visited Alan Roman to receive his fantastic library of Shell postcards. Alan has been collecting these postcards since the 1970s, when he worked in the Advertising Services department at Shell, based in Shell-Mex House. As such, Alan has built up extensive knowledge on the subject. It is thanks to Alan’s dedication to collecting that we are now pleased to further enrich our own collection by taking on this vast library of postcards.

The generous acquisition includes: 131 original postcards dating from 1905 to the 1970s, four envelopes with the original stamps on and 23 photocopies of original postcards. Whilst storing the postcards at his home, Alan painstakingly documented and catalogued his Shell Postcard Catalogue on his website http://www.arpostcards.co.uk/. His website is a valuable resource for any collector or enthusiast wanting to find out more information about Shell postcards.

Postcard collections such as these are hugely important sources of cultural and social history that truly capture the spirit of the era. The years preceding the First World War witnessed a ‘Golden Age’ of the picture postcard. Edwardian postcards were more versatile than the modern-day postcard. At the start of the Twentieth Century, postcards became increasingly popular and quickly became the standard medium of communication. They were cheap and reliable and, with up to seven postal deliveries a day it was, it common for a postcard to be sent and received within the same day. The speed at which they could be delivered meant that postcards were used almost like a telephone call today.

To keep up with the new public demand, publishers printed postcards that covered a rich diversity of topics. Indeed, Shell’s postcards depicted various themes from the early innovations in motoring and aviation, to the promotion of women’s rights.  Although the majority of the collection was produced between 1908 and 1914, Shell’s witty humour has stood the test of time. These charming illustrations capture Shell’s drive and ambition at a time when motoring and aviation were in their infancy. This culturally rich collection highlights important social change and traces the evolution of art and advertising throughout Twentieth century Britain. The new addition to the Shell Heritage Art Collection will enrich this further by highlighting the beginning of this evolution.

Adding to their historical value, many of the examples that Alan collected include postcards categorised as ‘very rare’ and ‘extremely rare’. One of the collection’s ‘very rare’ examples is a postcard titled ‘Shell Aviation Motor Spirit, Makes your Car fairly fly’ from 1917.

1905 Shell Postcard of flying car
‘Makes your Car fairly fly’ postcard, 1905


This colourful postcard is the perfect example of successful Edwardian advertising. The motor car’s strong Pegasus-like wings sell the notion of limitless potential and increased motoring freedom which could be achieved on Shell. The image tapped into the dreams and desires of the early Edwardian period in Britain. The motor car’s shiny, red paint mixed with the petrol being sold in the colour of luxury, ‘in the all-gold cans’, captured the hopes of wealth and prosperity that Belle Époque promised.  This period is often referred to as the ‘beautiful era’ which started in 1871 and ended with the start of the First World War in 1914.

Another ‘extremely rare’ example, so rare in fact that it exists in the collection only as a photocopy of the original postcard, is a hold to the light card. When held up to the light the postcard reveals the words ‘We all use Shell Benzine.’ The postcard was issued by The British Imperial Oil Company Ltd, which was established jointly by “Shell” Transport & Trading and the Royal Dutch Petroleum Company in Australia in 1905. This unusual postcard celebrates Shell’s early innovation in motoring, aviation and of course highlighting its essential contribution to the national war effort.

1905 Shell postcard of biplane and motorcar
‘At the Front’, postcard, 1905

Like Shell’s many poster campaigns, a large number of their postcards aimed to celebrate the company’s motoring prowess at a time when the petroleum market was extremely competitive.

This ‘extremely rare’ postcard for the Saltburn Speed Trials, held on the 11th July 1914, is typical of Shell’s advertising style. With the unmissable brand name highlighted in bold, this postcard boasts of Shell’s ability to surpass existing speed records. It emphasises the brand’s strong position as leading supplier of oil and petrol on the British petroleum market.

Shell postcard, 1914
‘Saltburn speed trials’, postcard, 1914


When asked what his favourite postcard in the collection was Alan responded ‘the Rocket to the Moon. What a prediction in 1907!’ from the Shell Motor Spirit Collection 1900-1914. Other than being catalogued as ‘extremely rare,’ it is no surprise that this is Alan’s favourite. The postcard contains a charming image of a rocket fuelled by “Shell” Motor Spirit flying off into space under the wise face of the smiling moon. It captures perfectly the exciting potential in motoring and aviation innovation that the new century held.

'More miles on Shell' postcard, 1907 two men flying to the moon on a rocket
‘More miles on Shell’ postcard, 1907

We are delighted to be able to take on such an important and vibrant part of Shell’s heritage. We look forward to being able to share many more fascinating postcard images with the public on our social media channels.



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If you would like a copy of any of our images, please visit our dedicated Motoring Picture Library website