Nursing Book Club

Postcards of Nursing: A Worldwide Tribute

A compilation of 650 images makes the art of nursing visible in this astonishing coffee table book.

By Michael Zwerdling; Lippincott Williams and Willkins, 2004
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Reviewed By Christine Contillo, RN, BSN

To a librarian, ephemera is printed source material, difficult to categorize, that needs to be preserved. Postcards of Nursing: A Worldwide Tribute, by Michael Zwerdling, contains about 650 nursing images selected from more than 4,500 belonging to the Zwerdling Nursing Archives. They are important for the stories they tell about nurses in history, and for the way the images are tied to the culture today.

Mr. Zwerdling, a former ER nurse at Providence Hospital in Washington, D.C., selected the images himself and designed the coffee table-style book to be an art exhibit on paper. Thus each chapter could be a different room in the gallery, each page a different wall. As a reader/viewer you can decide the method that appeals to you — browse through and just look at what catches your eye, or carefully read the engaging liner notes in order to better understand the agenda of the artist and to set the postcard in the historical context.

Book ReviewThe book begins with postcards from the late 1800s and depictions of nurses from that time period. Nurses were perceived as angels, although fiercely protective ones, or even occasionally as angels of death, observing the sick in their beds or coming to claim them. Nurses are also seen as servants, guardians or waging war against disease, all archetypes that have evolved over time.

Subsequent chapters portray nurses in advertising. The image of nurses was so positively perceived by the public that they were used not only to publicize new hospitals, technology and hygiene crusades, but also beer, transportation and bread. It leads to the obvious question of whether the profession realized “a picture is worth a thousand words,” and should their good image be used to promote unworthy causes?

Finally, there are photographs of both American and international nurses, and the settings in which they perform. Floods, rural villages, orphanages — all are sites where nursing is necessary. The book allows us to see how nursing has changed — certainly home care nurses no longer make their rounds on donkey back; and where there once existed hospitals dedicated to the care of large numbers of abandoned children, now individual foster homes have taken on some of that responsibility.

The subjects stare into the camera, seemingly hoping to connect with the viewer at the turn of the century, causing us to wonder now what they were thinking then.

The book can also be used to track changes in the profession. Witness the variation in uniforms through the years. Every possible combination of skirt, apron or headgear is shown. Artistic and graphic styles change, and within these pages nursing is eventually seen less idealistically. The use of postcards probably fell from favor as the variety of media forms grew. Movies, television and videos continue to feature nurses, but how realistically we are portrayed still remains in question.

The importance of these depictions lies in the 100 years of public opinion that it so vividly demonstrates. Nurses will always be in the eye of the public, and it is up to us, as a powerful profession, to present ourselves to the world as we want to be seen. Every nursing library will want a copy of Postcards; no one studying the history of nursing could possibly ignore it.

Written By Christine Contillo, RN, BSN, has worked as a nurse since 1979 and has written extensively for various nursing publications, as well as The New York Times.

This article is from workingnurse.com.

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