Tall-tale postcards reflected local American humor with super-sized produce that dwarfed Paul Bunyan and mammoth creatures of all types. These tongue-in-cheek images flourished primarily in the Midwest from the early 1900s. In part, they emerged with advances in photography, printing, and economical postage. Business people soon made “ginormous fortunes” from the amusing tall-tale postcards that spread tall tales while garnering great PR for small town USA.
But underneath those hilarious images of agrarian abundance, was a darker reality at play?
Did The Giant Potato Hoax Trigger A Mega-Industry?
While most experts place the beginning of exaggerated or tall-tale postcards at 1908, we wonder if the giant potato hoax of 1894 triggered some ideas for a few creative photographers. It was perpetrated in Loveland, Colorado as the brainstorm of a news reporter offering a helping hand to promote a local farmer’s potato crop. But when one thing led to another the tale grew too tall to stop.
Joseph B. Swan was an expert at growing potatoes. When plans were underway for a town festival, a local editor had a great idea to garner attention both for the fair and farmer Swan.
He enlisted a photographer to produce the now famous photo that features Swan holding a giant potato weighing 86 pounds 10 ounces and measuring 2 feet 5 inches.
We can only guess that Loveland locals realized the giant potato was a spoof. But the image looked real enough that s of the Scientific American Scientific American printed it as a real story on p. 199 of their September 18, 1895 edition.
Other alleged hoaxes like that of the horned toad that survived a time capsule in 1897 proliferated in the name of fun–not to mention promotion for small towns hungry for tourist dollars.
The Magic Behind The Images
In all fairness, the potato hoax was more of a misunderstanding than a lie. A few years later, creators of tall-tale postcards reveled in their exaggerated tongue-in-cheek humor.
With technical advances clever photographers created what would become the process for creating photomontages on these early tall-tale postcards was simple.
The Wisconsin Historical Society writes that:
“… a photographer would take two prints, one a background landscape and another a close-up of an object, carefully cut out the second and superimpose it onto the first, and re-shoot the combination to create a final composition.”
The most popular subjects were fruits and vegetables grown in their area. Second runner-ups depicted the fish “that got away.”
“Successful tall-tale postcard artists were those not only skilled enough to seamlessly join together two images, but also those able to envision and create dynamic compositions, often involving people mid-action. Though difficult to perfect, the resultant product was compelling, evoking a documentary snapshot.”
Sometimes the enlarged close-up would be cut, and glued over the wide shot to create the illusion.
One of the earliest virtuosos of tall-tale postcards was William H. “Dad” Martin (1865-1940), a Kansas-based studio photographer. Among his best subjects were giant ears of corn, apples, watermelons and pumpkins that appeared to uproot a farm.
Michael Bushnell of Northeast News writes that Martin moved to Ottawa, Kansas in 1899 as an apprentice for local photographer E.H. Corwin. Marin purchased Corwin’s studio eight years later to refine his tall-tale postcards that eventually made him a millionaire.
“Such cards were hugely successful throughout the Great Plains states where agriculture was the life’s blood of rural America.”
Most of Martin’s tall-tale postcards feature locations and people from Ottawa.
“At the zenith of its short, four-year existence, Martin Postcard Company reportedly produced more than 7 million exaggerated photo postcards. They were so popular that other postcard companies often stamped their brand on the back and sold them as their own.”
Although sources of the day remain unconfirmed, Martin allegedly ordered photographic emulsion by the rail car.
Another master of the exaggerated or tall-tale postcards, Alfred Stanley Johnson, Jr. (1863-1932), also began his work around 1908. From his studio in Waupun, Wisconsin Johnson pushed the genre to new heights.
Wisconsin Historical Society writes that Martin:
“…stretched its manifold possibilities and allowed it to flourish as a true art.”
While biographical details of these photographers are scarce, it seems likely that they were familiar with each other’s work.
The Golden Age Of Postcards
Picture postcards soared in popularity in America as a result of souvenirs sold at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago, 1893. Picture postcards in the United States began with the souvenir issues sold at the Exposition. The hobby of postcard collecting (deltiology) became a favorite pastime soon after.
According to Fred Bassett, Senior Librarian, Manuscripts and Special Collections of the New York State Library
“The Columbian Exposition cards proved to be so successful, that publishers in other parts of the country were emboldened to issue views featuring large cities, historic landmarks and popular vacation resorts. Like the exposition cards, these were also well received, despite the fact that the federal government subjected them to the full-letter postage rate of two cents while government-issued postals could be mailed at one cent.”
In 1898 Congress lowered the postage rate to a penny. The postcard industry was off and running, and so was the hobby. Then in 1902 the USPS introduced rural free delivery (RFD) to rural area’s across America.
Postcard collecting had become widespread in Europe by the turn of the century. By 1905 it had reached comparable proportions in the United States.
With improvements in transportation for the burgeoning middle class more people were visiting distant places like America’s National Parks.
Postcards became the social media of the day with “Instagrammable” images on one side and and a new split postcard back that allowed for a short “Tweet” on the other.
“The decade between 1905-1915 – the Golden Age of Postcards – saw postcard collecting reach a zenith of staggering proportion. .. Official U.S. Post Office figures for the year ending June 30, 1908 revealed that approximately seven hundred million postcards had been mailed in this country. By 1913 the total number mailed had increased to over nine hundred million…”
It’s no surprise that the art of photomontage on tall-tale postcards became more refined during the Golden Age.
Beneath The Laughter…
Was a darker reality at play beneath the laughter?
By the middle of the Nineteenth Century the Plains were already feeling the impact of ever-increasing numbers of human inhabitants. Between the mid- to late-1800s three severe droughts struck North America. According to Richard Seager and Celine HerweijerLamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University:
“Each had its own effect on the social, ecological and environmental state of the Plains and the West…The 1870s drought aided in creating the conditions for horrific locust swarms that devastated the West. The 1890s drought took a serious toll on settlers trying to practice dry farming on the high plains.”
Wisconsin Historical Society asserts that the artists creating the tall-tale postcards were all too familiar with the hardships of Mid-western farmers and small-town life. The mythical abundance they created lampooned the often hard reality of life.
“Ultimately, these deceptions remain benign by way of their sheer absurdity, injecting a light-hearted, often humorous note into a landscape seldom willing to offer its own. If the ideal promised by the American Frontier did not yet exist in the real landscape, at least it might in an imagined one.”
By 1915, the tall-tale postcard craze was reportedly on the decline.
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