Great Sport Fishing, Ottowa, Kansas, 1910. WHi 44592
About Tall-Tale Postcards
Several convergent technological factors precipitated the decade-long Golden Age of Postcards in America, lasting roughly from 1905-1915. By the turn of the century, the photographic process had only recently evolved into a convenient, affordable medium, accessible to the masses. In 1884, George Eastman, founder of the Kodak Company, developed film as an alternative to cumbersome photographic plates and containers of toxic chemical liquids, making photographs not only less expensive but also safer and more accommodating. In February 1900, Kodak introduced photography to the mass-market for the first time with the Kodak Brownie camera, which cost only a dollar and whose user-friendly design epitomized the slogan, "You press the button, we do the rest." This important moment in history allowed for photography to permanently transcend the hands of skilled professionals and become the democratic medium that it is today.
These photographic developments directly prefigured the preeminence of the postcard format during these years. Additionally, turn of the century advances in transportation technology worked in concert with the ascending medium to shape postcard culture in America. By the late 1890s, automobiles had revolutionized the United States Postal Service, making it an increasingly efficient means of long-distance information exchange. The USPS's rural free delivery (RFD) program, which provided free service to America's rural areas, officially debuted in 1902, closely coinciding with the release of the first Kodak Brownie.
As with any new medium of information exchange, however, it took a while to realize the full potential of postcards as a long-distance carrier of condensed visual and textual statements. Not until 1907 were "divided back" postcards widely-accepted in America, which allotted for both a written message and a recipient's address on one-side, leaving the flip side open for an image. As remains true today, people soon realized that this visual field served as a perfect space to represent a distinct geography, forever linking a transportable postcard to a definite locale. In this way, photography, an infinitely reproducible medium ostensibly tethered to a geographic absolute that is, with a camera, what you see is what you get fit perfectly with this new, ephemeral medium.
Birth of the Tall-Tale
Since postcards eventually came to function as a surrogate for travel, the photographic images depicting a geographic location engendered a certain myth about that town or region, usually equating the land with an Arcadian utopia. These myths were often reaffirmed by the handwritten commentary on the reverse. In this way, postcard photographers frequently selected subjects that might further the pre-existing myth of a region a myth which often directly contradicted reality. The most crafty photographers soon realized that this myth could be altered not only by manipulating the camera's gaze, but by physically manipulating the photographs themselves, exploiting their ostensibly na´ve depictions. Accordingly, nowhere did these modified narrative images, or "tall-tale postcards" as they came to be called, become more prevalent than rural communities hoping to forge a national identity for themselves as a place of agrarian abundance.
The basic process for creating a tall-tale, or "freak," postcard is simple: 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 common subjects were food resources specific to the region vegetables, fruits, or fish. 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.
The first master of tall-tall photography was William H. "Dad" Martin (1865-1940). At the age of 21, Martin moved to Ottawa, Kansas to learn photography from E.H. Corwin, whose studio Martin eventually purchased a mere eight years later. In 1908, he began crafting tall-tale post cards. His exaggerated images quickly became so popular that, within one a year, Martin's company was allegedly turning out over 10,000 postcards per day. His impressive, dynamic compositions set the standard for the genre. These postcards were so popular, in fact, that evidence exists to suggest that they were often reproduced without permission by other distributors and peddled as their own. Martin's interest in tall-tale photography seems to have been short-lived and mostly economically driven, however. In 1912, only four years after he started shooting tall-tale photos, Martin sold his post card company, having amassed a small fortune. Nevertheless, during this short stint Martin popularized a new cultural phenomenon in tall-tale post cards with a talent rarely equaled.
Where Martin defined the genre, Alfred Stanley Johnson, Jr. (1863-1932) stretched its manifold possibilities and allowed it to flourish as a true art. Johnson, the son of an English photographer from whom he learned the trade, began making tall-tale photographs around 1908 from his studio in Waupun, WI. Since so little biographical information is known about either photographer, it is difficult to say with certainty whether they were familiar with each other's work. By comparing certain compositions, such as Martin's "Bringing in the Sheaves" (1908) and Johnson's subsequent "Our Barn is Full" (1912), it is reasonable to argue that Johnson used Martin's earlier photos for inspiration. Whereas Martin seemed to be drawn to the format for its financial prospects, and left soon after realizing them, Johnson worked for over a decade to develop the medium. By examining a sample of these works, a clear progression in sophistication emerges, with regards to both content and composition. Even through a cursory comparison of "Onions" (1909) and the much later "Homeward Bound" (1915), shows a drastic evolution in style. In the former, the onion rests motionless on the farmer's wheelbarrow with an almost statuesque, albeit elegant, rigidity. By comparison, the later image, one of Johnson's most adventurous, is full of animation and vitality.
Anytown, USA and the Myth of Agricultural Abundance
More subtly, the captions in Johnson's work also evolve, establishing increasingly complex relationships with the images. The captions on his earlier postcards, such as "Onions" or "Cat Fish Caught in Beaver Pond" (1909), are, more or less, straightforward descriptions of the subject. Later captions, however, work to dramatically further the effects of visual exaggeration by downplaying its absurdity. Through simple, wry phrases, such as "One of the Squash" (1910) or the crudely-spelled "Sliceing [sic] Tomatoes" (1913), Johnson deliberately makes the image's content seem mundane or of secondary importance to the action. The printed postcards would often bear inscriptions including a location, linking the image to its proper site…or so it might seem. Interestingly, many tall-tale postcards have inscriptions that do not match the photo credit, and, in some instances, multiple identical postcards circulate claiming to picture cities far removed from one another. In this way, a postcard with a photo credit from Waupun, WI might say, "How we do things at Bald Knob, Ark" (from "Musk Melons", 1911). While this practice clearly exhibits the entrepreneurial heart of the tall-tale postcard industry, it also, at least in part, underscores how the local myths of agricultural abundance were divisions of a national myth. In this light, all of the images in this gallery represent simultaneously any and all towns in Frontier America.
Tall-tale postcards affirmed the fundamental American myth of agricultural abundance a myth that often diametrically opposed reality. 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.
In 1915, due to the onslaught of World War I, America banned the import of German postcards, with their diminished popularity on a national scale to follow soon after. Arguably, the aftermath of the war also fractured, for the first time, the very utopian myth upon which these postcards were based. What's more, the advances in technology and production catalyzed by wartime industry, in the form of and affordable personal automobiles and telephones, ushered in new systems of information exchange, making postcards all but obsolete. Still, some of the allure once held by postcards remains even today as a mode of communication laden with nostalgia, found unsurprisingly mostly in rural vicinities. What's more, versions of regional tall-tale images still comprise a large portion of the postcard market. Enter any rural drugstore or regionally themed gift shop in America and one is likely to find a picture of some folkloric oddity specific to that region. This kitschy legacy of earlier tall-tale postcards the mutated grandchildren of the images in this gallery is, perhaps, one of the most palpable ways in which the wounded, dwindling myth of an American rural utopia still persists.