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· Tall Tales from the Great Plains ·
#1 Are you old enough to remember road trip vacations down Route 66? How about the restroom breaks at service stations? I can still see the metal carousels advertising postcards for sale: 5 cents each, six for a quarter. One of my favorite cards was the Jackalope.
#2 Fast forward to my collection of exaggeration postcards. The all-time best photographer-publisher of these cards is William H. Martin. A hundred years before Photoshop, he called his work “trick photography.” Martin operated out of Ottawa, Kansas, and sold his cards throughout the nation.
#3 In 1909 Martin sold his photography studio and went into the postcard business full-time. 1909 was the apex of the Golden Years of Postcards. His company turned out 10,000 cards daily! In just over two years he sold seven million cards!
#4 Martin used a photo-montage technique. Each element of the scene was photographed, then elements from multiple photographs were cut and pasted together, and finally the resulting montage was re-photographed, creating a seamless effect.
#5 Martin’s cards are by far the best because he was able to show graphic action and imagination. Vegetables, fruits, and animals were his favorite subjects; ready-wit his dependable brand. Frontier settlers appreciated this humor when faced with scorching summers, drought, grasshoppers, and high interest rates.
#6 The farming communities of the Great Plains were especially receptive to exaggeration postcards. Many of these settlers felt like they had been tricked into believing the promotions of land companies, the railroads, and the hype of local newspapers.
#7 So the farmers continued the story: every year was a bumper crop and fortunes were made overnight. The tall tales were a continuation of the land of promise. Every farm was a bonanza. Note on reverse: “Farm life is some what discouraging in this part of the country.”
#8 The farms and the harvest grew larger and larger each time the story was told; the soil was fertile, rain was abundant, and livestock hardy. “A man could start out in the spring and plow a straight furrow until fall, then turn around and harvest back.”
#9 The copyrighted title of this card is “Judging Corn.” On another version of this card, Martin has replaced the “County Fair” banner with an advertisement for the Warner Fence Company. It operated out of Ottawa, Kansas, Martin’s home town.
#10 Farmers often boasted in cards and letters to families of record yields. On this 1908 Martin card, the sender writes from Minonk, Illinois to RR1, Conway Springs, Kansas: “Well Clifford we did not raise any sweet potatoes but we did raise corn this is a sample of it.”
#11 Some postcard collectors prefer cards in uncirculated condition. Not me. On reverse: “Postmarked Oct. 15, 1910 from Chicago to Peck, KS. This poetic inscription by Charlotte is music to my ears: “Down where the watermelons grow and its summer all the time.”
#12 Postmarked from Voran?, KS, and dated Sept. 11, 1909. It says: “Dear Sister, I tell you I am glad Fair is over(.) big crowd (for) Carrie Nation here yesterday (-) 3000 people(.) we are all well but children have colds & are worn out from a week on road(.) home(,) Harlan”
#13 When picture postcards were first introduced, it was predicted they would be a flop because there was so little room for messages, plus the message would be out in the open for anyone to read. But that was exactly what people wanted.
#14 With so little space, they didn’t need to write a long letter, and if the neighbors read their mail that was fine too. Adventurous fishing trips were newsworthy, and if the card was humorous then everyone could share the same laugh!
#15 F. D. Conard, a photographer in Garden City, Kansas, began creating and producing his own exaggeration cards in the mid-1930s. His subjects were gigantic grasshoppers and enormous jackrabbits. Conard said he did it for fun, not to give people a bad impression of Kansas.
#16 This 1937 photo card was worth saving. Sent from Great Bend to Emporia, it stated: “Well Bill(,) I couldn’t get picture of man riding grass hopper so got one where man using one to plow field (with). Do you think this one is large enough for you to ride? Huh.”
#17 “Garden City, KS 1943. Dear Mother: Left Okla City & got in here at seven. 355 miles. Had one flat (in town) and a little wire short but made the trip good. I am tired. (I) could not get a bed any place in town, was dis(re)gusted so went to the police station and told them to get me a bed or lock me up… Hope you are fine, Love, Mytle”
#18 This 1937 postcard is titled, “Grasshopper Shot Near Miles City, Montana.” It’s copyrighted by Coles Studio, Glasgow, Montana. It’s definitely one of my favorites. This photograph lives on today. If you check on the Internet, there are sites that will confirm that this is a hoax. Really? Really!
#19 I love that an exaggeration postcard from 1937 lives on today. This tabloid newspaper writes: “A 48-inch grasshopper chewed its way through an acre of corn before farmer Barry Gisler drew a bead on the creature with his 30-30 rifle—and shot it dead!”
#20 “This picture was shot with a telephoto lens just as they were startled by the cameraman’s presence. Jackalopes are the rarest animals in North America. A cross between a now extinct small deer and a species of rabbit, they are extremely shy and wild. None have been captured alive. This is a rare photo taken at their feeding grounds in the high country.
Until next time, happy writing and reading!
• Rubin, Cynthia Elyce & Williams, Morgan, Larger than Life: The American Tall-Tale Postcard, 1905-1915, copyright 1990, Abbeville Press, Inc.
• Welsch, Roger L., Tall-Tale Postcards: A Pictorial History, copyright 1976, A. S. Barnes and Co. Inc.