· Is this man Elmer Swanson?
Photo Postcard from the Past ·
Is this man Elmer Swanson?
Morgan Williams, collector and expert on exaggeration postcards, sent me another postcard challenge. As I examined the image of the front and markings on the back, I thought, Boy, there isn’t much information here!
The photograph had the feeling of early 1900s but the clues were sparse: a man, sharply dressed, was holding a sword next to a step-ladder. He was staged as if preparing to climb the ladder in order to cut an enormous, impossibly huge watermelon; the exaggeration would be added later to the photograph. In the foreground there was scattered straw, while the background suggested the wooden wall of a barn.
Nothing was printed on the photo side of the postcard to identify the publication date, location, or the photographer.
However, the reverse side of the card, even though it had not been sent through the mail, had a man’s name penciled lightly in two places, plus a city, and state. As I read it, I realized that this Elmer Swanson, Hutchinson, Kansas, was the person I would be trying to locate. I pondered. Who was Elmer Swanson?
Morgan Williams asked me, “Is this exaggeration postcard a Bailey?” Of course, we both knew he was referring to Marion W. Bailey, Hutchinson photographer during the early 1900s, responsible for publishing at least eight exaggeration postcards in or around 1909, but mostly he took photographs of Hutchinson.
Williams and I both wanted to know if the man photographed was Swanson. Or, could the photographer have been Swanson? Or, could someone have penciled in Swanson’s name for another reason, maybe as someone who would be interested in the card?
I had many questions. Was there an Elmer Swanson living in Hutchinson in the early 1900s? I also wanted to check what years Bailey was taking photographs in Hutchinson. Would both of these men have been in Hutchinson during the same period of time, most importantly, during the golden years of postcards, 1907-1915, and especially around 1909, the year exaggerations took off?
If Swanson and Bailey had lived in Hutchinson at the same time, I wondered if I could find any documentation they had known one another. And I needed to learn what occupation Swanson held. What if he had been a photographer?
In order to narrow the years down before examining city directories, I reexamined the reverse of the postcard. Surprisingly, postcards can tell you a lot even if they’ve never been mailed. http://jimpotterauthor.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/Dating-Real-Photo-Postcards.pdf
What did these visual clues mean? The paper stock for this photo card was produced and most likely used during a period of time between May 1909 and July 1912.
A search of the Hutchinson City Directories showed no Elmer Swanson’s in the 1909 volume. In 1912, the next year available, an Elmer Swanson was listed working as a clerk at F. A. Mills. Photographer Bailey actively worked his trade in Hutchinson from 1905-1915.
So, Swanson and Bailey were both living in the same community at the same time. Due to city directories being organized before the advertised year, it’s possible Swanson could have been living in Hutchinson as early as 1909. Regardless of the exact year of his arrival, Swanson may have been involved with the postcard in question, especially if it was produced between the years 1909-1912.
Elmer Bert Swanson was born in 1885, so if he’s the person in the photograph, he would have been about 27 years old if the photo was taken in 1912.
In the 1913 Hutchinson City Directory, Swanson’s working as a barber at 109 ½ N. Main. In the mid-1920s he purchased the Royal Barber Shop and hung his hat there during his lengthy career into the early 1950s.
I had hoped to locate a photograph of Elmer Bert Swanson taken during his younger years, possibly in the Hutchinson News or at the Reno County Museum, but nothing has materialized.
I searched obituaries and marriages. Elmer Bert Swanson (1885-1975) died at age 89. His wife, Elizabeth Morgan Swanson (1894-1967) had preceded him in death at age 73 in 1967. They had been married in 1916 at Lyons, Kansas, and both were buried at Eastside Cemetery in Hutchinson, Kansas.
From what I could tell, the Swanson couple had no children. After meeting Melody Lynne Morgan online, a blood relative of Elizabeth’s, she confirmed that Elmer and Elizabeth had no children. (She informed me that Elmer’s parents were Alfred Oscar L. Swanson and Bertha Knepfle Swanson.)
In no time at all, I asked Melody if she had a photograph of Elmer. “Yes,” she replied.
I was excited to receive the photographic image of Elmer Swanson even though the photo was of a man about seventy years old. I doubt facial recognition would be able to confirm that the photograph for the postcard, taken in the early 1900s of a young man, is the same but older person from a photo taken in 1955.
Until another photograph surfaces of a younger Elmer Swanson, I’m afraid a facial comparison is impossible. Maybe an identical postcard is sitting in another person’s collection, waiting to be shared. There could be additional clues, possibly with a message on the back of the card.
Could a barber’s association have a photo of Swanson? Certainly, but I haven’t found it yet.
When I asked Henry Platts, who was working at the Reno County Museum, if he could identify the sword, he said it looked like a ceremonial sword. He then offered The Knights of Pythias as a secret fraternal organization for men that might be linked to the sword in the photo. http://jimpotterauthor.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/Knights-of-Pythias.pdf
The man’s period clothing (hat, suit, and shoes) is another subject of study.
As far as the step ladder, did you know the folding ladder was first patented in 1862? Not in Kansas, but in Ohio.
In conclusion, there’s no proof that the man in the photograph is Elmer Bert Swanson. The dates, his age, and location, certainly line up. However, until I receive additional information, I can only surmise that he’s Elmer.
When I visited Swanson’s grave at Eastside Cemetery, I asked him some questions, hoping for some help. “Is that you in the photo? If so, where were you when the photo was taken? It looks like it was at a barn. Who took the photo? And, “Is that your ceremonial sword?”
Throughout my inquiry, like a career criminal, Swanson remained silent.
Because of the lesser quality of the montage, I’m inclined to believe that the photographer was not M. W. Bailey. It just isn’t up to Bailey’s 1909 standards. Now, it could be argued that it was an early attempt at mastering an art, and since it wasn’t jaw-dropping, that Bailey didn’t believe a photographer’s credit was appropriate.
Albert H. Wade was another Hutchinson photographer who created an exaggeration postcard, however, his image was used in an advertisement and it wasn’t in circulation until 1920.
This leads me to another theory. Is it possible that Elmer Swanson is the man in the photo but he was not photographed in Hutchinson? What if some photographer set up shop, like at a carnival, and charged customers to be photographed for an exaggeration postcard that would be sent to them later? That would explain the Swanson name and location being penciled on the card.
For this theory to be proved we need to find another postcard with a different person on the same photographer’s straw stage.
If you find the card, please contact me. We’ll add to this story.
Until next time, happy writing and reading!
Thanks to Morgan Williams for helping me broaden my knowledge of exaggeration postcards; Lynn Ledeboer for helping me access the Reno County Museum; Henry Platts for sharing his expertise on weapons; Katie Broker for linking some of my historical blogs to the museum’s website; Zachary Phillips for making Eastside Cemetery welcoming; and Lloyd Armstrong at Armstrong’s Antiques for his educational tours.
PRAIRIE FIRES AND PAPER MOONS, The American Photographic Postcard: 1900-1920 (1981) by Hal Morgan and Andreas Brown, has truly remarkable postcard photos. An extremely valuable dating table for early photo postcards can be found on pages 188-190.
Remaining Questions for Further Study http://jimpotterauthor.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/Remaining-Questions-for-Further-Study.pdf