Postcards – Tall Tale

A type of early twentieth-century folk art, "larger than life" images were created by photographers who reproduced these hyperbolic images on privately-printed postcards.

“Photographs don’t lie” was long an accepted principle when, just after the turn of the century, American wit and ingenuity challenged this maxim with a brand-new format for the time-honored tall tale–this time in pictorial guise.   This phenomenon–which cleverly stretched the truth photographically on postcards–originated in the Midwest, where agriculture was the main source of prosperity (and frustration) and farmers were expert in straight-faced boasting about the enormity of prize specimens of their produce.”

“Long-suffering as the butt of traveling salesmen’s jokes (particularly about certain activities of their daughters), farmers quickly adopted this outbreak of their kind of humor, both as a form of boosterism for their area and to tweak the gullibility of city slicers about rural matters.  Exaggeration to prove a point has long been a key element in America’s visual and storytelling heritage, and in most rural parts the “liars’ bench” was a common fixture outside the courthouse or general store.”

“As with many a new phenomenon, this one could only have come about through the fortunate confluence of just the right elements: the introduction of the privately printed postcard to America, the wonders of the new Kodak camera, the opening of the American hinterlands to homesteading, the growth of the newly instituted Rural Free Delivery postal system, and the need to justify and cope with the hardships of farming in a sometimes inhospitable land.  With communication by telephone and quick transportation by automobile still rare in rural areas in the first decades of this century, the picture postcard began to serve a genuine neighborly function.  And for letting the folks back East know how successful you’d become, there was nothing like an “exaggerated” picture postcard to show the kind of crops grown in your part of the country.  When Kodak began printing postcards from the negatives of amateurs for only a few cents, a completely new form of folk expression had been born.  Humorously capturing many facets of life in turn-of-the-century small-town America, the tall tale postcard vividly bears witness to a challenging era of inventiveness and creativity in coping with life’s vicissitudes.”

from Cynthia Elyce Rubin and Morgan Williams,  Larger Than Life:
The American Tall-Tale Postcard 1905-1915   Abbeville Press,
New York, 1990

 

 

 

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