As postcards became the quickest, easiest way to send a greeting or note around 1898, they also made the perfect vehicle for a joke. A postcard back has just enough space for an illustration and a zinger, and the sender had the pleasure of knowing they’d just delivered a smile—or a guffaw.
Some comic postcards were political in nature, mocking a political candidate, the suffrage movement, or the enemy during a war. Others featured favorite characters from the newspaper funny pages. Some of these familiar comic-strip icons, like Buster Brown, were employed in postcards sent out as witty advertisements. Still others contained racy or risque jokes or racist caricatures of African Americans.
By the elections of 1900, postcards were becoming an acceptable means of sending out campaign propaganda, and particularly jabs against rival candidates. However, it was during t...
President Theodore Roosevelt, often depicted as a teddy bear, used his influence to help get his Secretary of War, William H. Taft, elected as his successor. A political cartoon in “The Atlanta Constitution” first showed Taft as a portly possum, with the caption, “If Teddy Bear why not Billy Possum?” and this image was printed as a postcard by the Lester Book Company.
Soon after Taft’s election, though, he got on Roosevelt’s bad side, which gave comic postcard artists like Crite plenty of fodder. One image in Crite’s 1909 12-card set, copyrighted by L.Glick, even shows a lip-licking possum prepared to chow on a “Roast Teddy Bear, Mountain House Style.” In 1912, Roosevelt decided to run against Taft in the presidential election, so cards about this rivalry are common.
Instead of animals, Florence Pretz played on the fad for Billiken good luck dolls, drawing “Billibryanikin” and “Billitaftikin” with the faces of Taft and William Bryan in her 1908 postcards. Another popular gimmick was wire-tail postcards, showing the Republican elephant, the Democratic donkey, or Roosevelt’s bull-moose with a metal wire for a tail. The springy motion of the wire gives the animals the appearance of running.
Jay Norwood Darling, who signed his card images J.N. Ding, worked as a political cartoonist for 49 years, and his work was syndicated across the United States, as he tackled environmental issues such as soft-coal pollution. His most famous postcard is a memorial for Roosevelt, who died in 1919. Captioned “The Long, Long Trail,” the card shows Teddy waving his hat on horseback in a procession of deceased American heroes.
The women’s suffrage movement began in the United States around 1840, and was going full-fledge in the Golden Era of Postcards (1898-1918), even though the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote didn’t pass until 1920. Two separate suffrage activist groups joined forces in 1890 to form the National American Woman Suffrage Association.
Because it was such a hot topic of the day, artists would design both pro- and anti-suffrage cards. Sometimes the cards would have identical images with very different captions. Suffrage cards often depicted men doing “feminine” tasks, like giving a baby a bottle or washing laundry, with captions like, “I want to vote but my wife won’t let me.” Others showed women in traditional “masculine” costume, dressed as police officers, Uncle Sam, or simply wearing pants.
Anti-suffrage cards are much more common than pro-suffrage cards, and when the latter are found, they are usually not stamped or postmarked. It’s likely that these cards were exchanged in person or kept by the purchaser, as the political climate may have been too tumultuous to actually send them.
The start of World War I in 1914 was the beginning of the end of the postcard era, but cards still served as a useful tool for bolstering morale and insulting the enemy. The Central Powers would send out postcards showing the Allies being belittled with punishments meant for little kids or animals. Allies postcards often ridiculed and emasculated the Germans.
Aside from political postcards, comic-strip artists often turned their panels and well-loved characters into jokey postcards. Some of these artists also drew sketches and gags exclusively for the cards.
English artist Tom Browne drew the strip “Weary Willie and Tired Tim” for “Punch” magazine early in his career, and later made cartoons for “The New York Herald,” “The New York Times,” and “The Chicago Tribune.” During the turn of the century, he designed more than 900 exclusive postcards for Davidson Brothers, while Raphael Tuck, Valentine, and other publishers reprinted his images from books, newspapers, and magazines.
Perhaps the most famous cartoon from the Golden Era of postcards is “Hogan’s Alley,” and specifically a small, bald, little boy in a yellow nightshirt the public called the Yellow Kid, who first appeared in Joseph Pulitzer’s “The New York World.” William Randolph Hearst quickly hired away the artist, Richard F. Outcault, to produce the “The Yelllow Kid” strip for Heart’s papers.
Outcault, annoyed by the bickering between Hearst and Pulitzer—and possibly the link to the new term for sensationalism, “yellow journalism”—dropped “The Yellow Kid” and started drawing a strip featuring a black caricature called “Herald, Poor Li’l Mose.” When that strip failed, he introduced “Buster Brown” in 1902, featuring attractive, well-to-do children getting up to mischief.
Already a wealthy man, Outcault held on to the rights to all his characters, and both the Yellow Kid and Buster Brown appeared on advertising postcards, like the set of Buster and his dog Tige promoting Bloomingdale’s in New York. Even rarer are the calendar cards featuring the Yellow Kid.
Frederick Burr Opper was already a seasoned cartoonist when he created his best loved character, a round-faced bum named Happy Hooligan, for Hearst’s “New York Journal” in 1900. His other popular characters, which also appeared on postcards, were from the strips “Alphonse and Gaston,” and “And Her Name Was Maud,” about a kicking mule.
Windsor McCay introduced Little Nemo and his adventures in Slumberland in a “New York Herald” comic strip in 1905, but these resulted in postcards that were more about fantasies and less about gaffes.
George McManus created multiple strips for Pulitzer’s “New York World,” starting in 1904, including “The Newlyweds,” but in 1912, he jumped ship for Hearst’s “New York North American” where he became known for his rags-to-riches couple, Maggie and Jiggs, in “Bringing Up Father.” Maggie and Jiggs appeared in a set of advertising premiums used to promote the “North American.”
Other popular postcards of the era featured cute-as-a-button characters like Rosie O’Neill’s Kewpies, and George Brill’s egg-shaped humanoid Ginks, who said things like “I’m the Gink what wants to know why you ain’t wrote” or “All the Ginks are doin’ it.” Clarence Lawson Wood, who became a freelance illustrator in 1902, created a well-loved family of apes, headed by long-suffering Gran’pop, who often has to care for his troublesome grandkids.
Some of the most iconic cartoon characters appeared late in the postcard game. In 1919, Otto Messmer, working for Pat Sullivan, created the first Felix the Cat animated cartoons, which screened during the silent film era. Sullivan adapted Felix to a comic strip for King Features Syndicate in 1923, and naturally, this downtrodden-but-ever-optimistic kitty became the subject for postcards, too, published by International Art, Woolstone Brothers, and Bamforth.
British cartoonist George Studdy developed a dog character during World War I, but the canine didn’t become a sensation until 1922, when “Sketch” editor Bruce Ingram dubbed him Bonzo the dog. Soon, Bonzo appeared on postcards all over the world.
The most famous cartoon of all, Mickey Mouse, didn’t come around until the late 1920s, and Disney’s shrill, awkward rodent became a household name with 1929’s animated short film, “Steamboat Willie.” In early postcards, published by Inter-Art and Valentine, Mickey is sadistic and prone to drinking alcohol and smoking cigars.
Mickey, naturally, appeals to children as well as adults—and so the mouse was softened and cleaned up over the years. Some comic postcards, however, have been and always will be directed toward adults.
In 1910, British publishing company Bamforth & Co. Ltd. capitalized on the popularity of coastal towns as the locale for day trips and vacations, introducing “saucy” seaside postcards. These postcards, sold in tourist boutiques at the beach, feature a risqué joke or double entendre. Seaside postcards exploded in popularity in the 1930s, and remained popular as swimsuits got smaller and smaller into the 1970s. An ever-popular gag in Bamforth cards shows a comic situation caused by a man ogling a woman’s breasts or butt.
Donald McGill, who made a name for himself drawing anti-German propaganda postcards in World War I, became known as “the king of the saucy postcard,” which usually featured sexy young women, fat old wives, drunk and put-upon middle-aged husbands, vicars, and honeymooning couples. Dennis Printing Company bought out Bamforth in the early 1980s.
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