Photo of the Day

Grasshopper-Larger Than Life

 Have You

Ever had  Dreams Like These ?

Giant grasshoppers were popular subjects for tall-tale postcards, particularly in the Great Plains during the 1930s where grasshoppers were a common pest.

Thankfully, the image on the above doesn’t show a real grasshopper. Pre-Photoshop fakes showing impossibly large food and animals were incredibly popular on postcards and tongue-in-cheek promotional materials in the early 20th century. But alas, Montana doesn’t have grasshoppers that big.

Clearly manipulated and collaged to create oversized insects, animals and vegetables, these photographic postcards were most popular in the United States. Americans have a history of using tall-tales, like “Johnny Appleseed” and “Babe and the Big Blue Ox” to reinforce ideas that Americans are independent, strong-willed, and can tame any landscape.

Combining ideas associated with tall-tales making giant grasshoppers and oversized food was one way of easing the farming and economic concerns associated with the Dust Bowl and Depression eras. Some of these exaggeration postcards were used as advertisements, and some were just plain silly.

William H. Martin was a photographer and successful postcard manufacturer in the early 1900s. In 1894, Martin took over a studio in Ottawa, Kansas. He used photocomposited trick photography and, in 1908, produced wildly exaggerated postcards for commercial trade. His range of cards were so popular that he went into the postcard business exclusively.

Within a few years, his trick photos made him wealthy. He sold the business in 1912, and founded the National Sign Company.

In 1908, while photos themselves were still in their relative infancy, the moderately successful photographer began making ‘Tall Tale Postcards.’ He rapidly became one of America’s first, and most successful, fantasy artists.

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Grasshoppers making butter. I'd worry about that big one drooling in the churn..

Grasshoppers making butter. I’d worry about that big one drooling in the churn..

These are called "Exaggeration postcards" and they were very popular in the 1920s and especially 1930s.

These are called “Exaggeration postcards” and they were very popular in the 1920s and especially 1930s.

May the best man win.

May the best man win.

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Ride-Em Cowboy, exaggeration postcard by E.D Conrad, Garden City, KS, 1934 Sent from Ted Warren to Mr. George Layman, Box 68, Newberg, Oregon, postmarked August 9, 1938. The message on the back: "Dear George – Received your card and was glad to hear that you got along so well. You can see by this picture how the grasshoppers grow in Kansas. Ha. Thanks for your card and good luck to you George. So long – Ted Warren."

Ride-Em Cowboy, exaggeration postcard by E.D Conrad, Garden City, KS, 1934 Sent from Ted Warren to Mr. George Layman, Box 68, Newberg, Oregon, postmarked August 9, 1938. The message on the back: “Dear George – Received your card and was glad to hear that you got along so well. You can see by this picture how the grasshoppers grow in Kansas. Ha. Thanks for your card and good luck to you George. So long – Ted Warren.”

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William “Dad” Martin took over a photography studio in Ottawa, Kansas in 1894. His stock in trade was taking photos of the locals for their families, and portraits of the town fathers to be displayed in City Hall. After over a decade of staid photography, he began to move out of the studio. Inspired by the Paul Bunyan legends, which made the heartland of America into a source of endless, and gigantic, bounty, he attempted a few trick-photography postcards inspired by American tall tales. Instead of giant blue oxes, he made giant geese. He showed fishermen angling for giant fish, and farmers carting log-sized corn, and making tomatoes so big they had to be cut with saws.

These postcards became big business. It was said that whole trains were rolling out of Ottawa loaded with postcards, and they were selling at a rate 10,000 a day, nation-wide. Martin took many popular pictures, joined by another famous Tall Tale photographer, Alfred Stanley Johnson, but eventually the Utopian dream of the early twentieth century paled at the start of World War I, and gave way to The Lost Generation. Tall Tales were not in fashion anymore, and photographs like this faded away – until the internet.

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"'Salted.' So easy. Put salt on their tails." Martin's subjects are a reminder that America was still largely a rural society early in the 20th century. Rural humor also comprised an important segment of the early recordings made at this time: a "hayseed comedian" named Cal Stewart became a star with his monologues recounting the adventures of a farmer named Uncle Josh and his cronies from the mythical town of Punkin Center.William H. Martin (1865-1940)

“‘Salted.’ So easy. Put salt on their tails.” Martin’s subjects are a reminder that America was still largely a rural society early in the 20th century. Rural humor also comprised an important segment of the early recordings made at this time: a “hayseed comedian” named Cal Stewart became a star with his monologues recounting the adventures of a farmer named Uncle Josh and his cronies from the mythical town of Punkin Center.William H. Martin (1865-1940)

"When We Go After Anything We Get It." William H. Martin (1865-1940) Ottawa, Kansas

“When We Go After Anything We Get It.” William H. Martin (1865-1940) Ottawa, Kansas

"Potatoes Grow Big in Our State"William H. Martin (1865-1940). Judging from the copyright date, this was one of Martin's first "Tall-Tale" postcards. By May of 1909, the Martin Post Card Company was reportedly turning out 10,000 cards a day. A year later, output had doubled: a newspaper report said the company was producing seven million photographic post cards per year.

“Potatoes Grow Big in Our State”William H. Martin (1865-1940). Judging from the copyright date, this was one of Martin’s first “Tall-Tale” postcards. By May of 1909, the Martin Post Card Company was reportedly turning out 10,000 cards a day. A year later, output had doubled: a newspaper report said the company was producing seven million photographic post cards per year.

The Modern Farmer. William H. Martin (1865-1940). Starting in 1898, the U.S. government began allowing privately-printed postcards to be mailed for the same low rate of postage as cards issued by the post office: one cent. By 1902, Eastman Kodak was producing photographic paper designed for postcard use. At first, messages were allowed only on the margins around the photograph. But in 1907 that restriction ended, allowing writing in a space reserved on the address side of the card. That development helped turn the photographic postcard into a fixture of American life. It also seems to have coincided with Dad Martin's meteoric success.

The Modern Farmer. William H. Martin (1865-1940). Starting in 1898, the U.S. government began allowing privately-printed postcards to be mailed for the same low rate of postage as cards issued by the post office: one cent. By 1902, Eastman Kodak was producing photographic paper designed for postcard use. At first, messages were allowed only on the margins around the photograph. But in 1907 that restriction ended, allowing writing in a space reserved on the address side of the card. That development helped turn the photographic postcard into a fixture of American life. It also seems to have coincided with Dad Martin’s meteoric success.

Tall Tales have an honoured place in American culture. From Paul Bunyan and King Kong to the legions of fishermen boasting about “the one that got away,” there is something about exaggeration that appeals to our sense of national grandeur. Perhaps it’s also our view that in the modern world, anything is possible. Giant hybrid crops? Sure. Rabbits the size of Buicks? Well–maybe.

Exactly this formula proved the key to oversize wealth and success for a photographer named William H. “Dad” Martin. In 1894, he took over a studio in Ottawa, Kansas. Martin began using trick photography in 1908, producing a series of wildly exaggerated post cards. These were so popular that he sold his studio the next year to concentrate on the post card business.

"Taking Our Geese to Market" William H. Martin (1865-1940) In a poster advertising his photography studio, Martin displayed a portrait of himself smirking, cross-eyed, and in an old military uniform. The legend on the poster reads "This is Dad Martin. He has been ARRESTED for hunting. He is a FOOL about fishing. But WISE on PHOTOGRAPHY." Martin exited the postcard business in 1912, while other photographers and publishers produced similar images for decades. Few, if any of them, managed to improve upon "Dad" Martin's imaginative, dream-like creations.

“Taking Our Geese to Market” William H. Martin (1865-1940) In a poster advertising his photography studio, Martin displayed a portrait of himself smirking, cross-eyed, and in an old military uniform. The legend on the poster reads “This is Dad Martin. He has been ARRESTED for hunting. He is a FOOL about fishing. But WISE on PHOTOGRAPHY.” Martin exited the postcard business in 1912, while other photographers and publishers produced similar images for decades. Few, if any of them, managed to improve upon “Dad” Martin’s imaginative, dream-like creations.

Untitled Photomontage (Duck Hunters) William H. Martin (1865-1940) Ottawa, Kansas.This postcard was sent to Leon Custard of Mendon, Michigan on May 8, 1909. The message on the back asks, "Did you ever have a dream like this?" Sigmund Freud's views on the interpretation of dreams were gaining currency at the time this photograph was made, and he wrote that there are no dreams which are without meaning or importance: ...whatever one dreams is either plainly recognizable as being psychically significant, or it is distorted and can be judged correctly only after complete interpretation, when it proves, after all, to be of psychic significance. The dream never concerns itself with trifles; we do not allow sleep to be disturbed by trivialities. Dreams which are apparently guileless turn out to be the reverse of innocent, if one takes the trouble to interpret them...

Untitled Photomontage (Duck Hunters) William H. Martin (1865-1940) Ottawa, Kansas.This postcard was sent to Leon Custard of Mendon, Michigan on May 8, 1909. The message on the back asks, “Did you ever have a dream like this?” Sigmund Freud’s views on the interpretation of dreams were gaining currency at the time this photograph was made, and he wrote that there are no dreams which are without meaning or importance: …whatever one dreams is either plainly recognizable as being psychically significant, or it is distorted and can be judged correctly only after complete interpretation, when it proves, after all, to be of psychic significance. The dream never concerns itself with trifles; we do not allow sleep to be disturbed by trivialities. Dreams which are apparently guileless turn out to be the reverse of innocent, if one takes the trouble to interpret them…

Untitled (County Fair) William H. Martin (1865-1940).

Untitled (County Fair) William H. Martin (1865-1940).

"The Bass I Caught" William H. Martin (1865-1940).

“The Bass I Caught” William H. Martin (1865-1940).

You Don't Stick These Bunnies in Your Hunting Coat Pocket, exaggeration postcard, F.D. Conrad, 1930s. Message on back: "Let's go rabbit hunting!!!"

You Don’t Stick These Bunnies in Your Hunting Coat Pocket, exaggeration postcard, F.D. Conrad, 1930s. Message on back: “Let’s go rabbit hunting!!!”

Watermelons grow big in Wash., exaggeration postcard, Wm. H. Martin, 1908, published by The North American Post Card Co. Kansas City, U.S.A. Sent from Arthur Wayne Webber to Miss Clara Hancock, Vincentown, New Jersey. Postmarked Nov 21 , Spokane, WA 1910.

Watermelons grow big in Wash., exaggeration postcard, Wm. H. Martin, 1908, published by The North American Post Card Co. Kansas City, U.S.A. Sent from Arthur Wayne Webber to Miss Clara Hancock, Vincentown, New Jersey. Postmarked Nov 21 , Spokane, WA 1910.

Missouri apples, exaggeration postcard, Wm. H. Martin, 1909 Sent from N.E. Hillock to Mrs. Fred Reinhardt, Merriam, Kansas. Postmarked: Lexington, MO, June 24, 1909. Message on the back: "All's well in Lex- I have not forgotten you Lily. But have been so busy and it has been so warm I have never had time to write. But will write soon. With best wishes From N.E. Hillock"

Missouri apples, exaggeration postcard, Wm. H. Martin, 1909 Sent from N.E. Hillock to Mrs. Fred Reinhardt, Merriam, Kansas. Postmarked: Lexington, MO, June 24, 1909. Message on the back: “All’s well in Lex- I have not forgotten you Lily. But have been so busy and it has been so warm I have never had time to write. But will write soon. With best wishes From N.E. Hillock”

Harvesting a Profitable Crop of Onions, exaggeration postcard, Wm. H. Martin, published by The North American Post Card Co. Kansas City, U.S.A, 1909. " 'Dad' Martin of Ottawa, Kansas, produced the quintessential exaggerated postcard. Making use of myriad subjects, his work--the best and most varied in the genre--displays a sense of action notably absent in the others."

Harvesting a Profitable Crop of Onions, exaggeration postcard, Wm. H. Martin, published by The North American Post Card Co. Kansas City, U.S.A, 1909. ” ‘Dad’ Martin of Ottawa, Kansas, produced the quintessential exaggerated postcard. Making use of myriad subjects, his work–the best and most varied in the genre–displays a sense of action notably absent in the others.”

[A Car Load of Texas Corn] by George B. Cornish, ca. 1910. (Photo courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

[A Car Load of Texas Corn] by George B. Cornish, ca. 1910. (Photo courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

[A Load of Fancy Poultry] by William H. Martin, 1909. The tall-tale postcard was a uniquely American genre that flourished in the Midwest between about 1908 and 1915.

[A Load of Fancy Poultry] by William H. Martin, 1909. The tall-tale postcard was a uniquely American genre that flourished in the Midwest between about 1908 and 1915.

Within three years, Martin’s trick photos earned him a fortune. Demand was so strong that his firm reportedly purchased photographic emulsion by the railroad tank car-full (or was that another tall tale?)   Martin sold the business in 1912 and founded the National Sign Company. So far as we know, he never again ventured into the darkroom. But during his brief career as a post card photographer, “Dad” Martin tapped into the national psyche with his own imaginative brand of homespun surrealism.

The American Museum of Photography

Giant Grasshopper Mystery Photo—Solved!


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