Andy Warhol had his Pop Art; Texas has its “crop art” with a generous splash of oversized humor.
Along with the “bigger than big” Texas boasts is the century-old custom of sending “Texas brags” or exaggeration postcards featuring apples the size of boulders, farmers climbing ladders to cut watermelons and corn the size of boxcars.
All of these were published in the early 1900s, long before computerized manipulation and Photoshop.
These exaggeration postcards featured gargantuan animals, fruits, vegetables — a trompe-l’oeil feast delivered for the price of a postage stamp. Despite the inflated imagery, tourists mailed the souvenir cards for a few cents as they — nudge, nudge, wink, wink — either poked fun at Texas inflated egos or reveled in the state’s bounty.
Not that it’s all a lie. It’s just pushing the truth. Yes, everything is bigger and better in Texas, even when it isn’t. Bell County also climbed on the “brag wagon,” thanks to local postcard dealers.
For example, among the postcard images fomenting conversations is a Belton Studio postcard featuring a Godzilla-sized Leon River catfish on a truck bed parked in front of Fulwiler’s Service Station and Schoepf’s Grocery Store, probably taken in the 1930s.
Close inspection of the alleged “Leon River catfish” reveals vast differences in shadows between the background and the fish image. The fish image is out of focus, while the truck isn’t. Lopped tail fins are evidence of clumsy cropping and amateurish efforts.
These tall-tale postcards were the combination of visual folklore and frontier wit that flourished around the turn of the century, said art historian Mia Fineman, author of “Faking it: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop” (Houston Museum of Fine Arts, 2012).
Dating from 1905-1950, exaggerated and tall-tale postcards originated from the pioneer bravado of Western expansion. Texas and other farm states wanted to tout their agricultural wealth and enterprising farmers, Fineman added.
Bell County farmers as well as Temple’s two rail lines — the Santa Fe and the Missouri Kansas Texas — discovered in the late 1800s that shipping local produce northward by rail garnered big profits. Pretty soon, farmers starting spicing up their harvests with generous servings of braggadocio to boost sales.
Take the humble melon as an example. “Watermelon tales are just about as common at this season of the year as are fish stories, and nearly every town lays claim to the biggest melon,” reported the Temple Times in August 1908. “Several wagonloads came in yesterday, all of them being extra-large, the best one weighting 97 pounds.”
So, images of watermelons the size of Volkswagen Beetles were not falsehoods — just imaginative marketing. The message was clear: Big images, big crops, big profits.
Beginning in the early 1900s, these exaggeration postcards were seamless examples of photomontages, said art historian Harvey Tulcensky, who compiled his collection of unbelievable images for a 2005 book published by Princeton University Architectural Press.
Companion to those “crop art” images were the fantastical depictions of jackrabbits as big as ponies, fish the size of the Loch Ness Monster and Longhorns stretching almost from Beaumont to El Paso.
The two best-known purveyors of “disproportionate photography” were Alfred Stanley Johnson Jr. (1863-1932) and William H. Martin (1865-1940), who created sly masterpieces of tomfoolery by combining two black-and-white pictures, one a wide shot and the other a close-up.
Employing scalpel-sharp silhouette scissors (also called iris scissors) with long handles and short blades, the photographer would deftly cut out the close-up image and then glue it onto the landscape view. Martin masterfully painted other embellishments with a heavy dose of absurdity.
Thanks to the development of halftone lithography perfected by the early 1900s, the embellished photo could be recopied to create a new negative which could be reproduced thousands of times. A halftone is a grid of tiny black dots of varying sizes, which, depending on their density, create gradations from white to the deepest black.
Martin was perhaps the best known throughout Texas because he sold master images and negatives to local businesses and publishers who would imprint local greetings on the front. Temple’s Book Concern and Barton News Agency sold thousands of Martin’s and Johnson’s images, as evidenced by credit lines on the back.
Unscrupulous publishers sometimes scratched off Martin’s copyright and add their own, complicating present-day authentication efforts by scholars and collectors who study these exaggeration cards as a peculiar art form.
The Texas exaggeration postcards were a logical offshoot of an aggressive advertising and promotion plan launched by the state’s business leaders in 1907 — the Texas Five Million Club, created to lure 5 million people to settle in the Lone Star State. The scheme was designed and promoted by a Temple-based newsman and promoter, John Randolph Lunsford (1857-1934), to lure more farmers to Texas with its vast uninhabited land and burgeoning industries.
Part of the Five Million Club’s promotion included a series of 12 picture postcards, each depicting Texas as a land of bounty and beauty. Beginning in 1908, the Five Million Club placed about 1.25 million postcards throughout Texas in stores, news racks, fairs, conventions and carnivals.
Texas exaggeration cards — although not a partner in the Five Million plan — served an important role in the promotions.
So, what did local farmers think about these fantastical images?
Frankly, they loved it. Faced with scorching summers, drought, grasshoppers, and high interest, they appreciated the humor. Many settlers believed they had been tricked by land companies, railroads and newspaper hyperbole.