Comic Postcard, Early 20th Century: A Meta-Analysis

by Kathryn Kulpa

The loving couple at the beach. By the sea, by the sea. The smoke from a steamer in the distance, the ship itself too far to see. Too far at sea.

The loving couple in the dunes. His boater hat discarded in the sand. He’s leaning toward her, holding one hand in his. Her other hand we can’t see.

They’re at the beach but fully clothed. She wears a white dress, black stockings, black pumps. Her eyes downcast, though just a bit. She’s still got things she wants to see. He wears a suit, a collar, a tie. They’re sitting cross-legged on the sand. No blanket, no beach chairs. Did they have beach chairs in 1910? Surely they had blankets. But perhaps they met here, unprepared. She’s giving him a side eye. Is he wooing her? Begging for a kiss? Her smile hints at secrets suppressed. She may not say yes but she hasn’t said no.

Behind them, over the dunes, a woman stares with open mouth, both hands raised. She wears a white cap. A maid’s cap? A summer hat? One hand is raised as if in surprise, or surrender. Her white glove, fingers splayed. The other hand holds something long and thin that looks like a wooden spoon. Or maybe it’s a parasol. A lady’s accessory, to protect her complexion from the sun. Tanned skin, then, still a marker of the working class.

So: is the woman behind the dunes a cook? A maid? A harried housewife? The shocked friend of the wanton woman on the sand? She’s the woman who discovers the lovers, on the sand, by the sea, where the whitecaps roll. WELL, I NEVER DID says the caption written on the sand below the man’s white straw hat and jaunty walking stick. The stick, clearly, carried for fashion and not support. A stylish young man. Is he a dandy? A rogue? An errant husband?

The woman behind the dunes looks on. Is she a wronged wife? A nosy servant? A gossip, a scold? Will she beat the man with her wooden spoon? Will she run home to tell her tale?

Someone has written on the postcard, above the shocked-looking woman’s frilly white cap. THIS IS ME. Written on the side, near the lovers: YOU AND DAN. Squeezed into the bottom, in tiny cramped script: I THINK YOU WOULD DO SUCH A THING MARY.

It’s a postcard from Mary to Nella. A postcard from a time none of us can remember or know. If it’s a joke, who’s left to fill in the punchline? Is the scene on the beach from a popular song, a musicale, a vaudeville revue? Is it a 1910 meme, as incomprehensible to us as our rainbow cats will be to another generation?

Who are Mary and Nella? Do they accept the roles the card assigns? Mary, brazenly holding that young man’s hand: slut. Nella, throwing up her hands in dismay: prude.

It is 1910. Everything has changed, or nothing has.

Mary and Nella are friends. Mary and Nella are enemies. Mary and Nella are frenemies. Nella’s postcard is a passive-aggressive attack on that tramp Mary, who allows boater-hatted young men to hold her hand. Does Nella, in her secret heart, wish for young men (or one young man, whose name is Dan) to hold her hand? She is sending the card to shame Mary, so everyone will know she’s the sort of girl who would do such a thing. HOPE TO SEE YOU SOON AGAIN, Nella writes to Mary. Does Mary hope to see her too?

All signs point to no.

Or: Mary and Nella are girls, 13 or 14. They are best friends. They have always been best friends. Kindred spirits, like Anne of Green Gables and Diana Barry. When Nella’s family goes away for the summer and she has no Mary to stroll the beach boardwalk with, she’s devastated. Bored, she bathes with her mother and gaggle of cousins, none of them older than eight. When she can get out of minding them she slips off to the seedier part of the boardwalk, stands on tiptoe to see a stereoscopic view of the harbor, buys comic postcards, puts a penny into the fortune-telling automaton, which tells her, “No harm in putting all your eggs in one basket—just watch it closely.”

Mary is her true friend, her one basket, so she makes her dull vacation bearable by sending her postcards, two each day, dropped into the postbox by five and delivered the next morning, each card more outrageous than the last, until the one day the postman, with a sly-fox smile, asks Mary if she’s been walking out with a new young man, and who is this Dan, and Mary’s mother snatches the card from her to read it, and Mary chases after her, explaining it was all a joke, and the household is in quite an uproar but they will laugh about it later, laugh about it many times, and seventy years later the elder Mary, finding the postcard in an attic box, among the rust and moths of forgotten things, will laugh again, remembering the girl she used to be, and she won’t throw that card away, though she is downsizing, and a few years after that her grandchildren will find it and wonder who Dan was, wonder who Nella was, wonder what’s that strange thing the woman in the postcard is holding—is it a stick wrapped in a dishtowel? Is it an upside-down umbrella?—but they won’t wonder for long, because there are so many postcards to go through, to sort and sell or give away, and the past doesn’t give up all its secrets, and anyway Grandma was Grandma, an old lady with white hair and a stern, grim-granite eye, and how could she ever have been anything else, how could she ever have been as young as they are?

Kathryn Kulpa is an editor at Cleaver Magazine and has work published or forthcoming in Jellyfish Review, Bending Genres, and Longleaf Review. She once found a rock on the beach that looked exactly like a golden retriever. Nevertheless, she prefers cats.

Vintage postcard supplied by Kathyrn Kulpa.