Saturday, November 9, 2019

Part 2--Hunting for Cowboys and Indians

On Weds., Oct, 30,  I published my first post about investigating three Western-themed vintage Real Photo Postcards:"Hunting for Cowboys and Indians-- Part 1".  In the post, I told how I tried (but never quite succeeded) to confirm that the white -haired gentleman above was a valuable image of Geronimo (or was it Sitting Bull?)

Now I've turned my attention to the postcard of a man in a cowboy hat and leather chaps holding two very large snakes.  It's labelled “Rattlesnake Joe, Souvenir of the Fair”. (I’m no expert on snakes, but I knew those snakes he had wrapped around himself were not rattlesnakes—more likely boa constrictors.) Thanks to this identification, I thought it would be easy to track down the career and importance of “Rattlesnake Joe” and to find out if he, like Geronimo, was on exhibit at the famous 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.  
It wasn’t that easy, after all, to connect Rattlesnake Joe to the St. Louis World’s Fair, but I did find through Google this great photo—it’s a 5 by 7 glass negative in the collection of the Library of Congress, with “no known restrictions on publication”.  As you can see, someone has written on the glass negative “Westchester Co. Fair Midway 7-89-15”.  I can’t figure out if those numbers are meant to be a date, but online I found another view of this image—with those same numbers-- and it’s been labeled “Westchester County Fair 1915.”

I love everything about this image: “Beautiful Mermaid Captured Alive”, “Reptile Joe, the King of the Reptile World”, and most of all the overhead sign saying, “Wild Rose & Rattlesnake Joe”.  I was happy to see that Joe had a lovely partner in his snake-charming act. The man with the big snake standing on the platform does seem to resemble my Rattlesnake Joe on the postcard, but in less flashy clothes. The man next to him with the megaphone is clearly advertising Joe to the crowd, but the man on the ground in the business suit, who appears to be holding a small snake, has drawn the attention of some of the gawking young boys. (Is he holding an actual rattlesnake?  Is he challenging Joe?)

With a little more detective work I discovered that a contemporary artist named Mike Savad has colorized this iconic image of a Fair Midway with all its excitement and drama (above).  I think he did a brilliant job of adding color to the innate drama of the scene. And he’s selling prints of his colorized work on his website, and

My enthusiasm about my Rattlesnake Joe postcard dwindled a bit when I tested my three vintage postcards to find out if they were Real Photos.  I knew that Real Photo Post Cards (RPPCs) are far more valuable than postcards that are printed-- like magazine and newspaper images.  I had read that in 1902, Kodak came out with a preprinted post card photo paper back that allowed postcards to be made directly from negatives, but a negative would only allow a limited number of prints,  while standard printing methods can be produced in huge numbers.

According to “Old House Journal”, “This technology allowed photographers to travel from town to town and document life in the places they visited….Real Photo Postcards became expressions of pride in home and community and were sold as souvenirs in local drug stores and stationary shops.”

I also learned that the best way to tell if you’re holding a Real Photo Postcard or a printed one is to look at the image through a magnifying glass.  If it’s a real photo, the image is solid, but if it’s not a real photo, the magnified image immediately dissolves into thousands of tiny dots—just like images in the newspaper or magazines.

Sadly, Rattlesnake Joe failed this test as soon as I got out my magnifying glass!  My other two “Western” images—my (I think) Geronimo and the “Ancient Squaw” both passed with flying colors—the shades of sepia (the Sioux Matriarch) and gray (Geronimo) fading into each other without dissolving into dots.

I was disappointed that Rattlesnake Joe didn’t pass the test, and was starting to suspect that he wasn’t any more “Western” than I am. But I did find a duplicate of my Rattlesnake Joe card for sale on Ebay—in worse condition than mine—for sale from “The Postcard Dude” selling for $12.57, which is more than the dollar or so that I thought it was worth.  The “Ancient Sioux Squaw” (I love her beaded necklaces and the feathered stick she’s holding) and the Geronimo RPPC could be worth many times Rattlesnake Joe.

I learned that the back of a postcard can also hold information about the age and maker of a postcard—even if it’s blank.  Check the printed “box” where the stamp is supposed to go and look up the words and design on line at “Playe’s Real Photo Stamp Boxes”.  The stamp box of the “Geronimo” postcard below shows “Noko” is the maker, and if you look on Playe’s, you see that particular design was used between 1907 and 1934.

If there’s no name on the back, but just a design, as in the Rattlesnake Joe card below, you can go to  “Playle’s Real Photo Postcard Stamp Backs” on line, which I did, but this design  was not there (because, as I learned, it’s NOT a real photo!)

The back of the “Ancient Sioux Squaw” post card, below, had the most information.  First I looked up on Playle’s the particular KRUXO stamp box design and learned it was used by the  manufacturer between 1908 and 1910.  Then I googled the name of the photographer on the side: “Real Photograph by Holmboe & White, New Salem, N.  D.”

I learned that Frithjof Holmboe was born in Norway in 1879 and immigrated to Minnesota (just like my paternal grandmother).  He became a photographer and opened his first studio in New Salem, North Dakota in 1907.  Two years later he moved it to Bismarck, N.D. and became the state’s official photographer.  So that tells us that the “Ancient Sioux Squaw” was photographed between 1907 and 1909.

Despite the fact that my three “Western” photo postcards will not make me rich, I enjoyed learning the stories behind these images and exploring a different branch of photography that took the newborn art of the camera out of the photographer’s studio and into our expanding country’s early history.