Friday, April 26, 2013

The Barrel, Post Cards and George Orwell

George Orwell,  the famed British writer and novelist of the 20th Century, was among the earliest authors to recognize the  social clues and analyze the cultural values to be gleaned from contemporary ephemera.  In 1941 he wrote an article called “The Art of Donald McGill” that subjected the comic  English post cards of his day to critical analysis -- many of them bearing illustrations attributed to the probably fictional McGill.

As I was contemplating a post on the use of the barrel as an icon on the comic post cards of pre-Prohibition America,  a period roughly 1880 to 1920,  the Orwell article came to mind and I reread it.  As a result, some of his observations will be woven in with my own notions.  Obviously the barrel image marks a clear line to drinking and often to drunkenness.   That identification is understandable since in an earlier day both whiskey and beer were transported  in barrels and decanted from there.  Orwell observed that drunkeness is ipso facto funny.  That continues to be true for the post cards shown here.  They all are meant to be humorous.  The British author also comments that on post cards “drunkenness is something peculiar to middle-aged men.”  In those he reviewed, he said, youths and women were never involved.

By and large that is true for the U.S. pre-Prohibition era, but there are exceptions.  Shown here is a “In Good Spirits” post card that appears to have four kids playing in two barrels marked “whiskey” and “alcohol.”  That same notion of “being in good spirits” is the message of the next two cards of a man diving into a whiskey barrel.   The second card virtually identical but made of leather.  Leather was a short-lived fad in sending messages during the early 1900s,  mostly of a humorous sort.  Since the divers’ heads are fully immersed in both items, it is impossible to determine age.

Orwell is generally right about  middle aged men.  Most of the post cars shown here are of  males in middle age.  A good example is the post card entitled “Happy at Chippewa Falls, Wis.,” dated 1916.  It depicts a gentleman on a hammock sipping from a barrel strung above his head.  His eyes seem glazed.  We are not sure what beverage he is swallowing.  But given the location in Wisconsin, beer is a likely guess.  The following card, “Cheer Up the Best is Yet to Come”  depicts a gent with a less elegant means at getting at the contents of a barrel.  He has hoisted it to his head and is sucking on the bung hole,  ignoring the fact that his hat has spilled on the ground along with a good bit of liquid.

Humorous photographic images were a subcategory of post cards in the pre-Prohibition era.  Here in a carefully staged tableau entitled “Those Were the Happy Days,” are two hobos who somehow have come upon a barrel of whiskey.   Despite their shabby clothes, these two are imbibing in a delicate fashion.  The one on the right seems to have an empty beer can he is filling while his companion tips the container.  This card dates from 1914.

The next card is an enigma.  Rendville, Ohio, now accounted the smallest village in the Buckeye State, was home to more than 1,000 people during the 1880s, many of them black miners and their families.  The town was noted for being filled with saloons and gambling institutions. Adam Clayton Powell Sr. is said to have been a hard-living miner here in the late 1800s before he surrendered his vices and was “saved” at a religious revival at the local Baptist Church. He later became pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City’s Harlem  and a civil-rights leader.   None of this history explains the card which seems to show an inebriated gentleman with a bottle in his hand and a barrel at his back.  The title “Down with Drink in Rendville, O.,” fails to explain if the card is to be taken as against alcohol or a sarcastic dig at the Temperance crowd.

The following postcard leaves no doubt.  It is is from North of the Border where liquor continued to flow freely during the American “Great Experiment” that  banned liquor from 1920 to 1934.  The point here is the availability of all kinds of alcoholic beverages in Canada,  so abundant in fact that the American tourist is willing to let three bottles spill on the ground.   Again the barrel appears as an icon of the “wet” culture.

Orwell’s article made a great deal of the abundant sex jokes in the souvenir post cards he examined.   He noted that newlyweds, old maids, nude statues and women in bathing suits were frequent subjects for racy images.  U.S. post cards were sometimes similarly have double entendre, as in the illustration of an attractive woman drawing a stein from a barrel marked “beer.”   The hobo’s comment behind her, “How happy I could be with either,”  has a definite sexual innuendo.   Another card in the British mode originated in Florida where a bald man with an overflowing glass of beer from a nearby barrel is ogling the bikini crowd.  A verse is appended:  “The gals suits here make you pop-eyed, Specially those that are occupied.”

The final presentation is a gentleman carrying a barrel on his back, labeled “booze,” while he pulls a second along and a third lies at his feet.  He also has a number of jugs and bottles tucked and tied around his person.  Jovially he asks, “How do you like my load?”  Once again the barrel was presented as the recognizable icon for the drinker.  In addition to the examples presented here,  the barrel image is repeated in dozens more postcards involved with drinking.  A substantial collection would not be difficult to amass and quickly so.

While some may believe impolite post cards from the past, and others like them, are politically incorrect or in bad taste,  I leave the last word to George Orwell:  “They express only one tendency in the human mind, but a tendency which is always there and will find its own outlet, like water.  On the whole, human beings want to be good, but not too good, and not quite all the time....I for one should be sorry to see them [comic post cards] vanish.”

Alas, in politically correct 21st Century America, Mr. Orwell, such post cards have all but disappeared.

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