Along with noted British author and social critic, George Orwell, I have been fascinated by comic postcards — a dying art in the era of political correctness. In April 2013 on this blog I featured cards that employed beer or whiskey barrels as part of their humorous motif. Subsequently my efforts have been to collect images that depict inebriated gentlemen and light poles.
The postcard shown right epitomizes the genre. Two drunks are languishing under a street light, apparently at the edge of a body of water. Both are depicted as heavily intoxicated, one with a whiskey bottle sticking out of his back pocket, also a frequent image. One drunk is asking the other in liquor-slurred speech whether the glaring bulb is the sun or the moon.
On this next postcard the drunk, well dressed but with his clothes disheveled, has climbed the light pole and is contemplating the bulb. So impaired is he that he has mistaken the light as emanating from his bedroom, where his “missus” seemingly is waiting for him. In the context of these cards, she will have a rolling pin in her hand to whack him.
In this postcard a bowler-hatted gent, who does not appear to be drunk, admonishes the light pole to “lead kindly light.” The reference is to a favorite Protestant hymn, whose first verse seems entirely appropriate to the scene:
The night is long and I am far from home
Here in the dark, I do not ask to see
The path ahead, one step enough for me
Lead on, lead on, kindly Light.
My guess, however, is that the Prohibitionist crowd of the day would have considered the postcard to be sacrilegious.
Postcards did not hesitate to make an object of derision the rich and well-born who had too much to drink. Shown here is an illustration of a distinguished-looking gentleman in top hat, vest and coat who is holding on to a pole in an attempt to retrieve a cigar that in his alcoholic haze he has dropped. No words are necessary to convey the humor of this situation.
The next postcard animates the light poles as welcoming companions to a gentleman who appears to need them to keep upright. In a world turned topsy turvy all around him, he declares: “I am making new acquaintances.” Yet it is only 10 P.M. with many more hours of possible drinking ahead. He apparently will be moving from light post to light post — going somewhere.
Another drunkard has found his light pole, is proud of the location and apparently sticking with it. He brags: “Was at my post early today.” The clock on the wall behind him confirms that he has had an early evening of drinking. It registers 8:25 P.M. Not so long ago such postcards could be found at newsstands, drug stores and souvenir stores all across America. Today they are a vanishing breed.
The light pole and the drunk are not just an American icon. The image exists on comic cards in other countries as well. Shown here is an example from Estonia, typical of the drunk who must hold tight to the light pole to prevent falling on the pavement. No, he has not grown a tail. That is a bottle of whiskey poking from his backside on which he has hung his hat.
A second overseas postcard comes from Scotland. Here a bald drunk is pushing a fire alarm on a pole apparently thinking that he thereby can order up two drinks of scotch. Behind him a sign advertises “MacStifenims D.T. Blend Highland Whiskey.” Presumably it is his drink of choice. Note that in his alcoholic haze the Scotsman has stuck the tip of his umbrella clear through the crown of his hat.
The French have their own versions of the theme. Shown here is a French workman who seems to be marveling at the scene around him. A glow seems to be emanating from the moon, a street lamp and the man’s nose. The caption at the bottom in translation reads: “The streets are never so bright as by the moon and the nose of the drunk.”
With the postcard below, we receive not only the image of a highly inebriated man hanging on to a light pole but also his protestation that that “I’m Not Imbricated” and a semi-rhyming diatribe that ends with “But the drunker I stand here the longer I get.” The dog in the picture has it right — all this is very silly. But the genre demanded it.
At least equally silly is the 1909 postcard of a drunk leaning up against a lamp post, smoking a cigar and with keys dangling. A clipping from the want ad section of a newspaper provides the caption: “Help wanted. I am up against it.” Even sillier is the want ad above it: “Strong boy to drive horses that speak German. Address Horses.”
The final postcard shows a figure who is very familiar to us by now. He is a well-dressed man in suit and vest who is carrying a partially empty flask of whiskey and along the line has damaged his top hat. With a different message this might have been another comic version of the drunk and the light pole. But the message sets a different tone. It suggests to “U. Boozer” that common sense and will power should lead to abstinence: “Let it alone.” The card may well have originated from prohibitionary advocates as an antidote to the comic postcard portrayals of drunks.
Whatever cultural norms once made these postcards an appropriate message to absent relatives and friends have long since disappeared from American life. We no longer see inebriation as a matter of fun and laughter. The evils of alcoholism are all too prevalent in society. As artifacts of a not-so-distant past, however, they recreate a time when humor still could found in a drunk hanging on to a light pole.