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September 11, 2003

Mythic source material
Posted by Teresa at 04:00 PM *

I grew up along Route 66, the mother lode of tacky postcards. I collected them until people started producing deliberately tacky cards, which don’t have the same thrill.

One of the durable subgenres was the “exaggeration” or “giant object” postcard. These showed giant fish being hauled out of the water, with a caption saying that these were some of the small ones; or produce laid out on one of the flatcars from someone’s model railroad layout, with a caption saying that they raised ‘em pretty big here. Occasionally they’d turn surreal, with cards showing cattle punching on a jackrabbit, or successful hunters carrying home a string of giant grasshoppers.

My childhood exposure to these cards was the genesis of one of my basic theories, which is that if there is a collective unconscious, the things that arise from it aren’t dignified mythic archetypes. Those, people find because they want to find them; and when they do, they find them in books and paintings. The real collective unconscious (if it exists) is full of giant object postcards, drinking vessels shaped like footwear, paintings of animals engaged in human activities, and narratives involving the miraculous doings of either Jesus or Superman when he was a boy—all things which repeatedly pop up at widely separated times and places, with no justification for them beyond the fact that they exist.

Thus I was startled to discover an article about, and the existence of, the seminal giant object postcard-maker himself: William H. Martin (1865-1940). He did it all: fish stories, monster rabbit roundups, hunters making improbable hauls, and farmers bringing in their giant produce.

I’m sticking to my theory about the collective unconscious (if one exists). He may have been the first, but other postcard-devisers swiftly and enthusiastically adopted his tropes, as though the urge to make cheesy photocollage giant-object postcards had, until that moment, lain dormant within them.

Comments on Mythic source material:
#1 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: September 11, 2003, 05:06 PM:

How could the agents of Planetary have missed these?

#2 ::: Stefanie Murray ::: (view all by) ::: September 11, 2003, 05:54 PM:

FYI, there's an extra v on the end of the URL for the egg photo ("farmers").

#3 ::: Robert L ::: (view all by) ::: September 11, 2003, 05:56 PM:

I've seen at least one book that collects about 50 of the best of these postcards. My favorite was always the ear of corn that takes up the whole railroad flatcar. Runner-up: the hunters with giant grasshoppers hanging from a pole.

#4 ::: Paula Helm Murray ::: (view all by) ::: September 11, 2003, 09:59 PM:

Martin is one of the 'tacky photo' greats. My folks lived in the countryside south of Kansas City from 1974 to 2002, and went to Ottawa for groceries, etc. when they didn't want to go into Kansas City. Saw an exhibit a while ago, can't remember where, but it was actual cards.

#5 ::: PiscusFiche ::: (view all by) ::: September 11, 2003, 10:17 PM:

Don't forget the jackalopes!!!

#6 ::: James Murray ::: (view all by) ::: September 12, 2003, 12:10 AM:

The phrase "cattle punching on a jackrabbit" conjured up an entirely different picture in my mind than the actual postcard. I expected Don King, at the very least.

#7 ::: Alan Hamilton ::: (view all by) ::: September 12, 2003, 02:48 AM:

I was going to bring up the Jackalopes.

You grew up along US 66? I thought you were in Mesa.

#8 ::: Alison Scott ::: (view all by) ::: September 12, 2003, 03:34 AM:

When you first mentioned giant object postcards to me, they were available at the tacky souvenir stands that line the roads near my office; I'm pretty sure I sent you the Trafalgar Square Pigeon -- there was also a four-storey double-decker bus, and 'French Bread in London', with a giant baguette on the back of a flatbed.

They've all gone, now, which I find funny. Photoshop has killed them, but it's not as if people thought there were really thirty-foot pigeons before Photoshop.

Some of the other sorts of old-fashioned postcards are still there. They sell postcards of people with piercings and brightly coloured hair; I wonder at the implication that there are still places on earth where this would be an exciting thing to see on a postcard. They sell huge numbers of postcards of royals of all varieties. They sell postcards of old-fashioned telephone boxes, particularly the telephone box sculpture in Kingston.

#9 ::: Mark ::: (view all by) ::: September 12, 2003, 10:32 AM:

"The real collective unconscious (if it exists) is full of giant object postcards, drinking vessels shaped like footwear, paintings of animals engaged in human activities, and narratives involving the miraculous doings of either Jesus or Superman when he was a boy97all things which repeatedly pop up at widely separated times and places, with no justification for them beyond the fact that they exist."

I can't explain why, but this sentence resonates with me something fierce. Which, I guess, simply goes to show that it's absolutely correct.

#10 ::: Faren Miller ::: (view all by) ::: September 12, 2003, 10:44 AM:

Something like those uniquely US mythic icons show up in the "Zippy the Pinhead" comic strip, with Zip's fascination with giant roadside icons. (It's probably available elsewhere, but I read mine at the San Fran. Chronicle website,

#11 ::: Larry Lurex ::: (view all by) ::: September 12, 2003, 10:55 AM:

You should read "Hogfather" by Terry Pratchett, if you haven't already. He's good on myth and unconscious.

Don't be fooled into thinking it is a children's book, or even about somewhere called Discworld.

Hell, does no-one understand allegory any more???

#12 ::: LauraJMixon ::: (view all by) ::: September 12, 2003, 12:02 PM:

There's also, it appears to me, a strong strain regarding abundance.

#13 ::: PiscusFiche ::: (view all by) ::: September 12, 2003, 01:18 PM:

Larry: I heart Terry Pratchett.

Note: If anybody is in a Terry Pratchett sort of mood, I unreservedly suggest Jingo. That way you can have the guilty pleasure of reading something howlingly funny and entertaining, whilst still pondering deep thoughts about the world's political issues. Mmmmm. Jingo. I first read you after 9-11 and you were both comforting and frightening at the same time.

Back to topic: Yes, I believe Route 66 passes well above Mesa, but I know T's spent some time in Sedona, and THAT is pretty close to Route 66.

(Lee and I did Route 66 early last year before we started dating. He bought me a little Route 66 sign. I kept singing Depeche Mode's Route 66 over and over and over. Off key. Amazingly he decided to date me despite this experience.)

#14 ::: Steve ::: (view all by) ::: September 12, 2003, 01:20 PM:

Teresa already did jackalopes. I'm personally waiting for her post about restaurants that look like the food they serve.

#15 ::: Adam Lipkin ::: (view all by) ::: September 12, 2003, 02:51 PM:

Regarding Terry Pratchett, I recommend every single one of them (up to and including Monstrous Regiment, which either just came out or will be out very shortly but I got anyway-- gotta love the Strand-- but haven't read yet), but if it's politics you want, the City Watch books are fantastic-- in any sense of the word. They are: Guards! Guards!, Men At Arms, Feet Of Clay (which had a working title of Words In The Head, which I liked better but what do I know), Jingo, The Fifth Elephant, and Night Watch. It's an ensemble piece (ie, they are), but Sam Vimes is the main main character, and he's a wonder to watch develop.

As for the main point of this thread, I know, er, nothing about it. Neil Gaiman's American Gods, though, touches on similar things (I think, having read it many many books ago and so my memory of it is a little sketchy).

#16 ::: Doug Neff ::: (view all by) ::: September 12, 2003, 04:38 PM:

Tried to use the "trackback" feature to link to your entry for our high school "Story and Ritual" course, but it didn't work, so I linked to it manually.

My students are learning about the collective unconscious, and I'm trying to expose them to lots of examples . . .

-Doug Neff

#17 ::: Paula Helm Murray ::: (view all by) ::: September 13, 2003, 01:36 AM:

The best jackalope I've seen lately is at our local Longhorn Steakhouse, they managed to nab one (a taxidermy mount) for their farm/ranchouse crap decor (saddles, bridles, ox yokes, etc, things that I could name that most city folk would not have a clue as to what I was naming). The jackalope had been maintained somewhere where it had not had too much patting. And was still in a protected place. giant jackrabbit (like you see in suburbs of Phoenix) with nice, nice antelope horns...

#18 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: September 13, 2003, 04:14 AM:

A few years back, there was a short piece in one of the model railroad magazines about the use of model flatcars for the "giant produce" cards. The one fanpersonish detail I'll mention is that these were generally Standard Gauge (or "Gauge 1") cars, considerably larger than most of today's indoor stuff.

The point made that's of broader interest was the explanation, to an audience accustomed to composite photography (though not yet Photoshop), that using models was a lot easier than darkroom tricks would have been.

If I ever do the mythic-America comics series I keep muttering dimly* about, there will no doubt be a panel somewhere in the Midwest, with a trainload of sixty-foot sweetcorn in the background.

*Insert high-ASCII symbol for "deliberately chosen modifier."

#19 ::: Steve Taylor ::: (view all by) ::: September 13, 2003, 05:22 AM:

Australian tourism has a healthy tradition of actual physical big objects - the big pineapple, the big mango, etc. I was going to dig up a list of them on the web, but was fortunate enough to find someone had already done the work

American jackalope postcards and the like turn up in Australia, but mostly at groovy upmarket bookshops, rather than in actual tourist venues.

PiscusFiche: Strong disagreement on _Jingo_ - I love Pratchett, but only like about 80% of his books, and put _Jingo_ in the unfortunate 20%

#20 ::: Steve Taylor ::: (view all by) ::: September 13, 2003, 05:36 AM:

Oh yeah - I forgot to mention that my parents live in the very shadow of the Big Prawn:

#21 ::: Cassandra Phillips-Sears ::: (view all by) ::: September 14, 2003, 02:45 PM:

Alison: I don't think Photoshop has killed them. They've just gone online. Photoshop geeks love doing that kind of thing.

#22 ::: Rob Field ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2003, 06:40 AM:

if there is a collective unconscious, the things that arise from it aren92t dignified mythic archetypes. Those, people find because they want to find them;

This seems to imply that mythic archetypes are an analytical tool applied to works rather than legitimate patterns that can be analyzed and distilled from works. I think that mythic archetypes are more than just interpretive inkblots and that they are legitimate patterns that permeate our stories and tales because they arise from very real patterns in our consciousness.

This is not to say that everything the collective subconscious spits out is a mythic archetype. Stephen King is probably one of the greatest novelist that has ever charted the collective subconscious on the tacky postcard level while avoiding mythic archetypes. I just think that the collective subconscious is a swirling mixture of the hero, the femme fatal, feminine hygiene products, and cures for athletes foot.

#23 ::: Michelle ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2003, 10:19 AM:

These are of a slightly different vein, but the site contains my absolute favorite postcard ever. I have a copy of it my fridge.

Look for the deer crossing sign a little more than halfway down the left column.

#24 ::: Rebecca ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2003, 11:37 AM:

Re Mark's comment on mythic resonance, the quote actually put me in mind of James Blaylock. (Not to take anything away from Mr. Pratchett, of course, and Hogfather is splendid; I love the shadows of Discworld as much as its weird luminescence.)

I think this is the first time I have dared to leave a comment here. :-)

#25 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 16, 2003, 12:22 AM:

Rebecca: Comments are good. Thank you for switching off the cloaking device. Welcome.

Michelle, I somehow missed that last line of your post, then figured out anyway which one it had to be: the one that made me laugh out loud.

Rob, I figure the collective unconscious is a spectacularly non-falsifiable hypothesis.

Paula, I own a taxidermical jackalope, and plenty of merely representational ones. Someday I'll do my own jackalope postcard. I'd better; if I don't get it out of the way, my next of kin will be obliged to put it on the program for my funeral, and it'll be a scandal.

Steve, I have personally my ownself seen the giant cement artichoke in California, the giant apple in Ontario, and the giant fiberglass jackrabbit in Texas, but that prawn beats all. It's almost art, and almost scary.

Mike, why dimly?

I've seen your model railway layout. A giant ear of corn would fit right in. It's already got a giant science fiction writer in the background.

#26 ::: Tina ::: (view all by) ::: September 16, 2003, 07:02 AM:

I still am frightened by the Big Orange Moose in Wisconsin. It's BIG. It's MADE OF CHEESE. (Well, no, not really.)

But the prawn beats it. Big alien tentacle thing. *shudder*

#27 ::: Daniel Martin ::: (view all by) ::: September 16, 2003, 09:10 AM:

I just want to know how any New Jersey resident could mention giant things she's visited and not mention Lucy the Elephant. (Oh, there's also an official site, but it's hideous)

Unless, of course, you haven't been to see the elephant, in which case you need to go fix that.

#28 ::: DM SHERWOOD ::: (view all by) ::: September 16, 2003, 10:21 AM:

I don't know wether ylou give a damn or wether its my unconcious -strickly individual-confabulating but I hazily 1/2 remember that Jung agreed with you. There's a quote on the Collective Unconcious as a place were the profound lies down with the banal.

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