Help me understand how this postcard happened:
|Note the curiously missing tine on each side of the outside border, almost, but not quite in the center. Am I making too much of this? Of course I am!||
||#45 in a series of 108 unlikely phrases you can mail your friends|
Here's the back, if you think that'll help:
|Detail of postmark:|
For reasons explained in more depth below, I believe the card was manufactured some time between 1907 and 1909.
And the text of the handwritten message on postcard isn't much help, at least to me. Here's my transcription - where I couldn't be at all confident, I put the text in brackets:
At the very top, some notes, partially upside-down (as if added as an afterthought):
|Written upside-down||Written right-side-up|
Gee [Beth] Russells letters were nice.|
Keep white cat[s]
Then the main text:
[Odileo] Sis. Read letter|
Great about Ethel got
a card from her
said Honey mooning
was great. Hope it con-
tinues so. [Olie] is here
last night & to night
goes home tomorrow eve
get along fine. [Brect] is
coming down [Mim] Is
Here. I've got a beau
here. [Ilent] care about
him will write soon
745 E. Sonora
Probably Just Some Freak
My brother Dan says the card reminds me of a stand-up comedian he saw who says he was "in an IHOP and overheard a woman in the booth next to him say to her friend 'that horse made me go to grad school.' A sentence that makes no sense out of context -> leading to his head exploding."
He also speculates on the sunburn theory, but finally concludes: "Probably just some freak who was sitting around saying to himself 'now how can I really fuck with someone after I'm dead, so I won't have to hear the feedback while I'm alive.'"
Lobster = Sunburned?
Becko's best guess is "sunburns" based on the fact that the postcard was made in California and was sent to a California address. "white people in CA have always had a battle with the sun and the negative health effects - like cancer - from the sun... Lobster, obviously, on this theory refers to the brilliant red color that northern europeans like me turn after only 20 minutes in CA sun."
Lobster = Loser?
Krishna wonders if lobster "was a popular phrase for people who were overweight sunbathers" and speculates that the card may have been one part of a multi-panel set that included an illustration.
She further speculates that "[p]erhaps there was a misprint" and "loser" rather than "lobster" was intended, but "the firm thought the ensuing phrase so karmically important that they decided to let fate have its day..."
Perhaps even "the folks at Pacific Novelty were a bunch of freaks and while sitting around (high on opium as usual) one of them uttered (upon hearing a friend complain of his apparent lack of quality physique and subsequently overcome by a sudden burst of coughing fits resultingin a red face) 'Health must be earned - get it, you LOBSTER!' Upon hearing this they all alized the basic truths hidden in the cryptic (and yet so plainly universal) phrase. The next day (while nursing their dry-mouthed, swollen-tongued selves back to health) they decide to relate their new found 'enlightenment of the soul' to the general public (all the while realizing, most of whom, of course, will generally just find the phrase 'funny')."
Suspiciously, No Anagrams
Rachel notes that, "translated into 'sweedish chef'" the phrase reads: "Heelt Moost be-a Ierned, Get it - yuoo Lubster" and that "the anagram website claims that there are NO anagrams possible with these letters."
She later claims to have consulted "those wiser than I" who conclude "that the card was sent in 1889," which was also my brother's guess. I was guessing 1939, myself; shows you what I know.
The Golden Age
A page called The Golden Age of Picture Postcards says that "Picture postcards in the United States began with the souvenir issues sold at the World Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. The hobby of postcard collecting began soon after and continued unabated until the First World War." An interesting data point, but then again, this isn't a picture postcard we're dealing with. The same page lists 1905-1915 as "the Golden Age of Postcards."
But here's something that will help us fix the date: "At first postal regulations permitted only the name and address of the recipient on the back, so by necessity, messages defaced the illustrated side. In 1907, however, the Post Office Department relented: the back of the postcard could be split down the middle to provide space for both correspondence and address." This means 1889 is out. 1909, 1939, 1959, 1969?
Becko's brother has four guesses. 1) "the card is emploring people to take charge of their own health by being proactive lest they suffer the fate of a lobster in a kitchen and are the victims of drastic changes in health for the worse that are out of their control," 2) "maybe it is a marketing scheme for a sun screen product urging people not to become sunburned in sunny California," 3) "maybe it's a bit of short lived hip lingo that was popular several decades ago but is now forgotten," and 4) "maybe it's just nonsensical."
One Cent Stamps
Further attempts to narrow down the date lead me to the History of the United States Postal Service which shows how the price of sending a postcard has changed over the years. The spans when you could send a postcard for a penny were:
So that leaves us with 1909 and 1939. Unless that third digit doesn't really have a curved bottom, in which case 1929 & 1949 are also options.
- July 1, 1898 - November 2, 1917
- July 1, 1919 - April 14, 1925
- July 1, 1928 - January 1, 1952
Cryptic, Yet Significant
Kristin: "I am convinced this is some secret code... the missing tines are interesting... one must wonder if the positions of the missing tines are important in any way. Then the whole lobster phrase is just weird...
"And there are *a lot* of people mentioned in the text for such a short note... and with interestingly non-american (well common american) names."
Hmmm... "Lobster could easily refer to a person from a nautical background, perhaps navy? Or then maybe it refers to race... red, maybe Indian. The 'health must be earned, get it' that one I'll have to ponder..."
Ponder away! "I think 1939 is the date, as it corresponds with WW2, and the 25Y may be related to the timing between WW1 and WW2.
"Then the number 45, indicating the year in which the A-Bomb was dropped, it cannot be coincidence...
"Now with those tie-ins, it looks more and more like a reference to the A-Bomb, where Lobster would be what we will all look like (sunburned) if the Germans develop theirs first, and then the 'Health must be earned' stressing the importance of the fact that we must develop the technology first in order to ensure our own health (survival).
"All those European names in there must be considered, it cannot be denied that this message has cryptic, yet sigficant meaning.
"Now, the 1.00 and the K, this may be a reference to an amount of money...
"I need more time to study the tines... they are interesting."
More Stamp Data
I did yet more rooting around on-line and found some information on the stamp. Stamps in this style were printed between 1908 and 1910. This would seem to make 1909 the most likely date for this postcard to have been sent. Not that this seems to get us much closer to the actual mystery involved, but it may help us narrow our speculation...
It means the card must have been manufactured between 1907 (when the U.S. post office allowed the back of the card to be split into message and address sections) and 1909 (when the card was apparently sent).
The Lowdown on Lob
The 1913 Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary lists "Lob" as "A dull, heavy person" leading to speculation on my part that "lobster" might be an affectionate diminutive version of this. "Lobcock" similarly is listed as "A dull, sluggish person; a lubber; a lob."
"Lobster" itself is listed (under "slang") as "a term of opprobrium or contempt: A gullible, awkward, bungling, or undesirable person." Well, then. Alas, that's pretty generic.
"A loblolly boy" is said to be "a surgeon's attendant on shipboard," which has enough of a health tie-in that I thought it might be worth mention.
Webster's 1828 Dictionary for good measure reports the folklore that lobsters "are said to change their crust annually, and to be frightened at thunder or other loud report."
Sunburn as Health Indicator?
Aisling notes that "in those days, spas were popular as health resorts for all sorts of ills, so maybe a beach/sunburnt was considered a cheap spa alternative..."
Bill suggests "the possibility that it is a humorously mangled version of a catch-phrase of the day. It would probably start with 'Wealth must be earned...'"
More Sunburn Speculation
Vince suggests that the color of the border decoration is "the hue that an ordinarily pasty person would take on after exposure to the sun" - further evidence for the sunburn theory.
A friend of Vince also thinks it has something to do with sunburns: "I vote for the sunscreen angle or health culture angle. It looks like the post mark says 'Capitola'. It was mailed in August. Santa Cruz and its environs were vacation spots for decades. So, I'd assume this was sent by some young lady vacationing on the shore.
"Perhaps this was part of a series encouraging, oh, I dunno, volleyball on the beach. You know: 'Get out there on the beach and exercise! Earn your health! Get sunburned in the process!'"
The Phrase Lives On!
Chloë says: "i just moved back from santa cruz/capitola. and i could have sworn... that the saying was familiar to me and that i had recently seen it somewhere. maybe they still use it down there, like on t-shirts and stuff."
Mechanics of Clip Art
Richard writes: "I have a possible reason for the missing tines. The concept of clip art existed before desktop publishing systems; in fact the name 'clip art' comes from clipping out a picture from a book with a razor blade or scissors, and pasting the picture onto your art work. I bought a few clip art books in the 80's and I have no idea when the concept started, but I bet there were clip art books in 1909... The border of your postcard might be made from two different clip art pictures: (1) the tines, and (2) the inner pattern. Suppose the graphic artist found a clip art of the correct size for the inner one, but the clip tine picture was too big. Then s/he would cut the picture into corner pieces and fit them together. Perhaps the missing tines are the transition from one piece of corner to the next, because the artist didn't paste them down carefully enough."
29 August 1909 - A Sunday!
Jax throws the postage date back into the realm of the unknown: "The cancellation date on the postage appears to be August 29th. For 1909, August 29th was a Sunday....so we can rule out that year, as no postage would have been cancelled on a Sunday. Also, all the different references to Pacific Novelty Company postcards have postmarks between 1907 and 1917... so the closest year would be 1919 (seeing as how we've ruled out 1909). However, it sure looks like a loop at the bottom, which would point towards a send date of 1939. Unless someone thinks that isn't a 9 in the August date... It looks like it, but its faint enough that I'm not 100% sure..."
[Myself, I'm willing to believe that the third number in the year is up for grabs, since the curve at the bottom of the second number (presumably a 9) is more exaggerated than the curve in the 9 at the end of the year, making me wonder if the two middle numbers were both just messed up on the stamping apparatus and the things that appear to be curves at the bottom are just artifacts. Also, I think the date looks more like August 28 than 29.]
Jax notes three 1915-era references to Pacific Novelty Company picture postcards at California View Cards, an analysis of the card stocks used in post cards at A Brief History of Postcards (which mentions "Deltiolgy" as the formal name "in the U.S." for postcard collecting), some recent developments in the Lobster Empire, and gives a link to the Lobster Health Research Centre.
Henry A. Reynolds Found in Stockton
Adam's found a "Henry A. Reynolds" living at 432 E. Sonora St. in Stockton, and notes: "I cannot find a 7467 E Sonora St. ; the numbers appear to end somewhere between 2000 and 3000 (my map software shows the same location for both, so I assume the street ends there somwhere)."
My note: I think it must be just "746" - the trailing "7" was only a possibility but might have just been the trailing part of a letter on the previous line.
Lobster = Scarlet Fever?
Rachel ponders: "say, lobsters are bright red. Is it possibly an oblique reference to scarlet fever?"
Lobster = Pet Food?
Ian called to say that he'd heard that lobsters weren't even considered human-food until maybe the 1930s and that those that were caught were fed to cats and dogs - which'd mean they weren't cooked in 1909, which'd mean they wouldn't take on that red color crucial to our sunburn and scarlet fever speculations.
But... A web search reveals Rev. Frances Higginson of Salem, Mass. reporting in 1630: "I was soon cloyed with them, they were so great, and fat, and luscious. I have seene some myself that have weighed 16 pound..." and Cap'n Thomas Fairfax of Mystic, Conn. in 1881 saying: "Lobsters are very good as an article of commerce, and pretty enough to look at, after they're b'iled; but as to eating them, I prefer castoff rubber shoes."
"Long ago," according to Lobstering History, "lobsters were so plentiful that Native Americans used them to fertilize their fields and to bait their hooks for fishing. In colonial times, lobsters were considered 'poverty food.' They were harvested from tidal pools and served to children, to prisoners, and to indentured servants, who exchanged their passage to America for seven years of service to their sponsors. In Massachusetts, some of the servants finally rebelled. They had it put into their contracts that they would not be forced to eat lobster more than three times a week."
Newer Than We Think?
Wes weighs in: "The condition and color of the postcard seem younger than turn of the century, but what do I know. The abbreviation for and looks more modern than an actual &... A ballpoint pen would be more likely used after they were invented, because they were so cheap, commonplace, and didn't need sharpening. All the old postcards I have from the 20s and 30s used pencil.
"I'm guessing 1939. Trace the stamp as that will fix the date and should be well documented. The 1.00 at the top was likely put on there by someone selling the postcard secondhand."
The Origin of the Phrase!
Aha! Cmor has found another instance of the phrase on-line, at September '98 Epigrams of the Day which consists of excerpts from "One Thousand and One Epigrams," a book by Elbert Hubbard (who established Roycroft) published as early as 1911. So we may have the answer of where the phrase came from, but there's still the question of what, really, does it mean and why people thought it was witty.
Hubbard's version is punctuated somewhat differently ("Health must be earned - get it you Lobster!") and is accompanied by other epigrams, some of an ordinary Ben Franklinesque nature ("Keep your eye on Opportunity. Or she will never rest her eyes on you"), others wry observations ("God looked upon His work and saw that it was good. That is where the clergy take issue with Him") and others that are Lobster-like, such as these koans:
- It isn't time that makes you grow old - it's having the thing called life turn turtle at an inopportune time.
- Fletcherize the lint less; read the "Essay on Silence" more; breathe and it is you for a raise.
- If a man write a better book or preach a better sermon than his neighbors, the world will bring rat-traps to his door, tho he live in a forest.
- Never mind; if you can't get yourself arrested for scorching, perhaps you will be pinched for blocking the roadway.
- A thirst for knowledge does not supply that dark-brown taste.
- The slogan of the theologians: Cough!
- Don't join the Grouch Trust, or it is you for Class B and the toboggan.
- Hike for respectablity, and cuddle safely under her Paisley, and it's you for a Mollycoddle. Get weaned - in God's name, get weaned!
- Parties with an eczema for butting in, would do well to butt their heads three times against the wall and then take note that the wall falls not.
- Don't put your tootsies under any man's mahogany when his company gives you cold feet. Chilled plows are all right, but chilled pedals, never!
and (no joking):
- Come, Terese - le's go, before we laugh our goll-darned heads off!
An epigram from the Hubbard collection, like "There is no joy in life equal to the joy of putting salt on the tail of an idea" is just this side of being Lobster-scale baffling. It references an archaic bit of folklore - that you can catch a bird by putting salt on its tailfeathers (perhaps a snipe-hunt like joke quest to send children on). "Give us the Bough, the Thou and the Jug in right proportion" references a translation of one of Omar Khayyam's rubayyat. And so yesterday's witicisms become today's bafflers.
"Subscribers not fully understanding my jokes will be supplied laughing-gas at club-rates."
- Elbert Hubbard
More on Mr. Hubbard
So I wrote to John Petty of the Roycrofter's site asking him what he thought of the mysterious Lobster epigram:
"First off it's a joke, the epigram, that is. As for the notes on the postcard, I have no idea.
"Lobster is a turn of the century slang for someone who stayed out late at night, most likely in a saloon. Hubbard was a near teetotaler and spoke many times on the evil effects of alcohol. That said, he was also a believer in fresh air, sunshine and getting out in them with physical activity. There are numerous comments in his writings about how the sickly got that way because of laziness or thoughts in that general direction. That explains the 'earned' part. The 'get it' is a word play having the double meaning of instructing the 'lobster' to 'get healthy' and for the 'lobster' to 'get' the message.
"Not the craziest epigram I've come across but it's up there."
Lobster = Lazy?
Hudson weighs in: "Come to find out lobsters were once viewed as lazy, old black & white cartoons (from the Harmon-Izing days) often depicted the lobster as a sleepy creature. Fortunatly for us all a 93 year old fisherman who lives in capitola CA told me - 'it's because they blow bubbles, like somone who's asleep.' (somone asleep blowing bubbles?) Got me by the shorthairs, but it's the best I could do."
Lobster = Redcoat?
Cyrano was scanning IMDB for Horatio Hornblower movies and inspiration struck like a bolt from the CRT: "It is well known that the French are known to the English as 'frogs,' due to the similarity in the phoneme sounds in both words. It's a familiar and only half joking little epithet used in wars from way back. It's still used today, if only in poor taste. Apparently, the French call the English 'lobsters' in the same fashion, after their fair-skinned propensity to burn in the sun (as sailors do on ships on the open sea.)
"Long live French Postcards! Vive la France!"
Sorry you got in on this one after most of the sleuthing has already been done? Well... Someone else found a Mystery Postcard and set up a spookily similar page.