A Brief History of Paper Moons

IMG_3873At the end of nearly every school year, someone cleans out a classroom closet and leaves a box of books on the table in the faculty room.

Take whatever you want.

Typically, they are pretty slim picking. There’s really no use, beyond collage, for old textbooks anymore.  But this year I found a copy of Hal Morgan and Andreas Brown’s book on early real photo post cards Prairie Fires and Paper Moons.

I snatched it right up only to find, once I got it home, that it smelled of mold so badly that C.J. would not allow it into the house. Too moldy even for collage, I left it on the patio table promising myself I would photograph some of the better cards, maybe for use here. Which is why I’m writing about paper moons today.

If you’ve never seen a real photo post card before,  they were once a very popular item.  A typical state fair souvenir, real photo cards were inexpensive photographs, usually taken in a studio, printed on one side of a postcard.  You could then send a message along to friends and family back home.  Once the process became more popular, you could get any picture you took printed on postcards.  All sorts of things, some lighthearted, some quite dark, became popular and remain popular as collectibles to this day.

One favorite was the paper moon.

Paper moons were popular throughout America from the turn of the century to the 1930’s.  Single folk, couples, groups of people posed for a quick photograph in large booths at county fairs and on boardwalks.  The more unusual the grouping the more valuable the card is today.  The little dog featured here is the only dog I’ve seen on a paper moon, so he’s pretty rare.

The well know song by Harold Arlen with lyrics by E. Y. Harburg and Billy Rose, “It was only a paper moon, floating over a cardboard sea,” came from a failed Broadway show called The Great Magoo in 1933 a few years after the paper moon’s popularity had already peaked.   The show failed, but the song became a classic many people sang without knowing what a paper moon really was.

The 1973 Peter Bogdanovich movie featuring Ryan and Tatum O’Neal featured the pair on a paper moon in its posters, though Tatum’s character has to pose alone in the movie since her father has run off with Madeline Kahn.  The movie holds up very well, by the way, if you haven’t seen it or haven’t seen it in years.  Madeline Kahn is excellent as is Tatum O’Neal who won the Oscar that year for supporting actress beating out crowd favorite Linda Blair.

Some argue that the popularity of paper moons springs from Georges Melies 1902 movie A Trip to the Moon but no one can say for certain as the origin of the paper moon is lost to history.

Lately, they have started to make a slight comeback as a feature in parties and school dances.

Maybe they’ll even find their way to a dog show sometime.


6 thoughts on “A Brief History of Paper Moons

  1. What a lovely picture and a charming and informative post! Thank you. I love the crescent moon as a logo for almost anything and the dog just adds a further touch of whimsy.

    Postcards will never go out of fashion while I’m around. Even when one doesn’t consciously ‘collect’ them they seem to accumulate in a box somewhere, that one really will sort out one day.

  2. I love postcards, and have various collections of them, sent and unsent, and also a series of poems I call postcard poems (they have to be short enough to fit on the back of the postcard they reference).

Comments are closed.