Making Lemonade

So, as I was trying to point out, before I was so rudely interrupted by a pandemic, the world is so full of wondrous things that I’m sure we should all be as busy as bees.  I may not have that quotation exactly right, but that’s the way it goes.

Whereas I used to sort and research books for an annual book sale, I now do the same thing for vintage postcards.  My expertise in postcards is modest, but I suppose there are people in the world who would be glad to enlighten me there.  What I bring to the task is thirty-five years of book research, and even more years of pointing out strange little factoids which brought me the rousing endorsement, “Gee, Uncle Blogsy, that was almost interesting!”

I have, in the months I have been postcarding, become acquainted, or reacquainted, with the world of pop music from about 1907 to 1912.  This was a formative period in the world of postcards, and artists drew on whatever was hot in pop culture to fuel their postcard gags.  I already knew Jack Norworth and Nora Bayes’s song to Mr. Moon Man, which I found a couple of kids who would later work for Campbell’s singing on a postcard, but I was unaware that a song I had heard thousands of times in cartoons and cheap movies actually had lyrics, and a title.  But a postcard series turned up with swipes of the lyrics of Cheyenne, a cowboy love song destined to be used for years as background for western scenes for decades to come.

A simple “I wonder what THAT’S all about” led me to a song about money which became a frequent punchline for postcards dealing with seasickness, only to become a slogan for a popular (now defunct) laxative.  Other postcards have led me into the ancient history of beer and soft drink slogans, or car ads, and thanks to the Interwebs, I generally come up with an answer.

Not always, though.  Research into “May Your Shadow Never Grow Less”, a good wish I had seen only in The Hobbit before hitting it on a postcard of about 1907, let me out where I walked in. (I suspect all the experts were reading too much into it.)  And I found a card with a red hot political jab at somebody, and even had that somebody’s initials to work with.  But I never did find out who he was or how he offended the cartoonist.  Maybe the customer who bought the card already knew, but he didn’t tell me.

What’s especially frustrating is when the subject comes up on a variety of cards from a variety of companies, and still I can’t track it down.  What’s bothering me today, oh blogreader, is lemons.

I know what a lemon is, in the slang of my own generation.  It’s something you don’t want your car to be, something you’d rather sell than buy, something you don’t want.  That’s apparently related to the slang expression of a century or so ago, but there’s something else to it I’m just not getting.

Here, for example, is a card of 1908, from the S.P.C. Company.  It was made for you to give somebody your opinion.  “This For Yours!” it exclaims, with a sense of really paying off a grudge, or replying to an insult.  By sending this card, you have “handed someone a lemon”.

And that’s not a phrase I know anything about.  Obviously, you don’t want to be handed a lemon but there is great satisfaction in handing it to someone else, as in this card, mailed in 1909, which hands someone lemons “With my compliments”.  If the send had added a message to the card, it could have helped, but, no, handing them these lemons was enough.

There are cards showing a rejected suitor walking away with a lemon, there are cards showing strong men weeping at the receipt of a lemon.  Handing someone a lemon was harsh, sometimes unnecessary, as here, where the kind, intelligent looking man tells the brute not to hand the other man—a beggar?  A street salesman?—a lemon but give him money instead.

The Interwebs has so far been no help to me in this,  The dictionaries available there cite car sales and nineteenth century insults to sourpusses.  Some actually cite phrases from the period of these cards, but all in the context of the poorly-maintained used car.  “Being handed a lemon” seems to predate “being sold a lemon”, at least in the eyes of one beset blogger with half a dozen lemon postcards to explain.  It is ridiculous to think the Interwebs can be wrong about something, but I think these particular lemons could use a little more research.

Unless you know the answer and can pass it along to me.  Please don’t hand me any lemons.  I’ve got plenty.

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