The romance of the Old West was established well before the West had gotten that old. Bill Nye, writing for the Boomerang in Cheyenne in the 1880s, liked to point out the difference between the West as it was lived and the West as people in the East liked to think of it. The tenderfoot who arrived in town rigged out in “authentic” Western garb as supplied by a tailor in Newark was always a source of fun to the natives, while his version of the real life of the West was part of what made him one of the leading humorists of the day. (He would start by pointing out that the average cowhand was more familiar with the handle of a hoe than with a handgun.)
But the vision of the West, where men were men (and thus called “cowBOYS”) persisted, and postcards followed suit. The cowboy above, for example, is found on a postcard of 1911, and sails somewhere on the fantasy side between reality and romance. He’s had a shave recently, I see, and that shirt is mighty bright for something worn under the blazing western sun. It was just the sort of thing people wanted to see, though, and the recipient, to judge by the back of the card, liked it well enough to paste it in a scrapbook.
But if readers out East were hungry for details about cowboys, the appetite for cowgirls was ravenous. It took a special kind of woman to head west, especially in those places where men outnumbered women by thirty or forty to one. And how wild the Wild West was likely to get when Annabelle headed out for the wide open spaces kept writers of novels, pulp fiction, and postcards (and we must not neglect opera) profitably busy for decades.
We have already covered this postcard evocation of the late nineteenth century love song Cheyenne, and how the cowboy begged his girlfriend, shy Anne (I still love that gag) to marry him. Well, this was the direction taken by a multitude of novels of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: one stalwart man, one brave woman, love true and not to be denied by flood, fire, or marauder.
Or you had the young couple facing the wilderness together, having found each other and decided that he was hers and she was his, and they were eaches. This romantic vista comes courtesy of the cowboy painter poet (AND postcard publisher) Dude Larsen, who has called this “Dreaming” and has included, on the back of the card, a long poem of the same name . This is pretty good, for postcard poetry, and tells of the young western couple looking forward to a life together in which their love will overcome hardships and preserve them from big cities with “their modernistic touch”. Yes, even western writers had a touch of the dreamies when considering romance in the West.
In more recent years, the fantasy has persisted. Romance out west is just different. You don’t see this in your modernistic big cities. (Or do you? You must go to better parties than I do.)
Remember that this is, after all, The West, where men are men. They know what they’re looking for.
And the women…well, anybody can pick up a rope, after all.
And as long as cowboy and cowgirl are happy about the result, who are we to comment? Happy Valentine’s Day! (Look, the time zones are different out west, too. Or maybe I’m just really ready for 2023.)