Friday, March 20, 2009

Friday From The Collectors - March 20

M. Diane Rogers
CanadaGenealogy, or, 'Jane's Your Aunt'


Omaha, May 29 – Fred Tortensen and W. D. Woods were last night identified by Engineer Mickeljohn and Fireman Prawl as the men who crawled over the tender of their engine Saturday night and forced them to stop the Union Pacific Overland Limited....
Photographs of Prisoners
Search of Tortensen’s room on Fifteenth street today furnished some valuable information. A photograph of the three men under arrest, and another man and woman, taken at a Denver photograph gallery, furnished the first authentic information of where the men came from. The photograph was taken on a postcard and showed the group of five persons sitting behind a false automobile front, Woods being in the position of the chauffer. The headlights of the car showed the number 2313 and the picture was made at 1513 Curtis street, Denver, Colorado...

The Chillicothe Constitution, Chillicothe, Missouri, USA. p. 1. 29 May 1909

As I soon found out, this train robbery story had a Canadian twist. One of the captured robbers, Frank Grigware, escaped from Leavenworth Prison, by train, and ended up living in Canada undetected for 24 years, but in 1934 he was charged with poaching and his fingerprints were matched to his old crime. [1] (This all sounds so modern, doesn’t it?)

It was the mention of the postcard showing a “false automobile front” that had caught my attention first as I had just recently posted the image of a novelty ‘automobile’ postcard on-line from my own family collections. Novelty photographs meant as souvenirs of holidays and special events were popular from the turn of the 19th century in both North America and Britain.

From the beginning of commercial photography, photographers used painted studio backdrops, including beach scenes, often with smaller props, even sometimes costumes, to better illustrate their sitters’ vacation memories (or dreams).

a. Two women & girl, beach backdrop with lighthouse. Ferrotype (tintype), origin unknown.
Purchased in British Columbia, Canada.
Personal collection, M. Diane Rogers. All Rights Reserved.

For some photographers, it was soon perhaps an easy step out onto the beach or boardwalk to take more natural looking photographs for clients or other commercial or artistic work.

b. Atlantic City Beach, c.1905; photographer: William M. Vander Weyde.
From negative, gelatin on glass.
George Eastman House Collection: 1974:0056:0723:
No known copyright restrictions, The Commons on Flickr.

At the same time though, with the introduction of Kodak’s easy to use Brownie camera, taking one’s own photographs became increasingly popular, although, of course, not everyone could afford this, despite what the advertisements often said.

With advances in popular cameras and film processing, it must also have been easier for some to enter the photography business – as street, seaside and carnival photographers, for instance. No longer did a ‘real’ photographer always need a studio, or at least an elaborate one, and no longer were all photographers ‘artists’. (Lots of modern parallels here too, with digital cameras and software.)

It does seem to be about this same time that the ‘comic foreground’ or ‘head in hole’ photographs appeared. Here is one great example from Atlantic City, c. 1900, showing Charles Heffernan of Washington, DC, USA.

c .Atlantic City Novelty Postcard c 1900, showing Charles Heffernan, b 1864, lived Washington, DC, USA. All Rights Reserved. Photograph shown with the permission of Mike Fitzpatrick
(aka Piedmont Fossil)

These photographic ‘foregrounds’ are known by many names. Recently Michael Quinion of World Wide Words, [2] noted quite a few awkward but descriptive phrases: ‘end-of-the-pier painted boards into which you stick your head to get photographed’, ‘head through the hole’, ‘things you stick your head in’, faces in holes, face cut-outs, ‘head through the hole photo booths’, photo cutout boards, comic foreground, carnival cutouts, lookie-loo, mug boards, faceless cutouts - and even had a new suggestion from a reader – ‘Headleys’ for the surname of the person who first asked Michael about this topic!

Vivian Marr of Chambers Dictionaries gave Michael the French name –
“ ‘passe-têtes’, essentially places to put one’s head through” which is the one I’ve adopted now. Very clear, I think and quite Canadian sounding, but I’ve seen other terms on-line now too – arcade photograph and ‘people posing in wood cut out bodies’.

There is some question about who ‘invented’ these ‘head in the hole’ photographic props, but it seems accepted that Cassius Marcellus Coolidge (1844-1934) popularized them, if he didn’t think them up all by himself. [3] (He’s the fellow who painted those ‘dogs playing poker’.) I’d be interested to hear of any contemporary references to his prop work or to his company.

Coolidge apparently sold his painted ‘Comic Foregrounds’ by mail order – with names like "Man Riding a Donkey" or "Fat Man in a Bathing Suit".

Sometimes photo foregrounds were a bit racy too, as in Arcade Photo - G.I. Cleaning posted by AtypicalArt on Flickr. [4] Later, I believe, when more people were vacationing by car, comic foregrounds were adapted for many roadside attractions so visitors could take their own funny family snapshots, however passe-têtes are still seen at fairs and events. Wasn’t there a Welsh passe-têtes scene in photographs of last month’s London ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ genealogy show?

And I remember seeing a Canadian ‘Mountie’ one somewhere quite recently – of course, depicting bodies in red serge suits. For the Mountie one, you’d want the right hat to make yourself look correct. At traveling fairs, I’m sure a few costume props were handy.

My great uncle in this family photograph really looks to me as if he is wearing someone else’s moustache! I wonder if this wasn’t taken at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto where he lived. The wobbly writing of ‘Seeing Toronto’ on the passe-têtes here makes me wonder too if this prop was quickly re-lettered after the previous show when maybe it had been ‘Seeing Ottawa’. This was a postcard – but has been cut smaller. I think you can see that in this image. Was there someone else in the picture? This is a passe-têtes prop – I can see both his neck and the rim of the neck cutout on the board.

d. Postcard, cut, but believed unused (pasted in album, one corner loose).
Seeing Toronto, believed to show John William Rogers,
taken c. 1910. Personal Collection, M. Diane Rogers. All Rights Reserved.

Some comic postcards were more labour intensive. footnoteMaven found an excellent advertisement for comic caricature postcards produced with real photo heads by A. J. Park’s Electric Studio, Seattle, Washington, USA. Not quite the latest mode of transport shown though.

[ e. Early Advertising of the West, 1867 - 1918, Special Collections, University of Washington, A. J. Park’s Electric Studio, Seattle, Washington, USA, 1908.]

And footnoteMaven also has an historical article about making commercial comic postcards your own by pasting on ‘real photo’ heads – ‘penny’ or postage stamp sized photographs of yourself or your friends – photographic novelty items in themselves.

[f. Popular Mechanics, Photos of Friends Added to Comic Post Cards, February 1917. Article, mentions Jacksonville, Florida, USA.]

I’ll keep looking for historical automobile related novelty photographs and postcards. I’ve seen a number on-line; I’ve even been shown one from my own home city, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. The Coney Island History project, for instance, shows five real photo ‘head in hole’ postcards. One very similar to the Seattle Park’s Electric Studio card shows a couple headed “Off for Coney” [5] Before World War I, when cars were ‘new’, novelties related to automobiles must have been popular. I see these automobile related novelty montages and the passe-têtes as closely related – all use real photographs, caricature, and/or painting and drawing to set the scene. Quite a few show ‘women drivers’ too which is of interest to me.

Some novelty automobile photograph setups were much more elaborate though. Remember the 1909 bank robbers photographed “sitting behind a false automobile front?" By persistent Googling, I did find two examples on-line of novelty postcards with an automobile background and foreground taken by a company called ‘United Photo Stores Co’ using the Denver address mentioned in the newspaper article. (I have found other Denver addresses for United Photo and hope to do more research on this soon.)

None of the articles that I have seen so far about the 1909 train robbery show the photograph. That’s not surprising, still it’s disappointing. Might that evidence copy still exist? (Maybe in an FBI file?) If so, we could compare and contrast it to the two I found on-line. They can’t be identical as the newspaper mentions the number ‘2313’ in the photo. I don’t see that in either of these, and these two photos are a little different from each other but each is identified with the same address as on the robber’s postcard, and the example from Cripple Creek is dated and postmarked June 1909 from Denver, Colorado.

Denver Studio Shot Lady~Model Car~Half-Way House 1913 PC – Refried Jean’s Postcards & Paper Products. Note – this company is no longer in business and the owners no longer have this postcard. The website remains up for now though. Accessed on-line 18 March, 2009:

Stumpff Family Photo, Cripple Creek District Museum, Cripple Creek, Colorado, USA. Accession number 1: 2000123. Accessed on-line 18 March, 2009:

Looking at these photographs has brought home to me some of the difficulties in finding and examining similar photographs or postcards. I’m a person who likes to compare things, but although there are clearly similar examples on-line and in various catalogues, there are no standard descriptions or tags and no one person ‘collecting’ posted images together. And, it would be nice to be able to look at all those relating to ‘Toronto’ or ‘Seattle’ too. I would suspect that many people with old photographs at home have at least one passe-têtes or ‘head in hole’ photograph or postcard.

So, I’ve set up a Flickr group called: Vintage - Antique Photographs - passe-têtes, head in hole’. [6] I’ll work on getting some of these examples together. And, I’ll post any images of my own at too, my very favourite photo website.

Do you have one of these photographs or postcards at home? Have you seen a historical advertisement or noticed a related image on the web or in a museum or archival collection? Please be in touch!


[1] The Union Pacific Overland Limited train robbery, 1909, was covered at the time in a number of newspapers. For later developments concerning Frank Grigware (known in Canada as James Fahey), see, for example, The Lethbridge Herald, Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada, Back page, 23 April, 1934 and The Post Standard, Syracuse, New York, USA, p. 12, 29 May 1949. Accessed through

See Frank Grigware’s real photo ‘mug shots’, not comic ones, and images of his fingerprints, along with his 1909 personal details and family connections at “A Byte Out of FBI History: Catching International Crooks in the their fingertips”, Federal Bureau of Investigation, USA:

Joe Jackson wrote a novel about this case, Leavenworth Train: A Fugitive's Search for Justice in the Vanishing West (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2001) I’m searching for a copy.

[2] 'Seeing Toronto' - A Carnival Cutout Photograph - Toronto, Ontario, Canada, CanadaGenealogy, or, Jane’s Your Aunt:

[3] Cassius Marcellus Coolidge biography:

[4] Arcade Photo- G.I. Cleaning posted by AtypicalArt on Flickr:

[5] ‘Head in Hole’ postcards, Coney Island History Project, New York, USA:

[6] Post your related photographs or images to the group ‘Vintage – Antique Photographs - passe-têtes, head in hole’ at

Two Flickr photograph groups which include some vintage ‘passe-têtes’ and other related photographs: Vintage Photographic Amusements (Trick Photography) Group and the Souvenir Photos (Vintage) Group.

To find others, use all the terms given above to search Flickr, Google Images, e-Bay, etc. and try ‘photograph/postcard vintage/antique’ with ‘comic/cartoon/collage/montage’.

Copyright © 2009


Blogger Sheri Fenley said...

Great article Diane!

March 20, 2009 at 4:31 AM  
Blogger Marie Reed said...

What a delightful blog!I'm so happy to have found it! This is all right up my aley of interests.

March 20, 2009 at 9:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a fun and interesting article. I wish I had one of those post cards - what a collection!

March 24, 2009 at 6:48 PM  

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