Leather postcards came into being in 1903. They were made out of deer hide. Images were burned and inked into them. These postcards were novelties: sent to relatives and laced together as pillow coverings or wall hangings. Successful cards tended to be based on period stereotypes and play with puns.
Several of these postcards are displayed in our museum, as they have to do with hammers. The image branded into a 1907 card is a cuff-sleeved hand gripping a claw hammer. The yellow-inked hammer has been swung and is hitting a nail. The text reads “STOP YOUR KNOCKING.” To us, in the 21st century, this phrase insinuates “quit it.” Did the phrase mean the same thing in the 20th century? Or did it have a more humorous meaning? “Knocking” could have referred to something else.
In the early 20th century, an additional meaning to “knock” had taken hold: that of a knocking club. Originally a “quaint idea for providing funds for picnics and social evenings,” knocking clubs quickly became boisterous associations. Full of drink, slander, and loose morals, knocking clubs were raucous. Members knocked on tables when they wanted drink refills. Should they forget, they had to pay a penny. Anti-knocking clubs popped up around the United States to combat them. The prim and proper clubs promoted “neighborly feeling and reducing neighborly squabbles,” making it seem as though knocking clubs did quite the opposite.
Although the leather postcards were short-lived, they provide a slice of 20th century humor and life. One of our leather postcard’s reads, “U.R. ELECTED A MEMBER OF THE KNOCKING CLUB.” Its graphic contains a yellow hammer head and a lengthy red handle. The hammer is dressed as though it is taking a gentlemanly stroll. It had sleeves and buckle shoes. With its claw hair and its portly cane, it looks like a politician: ready to speak to a crowd. Knocking clubs weren’t associations of gentlemen, but folk who gaffed at the mere thought of being proper. To be elected to such a club was a joke.
The leather postcards and their hammer images didn’t last long. Unlike current postcards, which have space for private messages, leather postcards had only space for address, postmark, and stamp. If you attempted to squeeze a personalized message, it was considered a letter and cost more. How much more seemed to confuse folks. In 1907, McCready Publishing Company wrote:
“The leather postcard has of late been making trouble for the postal authorities. The public at large seems to have a rather hazy idea concerning it, judging from the variety of stamps found affixed thereto… The postal clerks are also on the lookout for immoral cards, few of which escape their argus eyes.”
Some “immoral” cards must have slipped the clerks attention, but the frustration of the leather postcard did not. In 1907, the United States Postal Services banned the mailing of leather postcards. They had jammed too many sorting machines. The fad, though, did not disappear. Novelty shops continued to sell the postcards as souvenirs until 1915.