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Vintage Cowboy Postcards

Updated on December 1, 2017
Virginia Allain profile image

I'm carrying on my mother's research into our family history. I've self-published some family memoirs & learned a lot about different eras.

Real Cowboys or Just a Photography Fad?

In the early 1900s, there was a fad to have your portrait taken in cowboy outfits. These were printed on a postcard to send to family or friends. At first glance, one might think these were actual cowboys, but some details make that questionable.

Here's what I could find out about the vintage cowboy postcards in our family collection. I did some research on Ancestry to see what the genealogy clues might tell me. Also, I shared the photos in history buff groups and got their input.

Colorado Vintage Cowboy Postcard - 1910

The card was mailed from Colorado to Kansas.
The card was mailed from Colorado to Kansas. | Source

Vintage Cowboy Postcard

An online friend, Gary Carnes owns this vintage postcard that he found years ago in Tyro, Kansas, his hometown. It was mailed in 1910 from Denver, Colorado. He was trying to puzzle out the information on the card and I offered to post it here in case a descendant is looking for these people.

It's addressed to Miss Marie Rivers, Huntington, Arkansas. The town has a population of a few hundred and is southwest of Fort Smith.

He found a Marie Rivers in Sebastian County, Arkansas which includes Huntington. The problem is she was only 12 years old in the 1910 census.

He felt the message might be from a boyfriend and that the 12-year-old Marie was too young. I thought it could be sent by an older cousin who called the younger Marie, "Baby."

Here is what the card said, as the best I can make out and is just as it was written: Hello Baby: How do you like my looks? We'll leave Denver in the morn. BG.

Gary would like to return the card to the family, but women are very hard to find after they marry with the name change. He planned to look again at the census to see if he could find a clue as to what happened to Marie.

He went back to the census looking for Marie. She was in the 1920 census living in her brother-in-law's home. He could not find her in the 1930 or 1940 census. Mother, sister, and brother are all buried in the Huntington cemetery, but no Marie. Appears to be a dead end at this time.

The question comes up about the man on the postcard. Is he really a cowboy? Maybe he's just wearing a costume provided by a photo gallery. The backdrop is the type that a professional photographer would use at that time.

Certainly, Colorado would have actual cowboys, even in 1910. When I did an image search online for 1910 Colorado cowboy, I didn't find an exact match for the outfit he is wearing. I also searched Tineye but did not find a duplicate of this photo.

It's Likely That These Are Arcade Images

In searching online for similar postcards, I found some ephemera dealers calling these "arcade postcards." I'm interpreting that as possibly a traveling photo booth that one would find at a fair or carnival.

Of the 14 cards I examined, there were a variety of backdrops: a ranch scene, a cabin with mountains, trees with a lake, and some just plain.

The costume usually included chaps. 10 wore wooly chaps and 3 wore leather chaps. All the "cowboys" wore cowboy hats and neckerchiefs. 2 wore leather vests. 1 wore gloves and 3 wore leather wristbands. 3 wore gunbelts, while 8 held a gun in their hand. 1 held a lariat.

Most of the sellers identified these as 1910 to 1920 vintage. Only one identified a location (St. Louis).

Some postcards featured 2 cowboys, but most were just a single man. There were 3 with cowgirls. One woman wore a leather, knee-length fringed skirt with leggings under that. She wore a kerchief and a gunbelt with a holster and gun.

Cecil Martin - California Cowboy Postcard Sent to Kansas - 1913

Click thumbnail to view full-size

Robert Cecil Martin - Cowboy Postcard

It seems to have been fashionable back in 1910 through 1920 to get a studio picture done in cowboy attire. We have several of these postcards in the family.

This postcard was sent to my grandfather, Ren Martin, in Madison, Kansas.

Below, you see the back of the postcard. Unfortunately, someone trimmed it down to put in a frame or a scrapbook. Some of the words are cut off. I'll try to guess what some are.

"Dear Bro, I just --- packing my clothes to --- Imbler Uncle Ma- is going to take Cha? Wallowa in the m--- It is now 10 o'clock --. -- have about two hours business to transact. -- go to bed we have -- out 5 o'clock in the -- will leave Imbler ab-- --d of next week. ---"

I can't read the date on the cancellation stamp or the city name. I believe the lower curved words are "Oregon."

The stamp, I searched online, and it is a Ben Franklin 1 cent green stamp which was available from 1923 to 1929.

I went to my family tree on Ancestry to search for a postcard that I'd posted there. It clarified who was who. Ren Martin's brother Bob went to Imbler, Oregon to work with their Uncle Frank (Francis Marion Martin) on a ranch. That card was sent in 1913.

So, here is my best guess, since records show Bob being in Kansas after the date of the first postcard, he may have gone a number of times to Oregon to visit or work with his uncle. It seems the majority of his life was in Kansas with some time in Arizona later in his life.

It isn't clear from the postcard if the person in the photo is Robert Cecil Martin or if it's a local cowboy/generic postcard for the area.

Jesse McGhee

I can tell from comparing this to another photo in our family album that the "cowboy" here is indeed Jesse McGhee. I've included that photo for you to see for yourself.
I can tell from comparing this to another photo in our family album that the "cowboy" here is indeed Jesse McGhee. I've included that photo for you to see for yourself. | Source
Jesse McGhee of Tyro, Kansas
Jesse McGhee of Tyro, Kansas | Source

Jesse McGhee - Cowboy Postcard

This card shows my great-uncle, Jesse Carl McGhee, whose nickname was Mac. He was born in 1897 • Hilltop, Boone County, Arkansas and died in 1970 • Neosho, Newton, Missouri.

Was he a cowboy? Probably not. He grew up mostly in Tyro, Kansas and probably worked in the glass factory there with his brother Clarence. His WWI draft registration listed him as a farmer.

We have photos of him with the Newton branch of the family in the Morgan area in Texas in the 1920s. While he was in Morgan, he worked with the Newtons in running the Liberty Garage. Notice the sign for vulcanizing. That apparently was a treatment of rubber with sulphur and heat to make it stronger.

The Liberty Garage

I don't know if one of the young men in the above photo is Jesse McGhee or not.
I don't know if one of the young men in the above photo is Jesse McGhee or not. | Source

© 2017 Virginia Allain


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    • The Dirt Farmer profile image

      Jill Spencer 8 months ago from United States

      I have an arcade postcard of my dad (as a boy) dressed like a cowboy. He's wearing fuzzy white chaps and is on a black and white pony. I didn't know what the postcard was called before reading your article. Thank you!

    • profile image

      Dotty 8 months ago

      I love your photo's!! I don't care if they were actual cowboys or not!

      If they weren't bonafide, I don't care! It's fun to see these great old photographs! Dotty