• Ashley Webb

A Wild West Halloween

This gun slingin', sharp shootin', horse ridin' cowboy trio makes a perfect photo just in time for Halloween. While that stray log and random pile of sawdust (or fur?) definitely give this photo away as a fake, I almost believed it was a real Wild West photograph.



Turns out, in the early to mid-1910s, these types of photos were very popular, much like the old-time photos now scene at tourist destinations. Who doesn't love playing dress up? Instead of doing 'fancy dress' (wearing clothing from the 18th century), these individuals were dressing up like what they thought their contemporaries out west looked like thanks to four very important cultural influencers: the circus, the President of the United States, literature, and the silver screen.





Prior to 1900, spectacles such as Buffalo Bill's Wild West Shows staged dramatic and entertaining elements of life on the Western frontier, traveling across America and Europe. These events showcased sharpshooters, spectacular riding and roping, and almost always ended in a stagecoach attack or a battle scene of some sort. While not necessarily an accurate depiction of Western life (many of the cowgirls featured had never set foot in the American West before starting their careers with Buffalo Bill), many of the shows dramatized real life events, and set the stage for the American cowboy to become a romanticized part of popular culture. Annie Oakley, May Lilly, Bucking Bronco, and Buffalo Bill himself all became pop culture icons between the 1870s and 1890s, and the Wild West shows grew to include what the public though of as 'exotic' acts of 'savage and barbarous races'- much like it's contemporaries, Ringling Bros. & Barnum and Baily's Circus.





Around the same time, Theodore Roosevelt, president of the US from 1901-1909, was actively living the

cowboy ethos. In the early 1880s, Roosevelt traveled to the Badlands in the North Dakota Territory on a hunting trip. He fell in love with the rugged lifestyle, investing in two cattle ranches throughout the Little Missouri River Valley. Before he became president in 1901, he had sold his ranches, but the experiences he had out west stayed with him forever. During his presidency, he created five new western national parks to aid in the preservation of land and a way of life.


Perhaps influenced by Teddy Roosevelt, author Owen Whistler wrote The Virginian in 1902, detailing the fictional life about a Wyoming cowboy. This book has been debated as the first western that ultimately paved the way for the genre as a whole. There were others, of course, that came before The Virginian, many of which were serialized and "penny dreadfuls," but some historians claim the work is the first in the genre to be in true novel form.


A year later in 1903, The Great Train Robbery brought the American cowboy to the silver screen. Over the next fifteen years, the Western genre as a whole grew considerably. Of the 650 films made in America in 1919 alone, 41 were considered Westerns. The romanticism of the Wild West - it's outlaws and vigilantes, wide open spaces, and damsels-in-distress - cemented the cowboy in American pop culture. It didn't matter if the archetype depicted actually reflected the lives of the real men and women in the Wild West.




Between 1910 and 1918, real photo postcards took parlor shots of men and women in wooly chaps, gun holsters slung low about the hips, ropes tossed around the shoulder, and individuals who looked rugged and carefree. Sometimes the people were posed as if in a bar fight or a standoff. Painted backgrounds depicted plains with tipis in the distance, the interior of a saloon, or even the outside of a jail. My all time favorite though is this dramatic number, courtesy of Chase Benjamin Antiques & @chasebenjamincollects!




Back to our timid and cocky trio, though. Despite the lack of painted backdrop and the absence of any drama whatsoever, this real photo post card is still a treasure!


This dates between 1915 and 1918 based off of four things:

  1. The Azo Real Photo Postcard stamp box on the reverse - the 4 triangles framing the box all point upward. These cards were manufactured between 1904-1918

  2. The divided back, where you have your address side separated from your correspondence side by a line. This style of postcard was published after March 1, 1907

  3. The white border around the image on the photo side dates to after 1915. Prior to 1915, the images went all the way to the edges of the card

  4. The blouses and skirts of the two women

The last of these pinpoint to earlier than 1918 - most likely around 1916, judging by the shape of the blouses and skirts. The fringe details that can be discerned might be something the photo house provided - much like the bandanas, chaps, vests, and hats - and it might have given the illusion of fringed suede skirts like many of Buffalo Bill's cowgirls wore.


Regardless of it's origin, it's still a fun photo, and quite perfect for Halloween!



Roanoke, VA, USA

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