Segment from Finding Americana

Wish You Were Here?

Photographer Alfred Stanley Johnson created a magical world where carrot-tops tickled
the clouds and corn cobs were the size of mighty tree trunks. Historian and Radio Producer Erika Janik delights in the work of this Wisconsin Wizard and his Tall Tale Postcards.


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Ed Ayers: You might need to rub your eyes after looking at the postcards produced by the photographer Alfred Stanley Johnson. Starting around 1908, Johnson turned his photographer’s studio in Waupin, Wisconsin into a magician’s workshop.
There, he produced images of vegetables and animals blown up to a scale rarely seen outside fairyland. In Johnson’s Tall Tale Postcards, as they were known, corn cobs were like tree trunks and geese are the size of horses. Historian and radio producer Erica Janick is an aficionado of Johnson’s work.

Erica: I’m looking at an image of three adult women and then there’s a little girl and they’re pulling these giant carrots out of the ground. They’re almost like mini palm trees. They’re all much taller than the three women and it looks like it might take all four of them to actually get these big carrots out of the ground.
I think that someone receiving one of these postcards would smile and I think they would be in on the joke. I do wonder if I got one in the mail at that time, if it was 1912 and I opened my mailbox and saw one of these, I think I would definitely do a double take because it would be something that I hadn’t seen before.
Maybe because I hadn’t seen a picture or an image or a moving image of any of these places before, I might for a second think, maybe that is how things really are there.
A lot of these images have to do with fruits and vegetables. A few of them have livestock in them. Another favorite of mine are cows leaping over the roads. You find others that involve men fishing with enormous fish. There’s a guy with a wheelbarrow that has an enormous onion in it and the onion is bigger than the guy and the wheelbarrow.
They really are kind of as the name implies, a tall tale, folk tale image. That’s part of what makes them so charming and so fun to look at is that they relate to a lot of stories we might have read or heard about as a child and then you look at these images and even though they’re unbelievable, in some ways, maybe it’s because I just grew up reading stories like James and the Giant Peach or something that they also seem like maybe they could be real.
A lot of towns really liked these tall tale postcards because it was a way to encourage people to come to their town and hopefully to settle. There were these ideas about agriculture abundance, kind of this myth around farming that were really prevalent in American culture.
You find most of these postcards being made for towns that are in the Midwest and in the West because they’re really hoping that they can get more people to settle in their town because that’s how you make a town. You need people to come there.
They start distributing these postcards to say if you come here, your carrots are going to be huge. All a little bit tongue in cheek and I’m sure people realized that but by the same token, often a lot of these places were really great farming communities so while you might not grow a carrot that’s nine feet long and requires four people to pull out of the ground, you still probably could have a pretty good farming life if you moved to some of these places.
We actually don’t know all that much about Alfred Stanley Johnson Jr. We do know that he produced more than a hundred of these. He didn’t invent the idea of tall tale postcards but he really made it his own.
He took over his father’s photography business in Waupin, Wisconsin in about the 1890s and he started experimenting with tall tale postcards around 1908. He already knew how to do photography but it was really his experimentation over the years that led to all of these tall tale postcards and he really built on the form.
The first ones that he did were a little bit static, just someone holding a position and then there was a large something put on top of them. But as the years go on, he really becomes much more artistic and you see a lot of movement in these images. He’s constantly working on his technique.
All that we really know about how he put these photographs together is that he would take a background image, he would develop that and then he would take a close up of something, a large fruit or vegetable and then he would develop that, cut it out, lay it on top of the background image and then take another photo.
He often used his friends and family in these photos. There’s actually a few in the collections of the Wisconsin historical society that kinda show a before and after. There was one of his kids and some of the neighbor kids and they’re holding a large cardboard cutout.
You can see the wide photo that he took there and then in the next image, you see that actually that cardboard cutout has been replaced by a slice of watermelon that is the size of a canoe.
This is how he did all of the images and when I give talks actually to people, especially students, none of them can believe that this is actually how this photographic process was done because we’re so used to the digital manipulation of photos that someone could actually do this and do it so believably and so artistically in the 1910s.
I think that when people see these images, they’re just delighted by them. I tend to show them to people whenever I can because I think they’re so fun and so amazing when you consider what time period they were made, people just can’t believe it.
Even with all of the manipulative tools that are available today for us to do, these images are still really artistic. This required real skill. I think even actually if you were trying to do this in Photoshop, this would still take quite a bit of skill and experience to make something look as good and realistic as these images actually do.
I think it’s hard to believe if you haven’t seen the images how realistic they actually look. I mean, they are fantastic. Again, I haven’t seen a nine foot carrot. Maybe it’s out there. But by the same token, when I look at this image of the women pulling the carrots, I’m like it looks real.
I can imagine that actually being there. It doesn’t look like fake carrots and fake women. There’s a real artistic sensibility to this that I think continues to impress people who see them today.

Brian Balogh: Historian and radio producer Erica Janick helped us tell that story. We have some of those tall tale postcards on our website but for the full range of agricultural hyper abundance, check out the website of our friends at The Wisconsin Historical Society at