Literally speaking, dressed fish is a market term to a fish monger – freshly caught fish that have been cleaned and are ready for cooking or further processing, often with their heads left on.
To the postcard collector, they are humorous, anthropomorphic fish cards – that is, fish that are literally dressed up in clothing and drawn in behaviors that appear human.
Many cards are French and celebrate 1er Avril or Poisson d’ Avril (April 1st and the fish of April, which is April Fools Day) but there are English versions of “dressed fish” as well – such as the 1909 weight-watcher card about the Anti-Fat Mr. SPRAT with plump and stout POOR MISS TROUT. This card seems to be a play on the old Mother Goose rhyme about Jack Sprat, who “had no fat.” From what is nutritionally known today about omega 3 and fatty acids, the active little SPRAT does not get plump and stout like POOR MISS TROUT who is often associated with buttery, rich sauces. Also, the line art is curiously humorous even when compared with today’s graphics.
Real photographs with smiling humans (mostly little girls or young women) holding single or baskets full of stiff fish are sometimes listed under the category of “dressed fish” but while they have fish, and may be “fishy,” these cards do not show clothed or “dressed” fish and are more accurately categorized under April Fools Day or humor.
For years I saw postcards of chicks/chickens, rabbits, dogs, cats and other animals dressed in clothing and behaving as humans. I enjoyed them but, they did not fill my real interest. Many generations of my family cleaned and dressed fish, shucked oysters and caught crabs for a living. As chef/proprietor of a seafood restaurant, I prepared and was very familiar with many kinds of fish. I was delighted one day to find a postcard with a “dressed fish.” I enjoyed the wordplay and the double meanings. At first, I was happy with any simply drawn fish and standard expressions such as “Drop me a line” or “Look what I caught.” With time, determined effort and a little luck, I gained experience, made some dealer friends, and ultimately “caught” some really nicely illustrated and printed “fish.”
My curiosity kept on being fueled by the graphics and expressions such as the fanciful card by Charles Polkard illustrating a formally “dressed fish” and Lewis Carroll’s Lobster quadrille. I tried to complete sets and like my fishing trips to the Jersey shore, when I looked for postcards, there was always adventure and the possibility of the unexpected “catch.”
For many reasons, whether as a French holiday*, to promote retail or restaurant sales (On my menu, I used to hot- smoke my own salmon, and I was “hooked” when I saw the smoking Gaspe salmon), or just an attempt at humor, “dressed fish” cards show clothed fish, engaged in some form of human behavior often with witty or suggestive remarks.**
These cards were very common from the late 1900s until the advent of World War I and though many fine fish cards have been drawn and printed since that prolific period, the tradition seems to be wanning. Today, “dressed fish” are frequently seen in magazine advertisements such as ORCA Bay Seafoods, “Sammy Sal-mon” from Alaska Seafood Market-ing. “Charlie Tuna,” the National “Spokesfish,” animated films or simply, old cards scanned onto new greeting cards.
When I collected “dressed fish” cards the accuracy and sophistication of the graphics were very important to me. Perhaps because my Oyster & Clam Bar featured seafood, I was always happy to find an ocean fish. One of my favorite cards depicts two properly dressed flounder at the beach – the only thing missing is something witty about crabmeat stuffing!
I am convinced some illustrators or publishers were either not fond of or familiar with fish, and the evidence can be found on their cards. The fish is crudely drawn and aside from the remarks, these cards leave no good lasting impressions.
Freshwater species of fish are the most frequently seen on cards but fish bodies with human heads I have found to be uncommon and a “catch” worthy of bragging rites.
Dressed fish cards are not common and some, are very expensive. Prices varied from $6 to $75 per card, so at times I was willing to compromise with minor aspects of condition on well drawn whimsical cards or those with particularly great expressions. As the fabulist La Fontaine so aptly observed – A “little fish” now is better than the expectation of a future “Big Fish.” I felt that I could always trade up if the opportunity arose.
I found these cards over a ten year period at postcard and paper shows, from dealer friends, collector trades, auctions and the Internet under category listings of dressed fish, comic/ humor, advertising, Easter, April Fools, sets, at back of the counter Fantasy and New Arrivals books, animals, fish, and even in boxes of damaged 50 cent cards.
Like fishing, “dressed fish” cards you find are often a matter of where you look, what you use for “bait” to catch them, how determined you are, and luck.
*A great attempt to unwrap the mystery of the association of fish with 1er Avril- Poisson d’ Avril appeared in the article by Elly Smith, April 1998, in Postcard Collector magazine. Another was offered in translated form by the Musee de la cartepostale from their exposition April 1-29, June 2003.
**My understanding of French was limited to culinary terms, but it was enough to get started and some of the French postcard Web sites actually offer translations of their inventory or research but, understanding the meanings of the phrases on some of the cards required a bit of help. A French-English dictionary and a general translation can be found on www.dictionary.com and I was fortunate to find some French and other friends who either spoke the language or understood European history and culture.