Vintage Leap Year Postcards

Bachelors have long been the butt of much humor – some of it burlesque, some of it dark. To help alleviate their condition and allow them to escape the fate traditionally assigned to lonely, single men, legend and folklore give maidens the right to pop the question themselves once every four years. This sort of open hunting for footloose and fancy-free bachelors has even been made law on a couple of occasions.

Fable and myth trace the beginnings of this practice to St. Patrick and to the British Isles in general. Supposedly, during the late 4th or early 5th century, St. Bridget, head of a nunnery, went to St. Patrick, then the bishop of Ireland, for help. All of the sisters were in revolt, demanding the right to propose marriage to reluctant suitors. (Apparently men and women of the church in those days were allowed to marry.)

St. Patrick was sympathetic and understanding of the women’s frustration of living in a society where only men could do the asking. He decreed that women be permitted to do the proposing one year out of four. This new “open season on bachelors” soon began to take place during Leap Year, another quadrennial event, and so it has been since.

Bridget’s success in getting St. Patrick to agree to the new custom prompted her to ask him the big question herself. He gently refused, and to soothe her hurt feelings, gave her a kiss and a silk gown. Henceforth, men would be obliged to make some sort of payment for refusing a woman’s offer.

This was unwritten law in the British Isles for many centuries. In 1228, a Leap Year, the Scottish parliament passed legislation imposing a heavy fine on any man if he did not accept a marriage proposal from a woman.

The term Leap Year originated in the England of old, when February 29 did not officially exist. It was completely ignored in all financial and legal matters, and anything falling on that day had to be dated Feb. 28. As a result mankind literally “leaped” over February 29 as if it didn’t exist.

As with most customs, things changed significantly by the advent of the 20th century. April Fool’s Day and Leap Year were no longer taken seriously, but treated as jokes and occasions for buffoonery.

Because there were only three Leap Years during the heyday of souvenir postcard publishing (1902 to about 1914), it is difficult today for collectors to find as many of them as they do for other holidays.

Yet a large number did survive. In all, nearly 30 different publishers, all but a handful of them American, produced more than 40 different sets. Upward of 250 different cards are known. Since production runs tended to be in the tens to hundreds of thousands, several million Leap Year postcards were eventually printed for the marketplace. Our grandparents and great grandparents found them in sore racks everywhere for a penny each.

The 1904 output was small, but four years later, huge quantities were published and marketed nationwide. This bustling activity slowed to a trickle in 1912, and only a small number of cards were printed. Most publishing housed kept stocks of unsold cards on hand until the next Leap Year and many varieties continued to be sold well into the 1920s. Postmarks for 1916 and 1920 are often seen on older postcards.

The foremost publishers of Leap Year postcards were two American firms: E. Nash Co., and Paul C. Koeber (“PCK” trademark); and one British – Raphael Tuck & Sons. Right behind them, though, in both quality and size of printing runs, was most of the competition. Unlike many other topical cards produced by the postcard publishing industry in the years before WWI, no single printer was overwhelmingly dominant.

Most, but not all, Leap Year postcards were designed and printed in six-to-12-card sets, though usually sold as singles. American artists August Hutaf and Clare Victor Dwiggins, along with notable British illustrators Lance Thackeray and Fred Spurgin, are the most well known names to have done artwork for these cards.

E. Nash Co., a New York City-based publisher did a Leap Year series of 12 cards for the 1908 celebration. This is the most commonly seen set. Its striking characteristic is a yellow lemon that had “Leap Year” printed around a silhouette of a woman chasing a man.

Nicely colored, the cards have illustrated comic scenes showing women trapping men with enticements such as beer and sandwiches, money or coy hints, or brazenly hunting the men folk down using such devices as traps and butterfly nets to snare their quarry.

Also in the same year, Nash published Series No. 1, “After Leap Year.” This is an amusing portrait of the joy and relief felt my men when it was safe to come out of hiding.

In 1912, Nash manufactured two more sets. One depicted women stalking their prey; the other, different comic scenes.

August Hutaf created two Leap Year sets, both in 1908. One, printed by PCK, pictures debutantes and their beaus in various funny situations. Illustrated Postcard Co published the other. The wording and frame is in simulated gold, and each card depicts a woman holding a sign or other object with a silent proposal.

Raphael Tuck & Sons, probably the world’s largest postcard publisher at the turn of the century, and with branch offices for Leap Year. All were imported into this country through their New York City office.

Today, all Leap Year postcards are highly collectible and in tremendous demand. Sadly, the holiday comes our way only once every four years,* but old souvenir postcards of the holiday are sought after and enjoyed year-round, every year. So, go get them, girls.

Did you know …

• During the Middle Ages, if a woman intended to propose to a man, she had to give him some warning. She was required by law to let a red petticoat show beneath her dress.

• According to superstition, Leap Year is an excellent time for beginning an important business venture. Another superstition says it is extremely bad luck to be married during Leap Year.

• Odds of being born on Leap Day (Feb. 29) are 1 in 1,500. In Scotland it is thought unlucky to be born on a Leap Year’s Day.

• Those born on Leap Day are known as Leaplings. Famous Leaplings include Jimmy Dorsey and Dinah Shore.