Women were threatening in 1908. They’d been in the forefront of the abolition movement before the Civil War, and they had saloons in their sights in the new century. Not only that, a dedicated few were agitating for the vote, a cause with growing support.
1908 was also the height of the postcard craze. A ride to the end of a trolley line was cause enough to send a card, and across the nation people were filling album after album with gorgeous, clever, witty and interesting postcards. It was no wonder that many publishers took a chance on a line of cards for Leap Year even though there would be no market for leftovers the following year.
Fashionable girls went high-tech when they used an auto to capture a bachelor on this 1912 card published by E. Nash.
At first glance, the connection between women’s suffrage and Leap Year postcards may seen tenuous, but women’s demand for the vote was getting serious by 1908. In 1890 Wyoming had become the first state admitted to the union with women’s suffrage, followed by Colorado in 1893 and Utah in 1895. In Britain suffragettes began their campaign in earnest, storming the House of Commons that year.
What was the response of the average male? Ridicule! Some equated it with china painting and needlework, a female activity that would pass away when the ladies got bored. Others were threatened. If women got the vote, the fabric of (male) society would be shredded.
Leap Year postcards came on the scene in 1904, but the output that year was small compared to the hundreds of different designs issued in 1908 and 1912.
Some of the cleverest Leap Year cards were done by newspaper cartoonist Clare Victor Dwiggins. His signature, DWIG, is easily seen on this card published by Saml. Gabriel & Sons, N.Y.
The main theme of Leap Year goes back to the folk tradition that women could propose marriage in that year. Some look back to St. Patrick in the 5th century as the beginning of this role reversal. A 13th-century legend says that if a man refused a Leap Year proposal, he had to give compensation in the form of a gift to the spurned woman. A whole year of this could be wildly expensive, so it was limited to one day only, Feb. 29.
Whatever the origin, the postcard artists of the early 1900s ran with it. The Leap Year theme became woman’s hapless quest for a marriageable man. Women were pictured trying to catch a man with a butterfly net, a pistol, a hatchet (also handy for smashing saloons), a shotgun or an elaborate trap baited with money bags or liquor.
Nor are the man-crazed Leap Year ladies particularly fussy about the object of their chase. They’re shown to be delighted with a hugely obese victim, a scruffy bum, a drunk under the bed, a foolish looking lout or a burglar breaking into a bedroom.
Often the women matched the stereotype of the desperate spinster with no charms to attract a man, but even when the female huntress was attractive, she baited her trap with goodies like sacks of money.
The battle of the sexes raged on postcards through 1912, then faded away as the fad for collecting and sending cards dwindled. In their heyday, however, they were a socially acceptable way of ridiculing women who wanted to assume a role traditionally reserved for men.
Leap Year postcards are fun to collect. They’re plentiful enough to assemble a collection of hundreds and not nearly as expensive as high-end cards like Halloween greetings. The next time you see an old postcard with a predatory woman jumping on a man from behind, ask yourself what the original purchaser was thinking. Was it really so ridiculous for a woman to take the initiative in proposing marriage?