Vintage French postcards are all over Etsy and Pinterest. Some are portraits of pretty young ladies. Many others advertise tourist destinations or famous French aperitifs. Sets that illustrate fairy tales seem to be more unusual and Cotsen is fortunate to have some examples from the so-called Golden Age of Postcards between 1890 and 1915.One of the most sumptuous sets in the collection (Cotsen 60506) retells Perrault’s fairy tale of “Sleeping Beauty” (“La Belle au Bois Dormant”) in six scenes. They may look like postcards, with unsigned color illustrations centered on borders of attractively torn paper set on a gold background, but they were not designed to be sent through the mail. Flip any of the cards over and the back is a beautifully composed advertisement dated 1900 promoting Aristide and Marguerite Boucicault’s Le Bon Marché, the first department store in France, as one of the foremost attractions in Paris..“Little Thumb” (“Le Petit Poucet”), also from Perrault’s Histoires du tems passé is illustrated in 10 scenes reproduced from half-tone photographs of carefully posed models (Cotsen 60505). The color was added by hand or with stencils. The man playing the ogre mugs at the camera while wielding a huge knife and grabbing one of the hero’s little brothers by a foot. Never mind if the thief Petit Poucet swimming in the ogre’s seven-league boots looks as he won’t be able to run like the wind to rescue his siblings. B. Chenas sent a one-line message on each card sometime in 1908 to Mlle Gabrielle Perez, a guest at the Patte d’oie (“The Foot of the Goose”) in Herblay, Seine-et-Oise, a northwestern suburb of Paris about twelve miles from city center.The postcard collection has three versions of “Little Red Riding Hood” (“Le Petit Chaperon Rouge”). The set with sepia photographic illustrations is signed in the lower right hand corner “J.K” and numbered in the lower left-hand corner “660” (presumably the publisher’s number for a title within a series). Cotsen 60503 consists of five scenes featuring an adorable little girl with bobbed hair wearing a print apron over a ruffled skirt and sabots. The skeletal wolf standing next to her in the second card looks as fake as the wolf’s head in grandmother’s mob cap in the fifth one. Everything after that may be missing. There’s no publisher or address lines on the back, so perhaps these charming cards were made for another purpose.The second “Red Riding Hood” (Cotsen 60502) in twelve acts is based on “The Big Bad Wolf,” the 1934 sequel to the wildly successful 1933 Disney Silly Symphony “The Three Pigs.” The story is a mash-up of Perrault and the English folktale. The piggies dance with Red down a path through the woods until they are ambushed by the wolf in an outrageous fairy costume. The girl doesn’t lose her nerve and runs away, while the cowardly pigs shiver on the ground. They do pull themselves together fast enough to get to the grandmother’s cottage in time to save their friend from the vile hairy beast.“Le Chaperon Rose” is a slightly saucy version of the fairy tale in five beautifully produced hand-colored photographs acted out for the camera by two exquisitely turned out children around eleven or twelve (Cotsen 60501). The wolf, played by a boy in a short suit accessorized with a cane, watch, and bowler hat, greets Chaperon Rose, dainty in a pink gown bedizened with tucks and ruffles. She presents him with a rose from her basket and pins it to his lapel, a gesture which obviously pleases him. She invites him to kiss her on the check, accepting his token of esteem with a coy, knowing look. “N. Guillot” sent sweet kisses to Mlle. Yvonne Guillot in Lille—perhaps a father travelling on business or a grandparent staying in touch between visits in 1907.
Stories don’t get much sillier than Henny Penny. The plot is set in motion when a chicken gets beaned on the head by an acorn. The nitwit jumps to the conclusion that the world is ending and the king must be told. On her way, she meets a series of birds, each of whom asks permission to accompany her on the mission. That question—and its response–is always posed to the group, not its leader Henny Penny, which requires the repetition of all the characters’ silly rhyming names in the order in which they joined. Galloping through the list in the correct order without mistakes takes concentration and a straight face. The number of feathered delegates to the king would have increased until the castle gate was in sight, had not a fox helpfully offered to show them the short cut via his den.
The pictures of the birds in Paul Galdone’s classic picture book version plays it straight, putting all the pressure on the reader to keep things moving along to the inevitable conclusion. To Leonard B. Lubin, an artist who liked to imagine animals in elaborate historical costumes, the cast of barnyard fowl posed an irresistible challenge. Where Beatrix Potter hesitated to dress up birds in her illustrations, he plunged in and designed exquisite eighteenth-century robes with appropriate headgear for a chicken, rooster, duck, goose, and turkey. The only concession made to reality was to give them human feet that would look daintier than webbed ploppers in high-heeled slippers and pointed buckled shoes.When our flock of beribboned, furbelowed, and flounced birdbrains come barreling down the road, who should they meet but the fox, gentlemanly and helpful as can be, dressed for a day’s shooting in the countryside. How they were picked off and plucked for the platter is left entirely to the reader’s imagination, but not a whisper of hope is offered that any escaped the fate of being eaten in one greasy sitting.
Jane Wattenberg’s retelling lovingly blows up the old story with wild photocompositions full of sly verbal jokes and a text stuffed with jaunty puns, vivid verbs, cool apostrophes, and emotive type setting. It’s unapologetically and deliciously over the top from the copy on the front flap “Come flock along with Henny Penny and her feathered friends flap around the world in search of… King Kong? King Tut? Or is it Elvis… But when they meet up with that mean ball of fur Foxy-Loxy, their plans suddenly go a-fowl” to the back cover illustration of Henny Penny captioned “Was it REALLY all my fault?”
Wattenberg’s poultry wear nothing but their feathers and combs, but they talk like no other birds in picture books—“Shake, rattle, and roll! The sky is falling! It’s coming on down! Henny-Penny saw it and heard it and it smacked her on her fine red comb. We’re full tilt to tell the king.”
Leaping gizzards! What a skanky prank! For with a Gobble-Gobble-Gobble! That sly Foxy-Loxy wolfed down poor Turkey-Lurkey. With a Squonk-Hiss-s-s-s-Honk! That fleazy Foxy-Loxy gobbled up Goosey-Loosey and Gander-Lander. With a Quack@ Don’t Look Back! That cunning cad Foxy-Loxy wolfed down Ducky-Lucky and Drake-Cake. With a Cock-a-Doodle-Doo! What I Do to You? That greedy grunge of a Foxy-Loxy gobbled up poor Cocky-Locky.
The darkness is softened by the way the fox’s treachery is underscored with each gulp and allowing Henny Penny, the unwitting perpetrator of the carnage, to escape. The last one waiting outside the killing room, she figures out what is going on and runs away as fast as her little three-toed feet can carry her, squawking that she’s got to get home and lay the daily egg.There’s nothing like justice in the tale of Henny Penny and her unfortunate friends, but it isn’t the way of the world to look out for the gullible, whether the sky is falling or not… Perhaps that’s why the story continues to be retold and we cry with laughter with every one.