The Law in Postcards
Michael H. Hoeflich, John H. & John M. Kane Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of Kansas School of Law, has given us two gifts of antiquarian and modern Roman law books in the past. This year, he continued his generosity with our institution by donating a collection of legal postcards, trade cards, and other ephemera. All involve depictions of the law in one form or another—serious, humorous, nostalgic, whimsical, and sometimes puzzling!
The cards were the basis of his book, The Law in Postcards and Legal Ephemera 1890-1962 (The Lawbook Exchange, 2012). In the book, Professor Hoeflich pulls out certain themes and trends that manifest themselves in the collection—cards involving animals and kids, holidays, love, money, advertising, etc. Many of those categories are reflected in our exhibit. Regardless of the subject matter and tone, Professor Hoeflich notes that the cards provide “a rich source for understanding the role of lawyers, the courts, and the law in popular culture” (ix).
All of us at the Boston College Law School and Law Library are profoundly grateful to Professor Hoeflich for his generous donation. The exhibit was curated by Laurel Davis, Curator of Rare Books/Legal Information Librarian & Lecturer in Law. Please come in to see the exhibit whenever the room is open—generally on weekdays from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. It will remain on view into early 2015.
Please take a look at our exhibit catalog.
[Trade card for Marin-Perrot department store]. Orléans, France. Illustrator and date unknown.
Many of our postcards and trade cards from the early 1900s and beyond employ the use of animals to capture the audience’s attention. This trade card is an advertisement for a French department store. The content (and this is common) has nothing to do with the product; it catches one’s attention with its vivid colors and humorous content. The judge asks the wolf defendant or witness if he has means of supporting himself, and the wolf responds by pointing to his teeth.
[Little girl researches the Code Civil]. Illustrator: I. Gougeon; R. Hamel, Paris.
Cute kids, like cute animals, were often used in these postcards and trade cards to draw in an audience. Through real photos and illustrations, children are featured in both solemn and silly settings as practicing lawyers.
One favorite: this postcard that depicts a little girl lawyer apologizing to her young love for it taking her three days to get him out of prison; she’s offering a kiss in compensation for the wait. She’s clearly been doing some research in her Code Civil!
“I am holding my own counsel.” Inter-Art Co, Southampton House, London; "Pastel" Series, No. 161. England.
The theme of romantic love—or at least attraction—pops up frequently in the postcards. Many feature wordplay involving legal terms. Several, such as the one reproduced here, suggest a relationship between lawyer and client. Watch out for those ethical rules! Due to concerns involving the exploitation of a client by a lawyer in a fiduciary role, such relationships are now barred in many jurisdictions under rules modeled after ABA Model Rule of Professional Conduct 1.8(j).
“In the Divorce Court”. Illustrator: F. Macleod; trademark HGL; U.K. Circa 1920.
The flip side of love? In the law, divorce. Many cards in the collection address issues around the demise of a marriage. One interesting theme is the idea of securing evidence in order to obtain a divorce. Until recently, most jurisdictions required some sort of fault—such as adultery—by one of the parties. This led to all sorts of shenanigans, including the hiring of private investigators to capture evidence of infidelity. Fault-based divorce is still the norm in the United Kingdom. Interestingly, a 2007 Guardian article claimed that private investigators are still used in about 50% of divorce cases in Britain.
[French series with child lawyer and client]. R.P.I; A.N. Paris. Message dated 1902.
Law students and attorneys constantly dodge jokes involving greedy lawyers just out to make money. There certainly are examples of this type of lawyer. However, it can be exhausting to defend the many attorneys who diligently work to serve their client’s interests, do pro bono work, teach, mentor, and/or work in government or non-profit organizations!
The jokes clearly are not a new phenomenon—the card below (4th in a series) dates from circa 1902. Again, we see the use of kids to help play out the scene. The child attorney scoffs at her client’s inability to pay a hefty sum for the handling of her case. The expressions? Priceless.
“Call to the Bar.” Illustrator: P. Riche. Copyright 1910.
These postcard and trade cards designers loved a pun. One of the recurring ones involves a play on “bar” as a term specific to the legal profession and as a place to grab a drink and socialize.
As with so many of the tropes that appear in the exhibit, this one continues to be used today. For example, law students take bar review courses to prepare for the bar exam, but they also host social events called bar reviews and put on shows called bar revues!
“Leap Year. The Right Side of the Law.” Illustrator: Ellay [?]; the Philco Publishing Co., Holborn Place, London WC; Series 4030. Postmark 1908.
Cards for Valentine’s Day, Halloween, Christmas, and even Leap Year appear in the collection with legal themes. The Leap Year card seems to reference an old-fashioned bit of folklore that deemed it appropriate for women to propose to men on February 29. The legend, stated differently depending on the source, still gets press! See (or perhaps don’t…) the 2010 movie Leap Year starring Amy Adams.
“La Femme Avocat” [15 card French series]. Cliche A. Morinet -- Imp. - Phot. J. Royer, Nancy. Postmark 1901.
Many cards in the collection feature female attorneys in a variety of contexts—some serious, some silly and outdated, and some rather mysterious. In that latter category lies a series of fifteen French postcards. It appeared in 1900, the same year that women were finally admitted to the bar in France. Onlookers have disagreed on the message. The woman stands before the court and discusses the shortcomings of men in the profession and in government. She argues that women can positively contribute to the better functioning of the justice system and government. Interestingly, in the middle of her speech, her baby starts crying and she asks the court for a recess to stop and nurse him.
Is it a sincere feminist manifesto? Is it a satirical attack on the entry of women into the legal profession? Is it just about attacking men? For one perspective, translations, and more, take a look at this blog post on the blog “Wonderings”!
“Trying His First Law Suit.” Postmark 1908.
Suits, fines, trials, briefs, bars—the list of opportunities for humorous puns goes on and on. Legal terminology provides a rich source of material for a playful wordsmith, and the creators of these cards definitely mined it.
The card reproduced here is a favorite, not so much for the joke itself but for the “This is you” note at the top. Assuming that the Mississippi sender (circa 1908) wasn’t comparing the card’s recipient to the officer, one has to wonder about the comparison to the prisoner. It is hard to imagine him appreciating the humor behind the postcard!