This summer I bought a (sweaty) handful of old postcards. They sat in their neat paper bag until tonight, when I began to sort them and officially place them in their protective plastic sleeved pages and put them in my ‘binder of smut’.
Yes, they are vintage risqué postcards.
Well, that’s not entirely true.
Along with the sweet romantic vintage photo postcards, the cheeky linen postcards, and even a nude French postcard or two, there were six cards which puzzled me.
Nearly the same size as postcards (off by just a hair — or, to be more precise, 1/8 of an inch shorter in both height and width than the traditional 5 x 3.5 inches of a standard postcard), both I and the seller had assumed they were postcards. But these cards were not only blank on the back (neither divided backs nor the required “post card” printed on them), but they were clearly thicker than postcards — twice as thick. Clearly cardboard rather than the flimsy-yet-firm ‘card stock’.
I began my obsession search.
All six of the postcards had the same, scant, information on them, “Copr. 1941 Ex. Sup. Co. Chgo. Made in U.S.A.” Quickly I discovered these cards were made by the Exhibit Supply Company, or ESCO, as some cards with a diamond-shaped logo would ‘say’.
Exhibit cards, as they are known by most collectors of them, were neither advertising nor product premiums; they were the product, dispensed by vending machines.
Store, hotel, movie theater &/or arcade owners purchased an ESCO vending machine and ESCO sold them refill products for the machines. The real money was made on the refill orders, not on the machine sales. For a penny, or perhaps as much as a nickel (and later a dime), folks would pay for the cards or strips (uncut cards, dispensed in a continuous strip).
Did I say ‘folks’? I meant men. Back in the 20′s when ESCO started, it was mostly men who frequented arcades, movie theaters, etc., and so it was to men that most of the penny arcade cards were designed to appeal. There were many card series with sports, pinups, cars, movie stars, and humorous themes to appeal to a male audience; some cards were created in conjunction with Mutoscope.
Eventually, cards would be made to appeal to women — and other vending and arcade machines too.
And this, the machines, is where it becomes the most engaging — and expensive: the arcade machines themselves, like a 1957 Nudist Colony arcade machine by ESCO.
Folks put in 5 cents, expecting to see a colony of nudes… Sure, there was a colony — an ant colony. I guess they were ‘nude’ too, as ants don’t typically wear clothing, do they? But boy, I’d have been steamed over the waste of my nickel!
There were others too.
One of my favorites is this Exhibit Supply Peep Show Barrels arcade amusement.
Put out in 1956 and winner of the ‘coveted’ Henry A. Guenther Trophy (presumably the Henry Guenther of the old Olympic Park in New Jersey), the Peep Show Barrels presented a man and woman, each nude save for the barrel they each wore. Each barrel boasted of a promise.
The man’s barrel promised to show women “what every woman should know before and after marriage”; The lady’s promised to show men a “hammock built for two”. Of course they could only see if they dropped some coin…
Then women would discover that every women needed… a cookbook. And men would find the hammock for two was a bra. Good old cheesy gags, huh? I love it!
As I said, the money was in the Exhibit cards, not the ESCO machines. Perhaps this is why, in the 1960s, ESCO began selling packs of celluloid-wrapped cards directly to the public. Whatever their motivation or intent, business failed and by 1971, ESCO was closed.
Some say the end of ESCO was the direct-to-the-public sales of the cards; but it’s pretty clear that the late 60′s was difficult for most amusements and arcades, and by the 70′s most locations & vendors were gone. It was the end of an era.
While I’ve yet to find cards like mine, I’m utterly smitten with them and now am looking for more — of this series and other Exhibit cards too.
A risqué arcade machine or seven would be grand too. …Even the Nudist Colony ant farm one.
You could say I’m now a risqué Exhibit-ionist.