1920s Joke Auction Poster - What's the Story?
May 6, 2017 8:15 PM   Subscribe

I picked up this poster at an antique shop. It appears to be a joke about a fake auction sold at a curio shop called Bloch Mercantile in San Francisco around the 1920s. Is there anything else you can tell me about the shop, or about what this poster means?

Amazingly, there's very little Google-able information about this thing, but here's what I've found so far:

* The poster references Bloch Mercantile Co, which was a curio shop on Market Street in San Francisco in the 20s. There's a picture of the store here. This article about something else from Bloch shed some more light on what the store was and who frequented it.

* I can't find the exact wording of this poster anywhere, but there are a few similar examples in newspaper archives and elsewhere online, most notably this one. These are what lead me to think this is a joke (in addition to the obviously joke-y names), but I can't tell where it originated or even what's supposed to be funny about the whole thing.

I still have a lot of questions I'm hoping someone can answer. What is the joke here? Where did this come from? What was Bloch Mercantile Company, and what else did it sell? Any light you can shed on this thing's context would be super cool.
posted by Apropos of Something to Society & Culture (17 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: This is exciting. So, it's a fake/satirical auction sale notice. Auction notices were extremely common in print products up through, really, the 60s and maybe longer in rural areas. They were commonly submitted to and printed in newspapers, as you found - and I also found random phrases in other newspapers like this, so for certain it was a squib circulated in journalism circles and reprinted all over because, presumably, people could understand the humor and find it funny. Here's another version, from 1916, that seems to be presented as college humor. Since it is printed by E. Bloch Mercantile, which seems to be an importer/exporter, maybe it was meant as a humorous ad for their services?

The earliest one I found was from 1913, so it dates back a ways, but I also found one from 1940, meaning it's a chestnut. It seems to make fun of farms going bust, resulting in an auction, and the periodic cyclical farm and financial crises that were dirt-common until we had a social safety net. The language seems like the idea is to sucker in city people looking to make a score but not knowing a lot about rural life, who'd accept these descriptions without realizing they're silly. For instance, something like "seven dapple grey chickens" would make a livestock raiser laugh, since you'd never describe chickens as "dapple grey" - that's a horse description.

I also think I see traces of sort of a society dealing with technological change - like, the specs are mixed-up, some appropriate to basic farm equipment, some to newer gasoline-powered machinery, and some to fashion and food. So it sort of speaks to a moment in which consumer choices and advertising are proliferating and the language pertinent to each sale area is starting to jumble in the imagination. Maybe it also pokes fun at people ignorant about rural things.

The names "I. Holdem" and "U. Socem" are puns about taking advantage of consumers, on the order of the Tappet Brothers' "Dewey, Cheatham and Howe" law firm.

Beyond that, I can't contextualize that much. You've found something interesting and it appears to have had a widespread existence as a popular and common humor meme. If I were to pursue it would contact historians of journalism and advertising.
posted by Miko at 8:53 PM on May 6, 2017 [16 favorites]

Those are nonsense items and names. This auction wouldn't have ever happened. If you have some familiarity with farming or older tools, you'll catch some of the jokes. (Some are pretty funny!)
-Bulls are boys, cows are girls. 7 milk cows 2 of which are bulls is nonsense.
-poland China is a pig breed, not a cow breed
-fell pony (not cow!) Is a breed of pony, "that never fell" is a play on words


The names I. Ketchum (I catch them) We Holdem (we hold them) and U Sockem (you sock them) are probably a joke about catching con artists.
posted by windykites at 8:58 PM on May 6, 2017

Yeah, when I think about it, what's going on between 1900 and 1940 is that the US is shifting from a majority-rural to a majority-urban population. IN 1870, 1 out of 4 Americans lived in a rural household. By 1900, 2 out of 4 did - a 100% increase. In the decade 1940-1950, that went up to 2/3.

So I think one of the underlying sources of humor is that people were becoming less and less literate with the language and rituals of country life. It's an auction notice full of B.S. and puns and nonsense and counterfactual things, but thrown out there in the confident tone of someone with mastery of content. I think they're sort of playing on the city slicker vs. rootsy country guy dichotomy, here. It captures a moment where knowledge of rural things is starting to matter less, and there are more and more citified people that would, in the joke, be unable to recognize how silly and BS this all is.

I'm still kind of stuck on the "plan to commit suicide" angle. These notices commonly appeared after a farm owner's death. There's something interesting about the notion of planning ahead for it. And maybe it fits into the pretty classic folklore trope of having a country person get one over on a supposedly smarter city slicker - like, I'm going to sell all this before I'm dead instead of after, and convince you it's worth a lot using my fancy language, and cash in and laugh all the way to the bank.
posted by Miko at 9:09 PM on May 6, 2017 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Here's as many more as I can figure:
Calves dont have pups, and the weather wouldn't influence what day they did,
Leghorns are a chicken breed, not a pig breed, and pigs don't have long golden hair growing down their backs,
A wood saw doesn't need instructions,
I don't know if triple extension bicycles existed but I'm sure they didn't have patent (leather) jeweled levers,

(Not sure about the plow)

I doubt a dung fork could have a useful fly net, but I'm sure they wished to could,
I don't think you can trot, pace, or gallop a wheelbarrow,
Horses are dapple grey, not chickens,
Olive chilled plow with velveteen flounces- why would you chill a plow or put flounces- on it? Flounces go on dresses.

(Dunno about a jassac)

Double breasted is a type of jacket, not cupboard.
All baking ovens would have likely been "stationary" except Dutch ovens
Bob sleds aren't mechanical, they don't need automatic cutoffs of anything
Cross eyed fountain pen for a left handed person... Come on...

Canine constructed on the Hibernian plan (in the Hibernian style) I guess means an Irish setter?

No such thing as a "Willie" goat and goats dont have red whiskers "a-la-mode" (in the modern style, or, with ice cream?) and certainly can't be made to work in teams,

And if you were going to commit suicide you sure wouldn't put it on an auction flyer.

Not sure what the sale time means.
posted by windykites at 9:14 PM on May 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

Anyways, I think it's just a silly thing someone did for laughs. I don't think there's a big deep meaning to it. People have always liked to troll. It's funny because it's absurd.
posted by windykites at 9:20 PM on May 6, 2017 [2 favorites]

Not sure what the sale time means.

There's a humor in just saying "next week" or "Eleven AM PDQ" because, like, when? It's an auction, so you have to be there at the precise day and time in order to buy anything at all. So I think that's part of the joke. But I don't quite get "froze to death" and the rest.

It really is in soooo many newspapers - this thing was widely printed. I found a bunch more searching on "bulltoad road." Each phrase I search yields a different newspaper version.
posted by Miko at 9:26 PM on May 6, 2017

Response by poster: Okay, cool. I'm glad I'm not the only one who finds this interesting.

But I don't quite get "froze to death" and the rest.

Is there something in "froze to death" being part of Oh, Susanna, given that that's also kind of nonsense-y?
posted by Apropos of Something at 9:31 PM on May 6, 2017

Poland China is also a pig, not a cow.
posted by Miko at 9:33 PM on May 6, 2017

But I don't quite get "froze to death" and the rest.

A sideways reference to the Year Without a Summer.
posted by Knappster at 9:34 PM on May 6, 2017

I doubt it; that was two generations earlier.
posted by Miko at 9:37 PM on May 6, 2017

Some Google-investigating of the full phrase "1900 and froze to death" suggests that it's a not-very-common bit of vernacular, a way of humorously saying "a long time ago but I'm being intentionally vague about the exact date." Possibly originating as a reference to the winter of 1918, which was supposedly especially harsh.
posted by soundguy99 at 10:00 PM on May 6, 2017 [1 favorite]

Ah, looks like that's referring to 1816, the year without a summer, "(also the Poverty Year, the Summer that Never Was, Year There Was No Summer, and Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death)".
posted by moonmilk at 5:51 AM on May 7, 2017

And I see knappster got there first!
posted by moonmilk at 5:52 AM on May 7, 2017

Best answer: soundguy99, good sleuthing. After poking around Google Books and some idiom sites, it's clear that "1900 and froze to death" can be the equivalent of "Since God was a boy" - eg, a way of colorfully saying "a really long time ago." Or also an indeterminate time: I found a citation from a 1913 convention of factory inspectors who were saying they needed some sort of resolution or legislation and "we can't wait until 1900 and froze to death before we get it."

A pretty witty saying when you think about it. I think I'll start using it!
posted by Miko at 6:53 AM on May 7, 2017 [2 favorites]

And (further poking), even though a lot of time had gone by, moonmilk and knappster are right about the connection to the year 1816. Through the later 19th century people started referring to that year as "1800 and froze to death," and it looks like people who grew up hearing it transitioned easily to updating it for "1900 and froze to death."
posted by Miko at 6:58 AM on May 7, 2017 [2 favorites]

Cross eyed fountain pen is likely a joke about Cross pens.
posted by zamboni at 7:47 AM on May 7, 2017

It might be a pun on Cross pens, too, which is funny, but I think another thing at play is that "handedness" and left-handedness being not only OK but having products designed for it was a relatively new concept at the end of the 19th century, and it was really progressive educators like John Dewey and people like that who promoted it. So, you now had a bunch of common household and school items like scissors and tools that newly came in left- and right-handed versions.
posted by Miko at 8:09 AM on May 7, 2017

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