It Must Have Been Something I Ate: Gastronomic Adventures with the Schmulowitz Collection of Wit & Humor

Courtesy Schmulowitz Collection of Wit & Humor, SFPL

Foodie alert! This year's wit & humor exhibition features a banquet of book covers, cartoons, and ephemera drawn from the collection (and the San Francisco History Center). Gourmet merry-making is on display with saucy cook books, comic recipes, food cartoons, memoirs, and hilariously peculiar book covers. For this exhibition we believe you can judge a book by its cover. Humorists on view include Ludwig Bemelmans, Virgil Partch (VIP), Ronald Searle, the New Yorker cartoonists, and a smorgasbord of long forgotten and unknown writers and illustrators.

Courtesy Schmulwitz Collection of Wit & Humor, SFPL

We are pleased to introduce a new collection recently acquired by the Library: hundreds of beautifully preserved “Poisson d’Avril” postcards are on view in several cases around the gallery. A treasure trove of 777 picture postcards celebrating April Fool’s Day in France -- hand-colored photographic postcards from the early 20th century featuring women, men, couples, and children dressed fashionably or in period costume, holding a fish or two, or more--was acquired by the Library in 2017. The mock fish is often handsomely wrapped in gift ribbons, with the studio or photographer identified on the front of the card, accompanied by a series number, probably for inventory and collecting purposes. Postage was almost always placed topsy-turvy on the front of the postcard, with a message or just the name and address of the recipient on the reverse. The postcards were then sent in time for April Fool’s Day.

Speculation about the origins of “Poisson d’Avril” suggests that fishy pranks and foolishness began with the 16th century change from the old Julian calendar, with the year beginning April 1 (a time of fasting, and eating fish on Friday prior to Easter) to the new Gregorian calendar, with the year beginning January 1. Those persons reluctant to change, or ignorant of the calendar change, were mocked by those embracing progress, and called “Poisson d’Avril” or "April Fish;" and so a comic tradition was born. “Poisson d’Avril” postcards burst onto the scene during the golden age of postcards in the first decade of the 20th century; our postcards were printed circa 1905-1920. The craze for collecting picture postcards had caught on in such a big way that it is reported over six hundred million postcards were dispatched in 1903 alone. We can well imagine our collector’s zeal in searching out this very specialized theme. The postcards are alternately romantic, sentimental, saucy, silly, and sometimes, bizarre: in short, “Poisson d’Avril” postcards are a fascinating representation of an old French custom, and an example of one collector’s mania. These display cases show the passionate interest of our "Poisson d'Avril" collector--each case is devoted to a group: women, men, couples, children, and comic and handmade postcards. 

Courtesy Schmulowitz Collection of Wit & Humor, SFPL“Without humor we are doomed,” noted Nat Schmulowitz, local attorney and former library trustee, who donated his collection of ninety-three jest books to the San Francisco Public Library on April 1, 1947. The collection has grown to over 23,000 volumes, and includes periodicals, audio-visual materials, and ephemera, as well as Mr. Schmulowitz’s personal archive of materials from the twentieth century, including items of a gastronomic nature. The Schmulowitz Collection of Wit & Humor (SCOWAH) is considered the most significant collection of its kind in a public library. Every year, the Book Arts & Special Collections Center presents an exhibition based on materials drawn from SCOWAH -- a tribute to Mr. Schmulowitz’s generosity and lifelong interest in the Library.

Courtesy Schmulowitz Collection of Wit & Humor, SFPL


  1. Replies
    1. Thank you, Gisella! If you're in San Francisco, come visit the exhibition in the Skylight Gallery, Sixth Floor, Main Library. On view through May 31.


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