The Art & Humor of
A. Stanley Johnson of Waupun, Wisconsin

presented by The History Center on Main Street,
Mansfield, PA
How We Do Things, Second Ed.
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Biography of A. Stanley Johnson, Jr.

Alfred Stanley Johnson, Jr. was born in Waupun, Wisconsin in 1863. He followed his father and namesake into the photography business by 1884. He was called by his middle name of Stanley to differentiate him from his father who was called Alfred.

 When the popularity of postcards began about 1905, Stanley did as many other photographers of that time had done. He made postcards of the streets and buildings of his native Waupun, primarily the local prison.  These cards have given us a permanent and valuable record of our many little towns and cities at that time. We have this record only because of the popularity and marketability of postcards. It was a profitable venture, and many already established photographers added it to their product line.

In 1908 Stanley took up the practice of producing novelty freak postcards and selling them all over the country overprinted with a label for the town in which they were to be sold. W. H. Martin and others were doing the same at least a year earlier. It was not at all unusual for one photographer to copy or enhance the ideas introduced by another card producer. Johnson’s photo might have been taken someplace in Wisconsin, but as long as there were no identifiable landmarks, buildings or signs visible, it could be sold anywhere with any town’s name. His most common caption started with “How We Do Things in …” By 1915, near the end of his practice of this method, he was producing the action-packed “Scene on the Road Near …” series, examples of which are among his most humorous and which are unique among photographers of this period.

We are reminded by these cards of small places that existed a hundred years ago and which still exist in the same geographic location but which have lost their identity because of the interminable layers of post office consolidations that send the little towns and their names into oblivion by removing their post office.

Before the era of digital photography and graphics editing software, the manipulation process involved the real version of cut and paste, that is with scissors and glue.  Johnson may also have created some illusions by painting on the glass negative. Johnson would take a background photo with objects and people positioned to later receive whatever big vegetable, fish or other monstrosity his plan envisioned. Sometimes he used props to fill in for the later “adjustment.” Once printed, no doubt in enlarged format, he would carefully cut out the “freak” element and paste it into the picture taking great care with overlapping wagon parts, hands, etc. It was a painstaking process and probably resulted in a few failures along the way that had to be restarted.

When it came to selling the cards, he would market a whole set of his designs and imprint them all with the name of the appropriate town. That is why when old postcard albums are released to the present-day collector market, there are often several different Johnson postcards for a single town. In one promo, he advertised that there were 52 different cards at that time. The ad was not dated, and there were many more than 52 by the time he finished. Johnson also sold batches unlabeled resulting in some non-standard captions imprinted by others or no overprint at all.

Because he sold cards over a period of years, we will often find one with a copyright date much earlier than the postmark date. That does not mean it sat unsold on a shelf for a long time, only that it was printed and sold in batches over a period of time.

Humor aside, and even the exaggeration element aside, these cards give us a window to the rural and small town lifestyle of our country a century ago. We see all the variety of mechanized and horse-drawn vehicles and the agricultural process from producing to marketing and shipping. We see people doing their work. We see the clothes they wore and the tools they used. We see their livestock in the roles they played. We also see the difficulties and the humor that results when anything gets too big for the containers that were built to hold a much smaller item. Johnson’s scenes are outstanding in the action and character participation they demonstrate. The best of them tell a story.

ASJ Fletcher Studio
A. Stanley Johnson  The Fletcher Studio, formerly the Johnson Studio, in the 1950s.
Photo from The Waupun Historical Society.

His Signed Name

Mr. Johnson had more trouble than most of us in deciding how to sign his name.

In his first humor cards, the Homecoming series of 1908, he neither signed nor copyrighted his cards. However, all but "Any Old Way" have his business name on the back of the card as "Johnson Post Card Works, Waupun, Wis."   

In his "Crop of 1909" series which he produced in October 1909 and distributed to local towns in his Wisconsin area as a test market, he called himself Alfred Stanley Johnson, Jr. He continured that through his batch of February 1910 which started the How We Do Things series and which became his trademark. After that he signed as A. S. Johnson, Jr. and continued with that form through 1913.

Johnson's father died in 1914, and he neither produced any cards nor copyrighted any titles that year. In 1915 he altered his name to A. S. Johnson, having dropped the Jr. designation. He continued that through 1917

In 1918, a few of the cards were signed A. S. Johnson, but most were signed just with his initials of A. S. J.

There were no titles of 1919 or 1920, but in the cards of 1921, 1923, and 1926, his last, he reverted to A. S. Johnson.

Obituary of A. Stanley Johnson, Jr. Waupun Leader, 03 March 1932

JOHNSON, A. Stanley – Funeral services for A. Stanley Johnson, 69 who passed away at Clark and Swartz Hospital Tuesday afternoon, were held this afternoon [Thursday] at 2 o’clock from the Methodist Episcopal church. Knights of Pythias services were conducted with Victor Moser, grand lecturer of the state, in charge. The Rev. Arthur Johnson, pastor of the church offered prayer. The body lay in state in the church parlors from 1 o’clock until 2. Pallbearers were: Otto Amthor, Oscar Hanisch, H.O. Thompson, Gust Bittner, Elmer Jennings, and P.C. Sherwood. Although Mr. Johnson has been in poor health for about 30 years, it has only been the last few years that he has been slowly failing. About five weeks ago he underwent an operation at the Waupun hospital, and from that time on seemed to be gaining. He returned to the hospital a day or two preceding his death. Mr. Johnson was born in Waupun on Jan. 8, 1863, and has resided in this city all of his life. His parents, Mr. & Mrs. Alfred Stanley Johnson, came to Waupun from Milwaukee. Before moving to this city the Johnsons lived on the spot where the Espenhain department store in Milwaukee is now located, and they owned the property where the Boston store now stands. In 1864 the elder Mr. Johnson opened a picture studio and in 1891 Stanley Johnson took over this project. The latter was also the inventor of the “freak” post cards which he worked out about 30 years ago, and which since that time have been sold all over the country. These are the cards which contain the exaggerated animals and vegetables, usually saying that these products are grown in or near, Waupun. On Aug. 28, 1894, Stanley Johnson married Miss Myrtle Ihde, a daughter of Mrs. Charles Ihde, the marriage ceremony taking place in this city. She with their only son, Alfred Stanley III, survive. The latter plans to take over the studio for the present. Members of the Boy Scout troop of Waupun, of which Alfred Johnson is scoutmaster, attended the services in uniform, and also march in a body to the Forest Mound cemetery, where burial services were conducted. Members of the K. of P. lodge, of which Stanley Johnson was a member, also attended the services in a body. – The Waupun Leader-News, Waupun, Wisconsin, 3 March 1932