[This blog post was written by Kim Andersen, Audio Visual Materials Archivist in the Special Collections Section of the State Archives of North Carolina.]
These two photos initially presented a bit of a quandary to my colleague, Ian Dunn, and I when processing the C. H. Jordan Photograph Collection here at the State Archives of
North Carolina. Evidence within the collection suggests these children are related, and the goat appears as if he might be the same individual goat in both pictures, yet the carts are different and bear these different numbers. We asked ourselves “What do these numbers mean?” And “Why are these children in these goat carts in the first place?” We looked for evidence in the other photos in the Jordan material, but no more goats or carts or related photos were there. Reluctantly we put down this small mystery and Ian completed the arrangement and description of the collection.
Not long after the Jordan Collection was finished, though, it seemed to us as if goat cart pictures were popping up everywhere we looked, and despite our best efforts to stay on task and proceed with our prescribed work, we simply had to take a brief detour down the goat cart rabbit hole! And what a fascinating little journey it has been. In short order simply through Internet research, we learned not only what the seemingly strange numbers mean but also quite a bit about a relatively short-lived but wildly popular fad of itinerate photographers using the cuteness and novelty of a goat and a little cart to boost their business.
Itinerant photographers were common in the US in the early 20th century. They traveled from town to town in rural and urban America and for the most part took informal photographs. Some specialized in portraits and set up temporary studios in tents or at local fairs, some documented businesses and churches in the towns they visited, some took “man on the street” type photos, and some employed props like goat carts or “billy carts” as they were also known.
A goat cart was typically like a magnet to children in any town, and at the instigation of the photographer, the curious children would be invited to approach the spectacle coming down the street and pose in the little cart – with or without parental permission or oversight. And the photographer would snap picture after picture as delighted children took turns in the cart, squealing with delight, and drawing the attention of more and more children and adults. The carts were often colorfully decorated, and many were numbered on their sides as if they were part of a fleet. Each cart usually had a plaque on the front as well with the year and often the name of the town painted on it, thus making a photo of a child in such a cart an instant precious keepsake. The simple genius of appealing to the universal instincts of children to love cute furry animals and rides, and preying on the sentimentality of parents to indulge their children and want pictures of their children, especially when they are doing something adorable, guaranteed the goat cart racket to be a nearly fool-proof revenue generator for photographers through the 1930s.
Even as the Great Depression raged, photos of children in goat carts continued to be popular throughout the country, bringing much needed levity to otherwise dreary lives. With the advent of the Second World War, however, itinerate photographers became less prevalent. Everyday people began having cameras of their own and became accustomed to taking their own informal pictures, and the era of the goat cart as ubiquitous photographic prop came to an end.
Fortunately, the State Archives of North Carolina has a number of these strangely common yet not-widely-understood photographs of happy children in tiny goat carts. If any of our readers here can help us identify these children, this goat (!) and/or the location where these photos were made, we welcome your input. If any of you have photos depicting goat carts like this in North Carolina or by North Carolina photographers, we would very much like to know about them, too. The State Archives of North Carolina is always interested in learning what is out there and how we can best serve our public both as a source of information and as a repository for the long-term preservation of records documenting the history of the state.
Images from the C. H. Jordan Photograph Collection, PhC.24, State Archives of North Carolina; Raleigh, NC.
PhC.24.21 An unidentified boy is seen in a goat cart c. 1937.
PhC.24.22 An unidentified girl is seen in a goat cart c. 1939.
Jordan, C. H., Photograph Collection, 1870-1940 – Collection of 25 photographs and two greeting cards. The photographic material consists of tintypes, card photographs, cabinet cards, silver gelatin prints and photo postcards. The photographs are mainly portraits and are purportedly of the Ruffin family of the Nash, Edgecombe, and Wilson County area of North Carolina.