KU News Service

Book examines lawyers, legal field in popular culture

Wed, 02/27/2013

LAWRENCE — A University of Kansas professor has published a book collecting depictions of lawyers, judges and legal professionals in popular culture from one of the format’s golden ages.

Michael Hoeflich, John H. and John M. Kane Distinguished Professor of Law at KU, has published “The Law in Postcards & Ephemera 1890-1962.” The book collects postcards, holiday cards, cigarette cards and real photo cards he’s collected over a period of 10 years.

“I’m fascinated by the way people view the legal profession,” Hoeflich said. “It’s not as simple as ‘people love their own lawyer but hate all other lawyers.’ The postcards were picked partly for their humor and partly for their design. But I hope lawyers, legal historians and others will give it a look because it does give a representation of attitudes about lawyers throughout history.”

Hoeflich chose the period of 1890-1962 because it was “the golden age of postcards.” Technology such as photography and chromolithographic printing, which allowed affordable multicolor prints, combined to inspire a revolution in pop culture, and the postcard was born. People could cheaply send postcards through the mail to friends and family, and many also started collecting them as a hobby. Of course, to sell, they needed to feature images and themes that were popular at the time. And sell they did.

The book features categories such as animal and child lawyers, drinking lawyers, lawyers and money, ethnic lawyers, legal buildings and women lawyers. The last, women in the legal profession, was still quite a novelty in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and a series of cards depicts a woman practicing law with her baby in the courthouse, reflecting a common attitude of the time that women should work in the home raising children as opposed to outside of it. The drinking lawyers category features cards making all manner of jokes, puns and connections between the bar association and the bar as a tavern. Children dressed as lawyers and judges, and illustrations featuring dogs, cats and monkeys as legal practitioners were wildly popular at the time as well.

Photography’s influence on both post cards and law practice itself cannot be understated. Hoeflich highlights this with his section of real photo cards. Kodak and similar companies made the cards as unique pieces for individuals from their own photographs. Many law firms used that as a way to either advertise or send a postcard with a photo of themselves through the mail.

“Real photo cards are great because they’re all unique,” Hoeflich said.

The art of photography not only changed postcards, but in some instances the law itself. In the late 19th century American and English law did not allow for no fault divorce. In essence, the only way to get a divorce was to prove adultery. So a couple that agreed they wanted to end their marriage would hire a private investigator and a photographer who would take a staged photo of a spouse having an affair as “proof” of infidelity. Naturally, both parties would agree to the terms of divorce in advance and would use the “incriminating photos” to get the divorce they both wanted.

“Photography essentially made it possible to have no fault divorces,” Hoeflich said. “It became a joke, everyone knew it was happening and eventually the law changed. But you can see all of that reflected in the postcards of the time.”

All of the postcards and ephemera contained in the book come from Hoeflich’s personal collection. For a decade he’s collected them from eBay, flea markets, antique stores and anywhere else he could find them. He started collecting after writing a series of articles for legal journal The Green Bag about representations of lawyers in popular culture.

His work is far from being completely lighthearted fun. He’s also published extensively on legal topics such as copyright, legal history, law and the arts, comparative law, contracts, ethics and others.

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