When I found the first postcard of the Olean oil tank fire, I simply thought of it as an incredibly interesting piece of ephemera – the presence of the spectators in their fine clothes and the contrast it posed to the industrial accident. But then I came across another postcard of the same burning oil tank, this time captioned as Bradford, PA. I became intrigued and started looking for additional postcards. To my amazement, I kept finding the same exact image over and over in different printings labeled as different cities.
My research expanded: contacting historians and examining old newspapers in search for the date and location of the fire, learning about the different eras in the history of postcard production, and continually acquiring every unique postcard of the image I could find. My collection also expanded. I discovered different views of the same fire and numerous postcards of other burning oil tanks – many of which had crowds of spectators. I learned that in the age of the “oil boom”, excursion trains would take "tourists" on Sundays to visit the tank fires. There was even enough tourist interest in these events that pieces of souvenir china were produced – miniature pitchers and platters with decaled images of oil fires.
At the present moment, I’ve discovered over 67 printings of the postcard with captions declaring the event to have occurred in 15 different cities in 5 different states: Wellsville, NY; Bolivar, NY; Olean, NY; Bradford, PA; Kane, PA; Warren, PA; Titusville, PA; Oil City, PA; Clarion, PA; Franklin, PA; Findlay, OH; Lima, OH; Tulsa, OK; Muskogee, OK; and Beaumont, TX. Postmarked dates have ranged from 1904 to 1937.
My investigation into these postcards has raised a lot of questions about the relationships between ephemera, history, and authenticity. The postcard is often preserved and presented as an item of history – whether in a private collection, published in books2 or in institutional collections. However, as shown in this project and my research, captioned information may be suspect. I think what particularly strikes me about this image and this instance of misrepresentation is its range, from New York and Pennsylvania to Ohio, Oklahoma and Texas, and its transformation from a specific scene with specific people to a generic view representing nearly any city’s oil tank fire.
In displaying Greetings from Oil Country, I loosely plotted all of the postcard images in a grid-map according to the cities they’re labeled as being from, near, or between. One group of postcards to the left stands alone as they are from unidentified locations. As I discover any additional unique printings of the postcard, they will be added to the “map.”