To the paper moon and back


It’s a long gone, turn of the century American icon that was all the rage, before the Polaroid and “selfie”. Holly Rose Gammage looks at the rise and fall of the paper moon


Romantic and enchanting, snapshots from the party culture of the early 20th Century whisper bygone tales of life’s pleasures. Perched, straddled or draped over a large cut out crescent moon, partygoers would steal a moment away from the gaiety of their evening to indulge their vanity. Ever the novelty, these paper moon portraits would capture the atmosphere of those blissful occasions.

“Paper moon” wasn’t always the title given to these snapshots – in county fairs and carnivals they were frequently dubbed “Man in the Moons” – a name reserved for more informal settings (for hoi polloi, dahling). Of course, at opulent parties with booze a-flowing, “paper moon” was the preferred term. How perfectly charming.

A freshly constructed land of debauchery in New York City, Coney Island reared itself a shameless reputation

Its origins, in turn of the century North America, are unclear. The mystery of these stolen moments is heightened: their allure rests in the unknown. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, travelling carnivals were blossoming. Stemming from the excitement around the Chicago World’s Fair, carnival companies toured the States with an abundance of whimsical games and shows. Typically featuring freak shows, burlesque and that old favourite “toss the hoop”, carnivals were the perfect opportunity to let your hair down. The development of Coney Island at the end of the 19th Century became the benchmark for loose morals and even looser wallets. A new variety of amusements lured visitors into exciting new realms.

A freshly constructed land of debauchery in New York City, Coney Island reared itself a shameless reputation. Saturated with liquor-fuelled fights, prostitution and unrelenting gamblers, it was a haven for those desperate to escape the austerity of everyday life. Much like the Man in the Moon photographs, the destination provided an outlet of other worldliness, the ability to experience things that were not necessarily tangible in the “real” world. Although Man in the Moon photo booths would have only represented one small element of the carnival scene at this time, they were immortalised by the 1933 Harold Arlen song “It’s Only a Paper Moon” featured in the Broadway play The Great Magoo, set in Coney Island.

Coney Island, New York City

Coney Island, New York City

Despite the immense enjoyment that they provided, carnivals were generally shunned for their distasteful acts and corrupt practices – making them the ultimate guilty pleasure for those that had the courage or desire to attend. There was a sense of freedom embedded in carnival life, not least for the performers but for visitors too. Carnivals provided a slice of wild and free-spirited opportunity: something to admire but not necessarily to become a part of. Purchasing a paper moon snap allowed fairgoers to document the experience without actually becoming a “carny” – reliving their heady memories with a stolen glance, without the habitual alcohol abuse or flea bites. The infectious qualities of carnival life injected spice into society, something that remained largely hidden until the carefree frivolity of the 1920s.


In typical early 20th Century photography, sitters would appear reserved, pensive or downright miserable. Studio photography commanded this as a symptom of its elitist status – only the finest families were able to afford the price of a studio sitting. The playful nature of paper moon pictures existed as a contradiction of the times – casting aside the staid family portraiture, replacing it with light amusement. In many Man in the Moon images, subjects could be seen revelling in the novelty of the moment and playing up to the camera. How frightful! It simply wasn’t done…

As well as offering a light-hearted photo souvenir, paper moon photo booths possessed a certain glamour, attracting housewives and celebrities alike. While photogenic actresses of the time, such as Gabrielle Ray, may have indulged in the novelty of the idea, for working class sitters much of the appeal was to revel in the same experience as the beautiful and famous. These photographs weren’t just whimsy, they were aspirational relics for those who knew they weren’t destined for stardom.


Aspiration is also an integral part of the obsession with space travel that existed at the time, which no doubt led to the creation of the paper moon. With the first successful aeroplane flight by the Wright Brothers in 1903, the world became overawed with new travel possibilities. Flight had been achieved; space travel was within humanity’s reach. Alluring yet unknown, the moon was something to be wondered about – a big, round, glowing anomaly in the night sky. Amusing in retrospect, the incorporation of stars in the centre of the moon’s crescent in many portraits is telling. But while the science is incorrect, the romanticised curiosity of society at the time makes the paper moon imagery all the more captivating.

It is said that the demise of the Man in the Moon began with the release of mass market cameras, such as the Kodak ‘Brownie’ in 1900. Easy though it is to assume, I am not entirely sure that this was the reason. When the ‘Brownie’ made its debut, paper moon photography was still going strong, and it continued to do so until the late 1930s. Maybe, just maybe, people then began to embrace fantasy in their own lives. People didn’t need to perch on the face of a giant moon to have fun anymore. I’m sure that the developments in home photography eventually led to the decline of our poor paper moons as we entered the late 40s and early 50s, but I am convinced there is more mystery to it than that. They appeared from nowhere and vanished without a trace – a funny little glitch in photographic history, with an air of indecipherable anonymity that allows us to remain fascinated by their existence. Divine. C