The charming 2006 Italian film Nuovomondo (released in the U.S. as The Golden Door) is a mixture of images and themes—gritty southern Italian poverty and superstition softened by romance, magic realism, and hope.
The film begins with Sicilian peasants awaiting a sign from heaven as to whether they should emigrate from their impoverished village. Tipping the balance in favor of exodus are a few postcards from paesani who have already made their passage to the New World (Nuovomondo). On one, enormous coins hang from the branches of a tree. On another, gargantuan vegetables dwarf farmers trying to get them to market.
We wondered if the postcards were a contemporary product of Photoshop or if cards like those had ever been printed, sold, and sent.
Seek and ye shall find…and we found hundreds printed between the 1890’s and the end of the First World War. Since all are labeled in English, it’s quite clear that they were made to indulge domestic regional pride and the American taste for whimsy and “tall tales.” (Think of the giant pumpkin and livestock competitions that persist today at state fairs.) The growth of private motorcar ownership and American tourism also expanded a market for these cards.
We can only guess how many of these images were mailed abroad. But as we’ve noted, the Italian immigrants had a sense of humor. Expressing themselves through food as they did, might they have thought colorful chrome prints of farm bounty could tempt the rest of the family back in the Mezzogiorno to get on the boat and join them here in America? We’ll never know for sure, but it is no wonder that an Italian film-maker found images like these irresistible.