On this quadrennial February 29, a follow-up post to one from the last leap year. I don’t have any radical new insights into the public perception of this occasion in the past, but I do see some connections and characterizations of which I was previously unaware. As before, and as usual, it was the Victorians who cemented the idea of women “leaping” outside of their conventional role at this time by proposing to their prospective spouses, beginning with Victoria herself. It was widely known that the young Queen proposed to her beloved Alfred in 1839 (not a leap year but she was Queen), and their marriage did occur in the following bissextile year. Apparently it was fine for Victoria, but such assertiveness among mere mortal women was not quite so tolerated, as Leap Year depictions became more cutting and critical in several ways as the nineteenth century progressed. Postcards were used to depict mismatched marriages: the woman is too rich, too old, too large. The “tall bride” is a consistent trope, and I think the very popular Raphael Tuck & Sons Leap Year postcard of a bride towering over her royal groom is a reference to the sensational marriage of Consuelo Vanderbilt and the Duke of Marlborough in 1895. In addition to images of brides buying their grooms, Leap Year postcards from the peak period of 1896-1916 depict women who are pushing against the constraints of their gender: women who “scorch” the streets on a bicycle or ask for the vote, women who sought to “wear the pants” not only on February 29 every four years, but on every day in every year. Ladies are pictured hunting, trapping, and hooking men in Leap Year post and trade cards up until the teens, after which milder messages predominate, most likely because of the twin forces of the First World War and women’s suffrage.
Life Magazine February Leap Year Cover, 1896, New York Public Library Digital Gallery; Raphael Tuck & Sons Oilette Leap Year Cards, 1904-1912, from a selection here; “Cupid’s Coffin” illustration of the Vanderbilt-Marlborough Wedding by Charles Dana Gibson for Life, sourced here; George Reiter Brill Cards, Playle‘s; Trade card and Postcards from the Boston Public Library and Smithsonian Institution.