The words “mammoth” and “potato” do not often go together. But in 1894, W. L. Thorndyke, a news reporter in Loveland, Colorado, decided to help a man named Joseph B. Swan. Swan was a farmer from outside Loveland who was looking to promote his farm. Thorndyke and Swan decided to enlist the help of Adam H. Talbot to capture a photograph that would do just that. The photograph that they created depicts a very large potato on Swan’s shoulder. This photo did not take long to circulate. An editor who thought it was funny first picked it up, then many more followed. Today, this photograph is considered to have possibly been the first viral photograph.
The widely circulated image of Joseph B. Swan holding the supposed potato.
To make the photo, Talbot took a photo of a potato and enlarged it to mammoth size. He then cut out a wooden board the size and shape of this enlarged image and he attached the photograph to the board. Finally, he posed Swan holding this giant faux-potato on his shoulder.
Copies of the photograph began to circulate around the community. In the beginning, Joseph Swan never intended for people to even believe that his picture was real. He simply wanted to use this understanding people already had of large produce to his benefit. However, once the photo started circulating it was hard to stop people from this misinterpretation. It was inevitable that people would think it was a real potato especially, because something like this had never been done before. Lots of people asked for parts of the potato or seeds so they could grow their own. Some even wanted to put the potato on display. When people came to his farm and asked about the mammoth potato he would initially tell them the truth of the advertisement. However, he later claimed that it had been stolen, and he did not know where it was.
Whether this was to save his pride in not actually having such a large potato or simply laziness at retelling the story so many times is hard to tell. This is true of many circulating viral photos even today. Once it gets out of hand in this way it is hard to stop the ideas of the general public, and it is often easier to go along with their outrageous beliefs.