TIME photo essay

Postcards of Turn-of-the-Century Wrestling Heroes

Souvenir postcards collected from flea markets in Europe and the United States highlight the golden age of wrestling in the years leading up to World War I.

In the years leading up to World War I, wrestling enjoyed a golden age in Europe and America, as the grapplers and men of strength who toured in the traveling road shows and carnivals of the 19th century became huge stars of the ring. Like today’s WWE and its imitators, the rules of the bouts were fluid—drama and performance were valued just as much as winning and losing. Promoted by top impresarios, complete with a narrative of colorful villains and likable heroes, the wrestlers’ matches were held in the largest venues of the day, and the top stars gained huge followings. These cards, collected over fifteen years from flea markets in Europe and the U.S., were sold as souvenirs to the fans who lined up to buy tickets to the event.

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