Our astute friend and fellow hobbyist Tom Daley made a great catch last week when it comes to the issue of the medal Jim Thorpe is wearing in our Real Photo Postcard.
After much enlargement and enhancement, we felt fairly confident that on Thorpe’s chest, we saw this:
This is a pedal from the Penn Relays, the longest-running amateur track and field competition in the United States (established in 1896). Jim Thorpe won a gold medal for the high jump (actually, he tied, and won the medal on a coin flip), his first significant athletic award. Since the postcards in question were both mailed less than two months after Thorpe’s victory, we speculated that perhaps the future great athlete was proudly wearing his Penn Relays medal, and the photographic evidence seemed to back that up.
Except it doesn’t.
A small excerpt from the Penn Relays’ “about the relays” page (which you can read in full here; it’s very interesting), is as follows:
“The design for the Penn Relays plaque and medal was executed by Dr. R. Tait MacKenzie in time for the 1925 meet. It shows Benjamin Franklin, founder of the University, seated in a chair modeled from his library chair, holding a laurel sprig in his left hand. He greets four runners, shaking the hand of the first, while the last holds a baton. Posing for the medal were former Penn athletes Larry Brown, Louis Madeira, George Orton and Ted Meredith. At the bottom of the relief is a lightning bolt, symbolic of Franklin’s explorations in the nature of electricity.”
While we initially thought “Well, the date could be an error,” it isn’t. Enlarged images of the medal show, underneath the chair in which Franklin is sitting, is the date 1925. Given the date is actually part of the sculpture, it’s reasonable to assume that this design is not what we’re seeing on Thorpe’s chest, and that our eyes are merely playing tricks on us.
It really does look like it, though.
This is not to say that the medal on Thorpe’s chest is definitively not his Penn Relays medal – we’re still researching what the earlier medals looked like. We’ve found one blue ribbon, ostensibly from 1908, but we’re not convinced that there weren’t different awards for different competitions. We’ve contacted the Penn Relays and are hoping that they can provide us with something definitive, but if any of our readers here happen to have information that can help us solve this mystery, we’re all ears!