I'm reading Salinger's "Ocean Full Of Bowling Balls" and came across the "blue card". I wonder what that means in that context. I found that "blue card" is currently used for immigrant agricultural workers, but couldn't be sure that they are related. It sounds more like it's related to sports somehow (baseball?) but I want to be sure. Any ideas?

"Hey Red, where’dja get that red hair?"

Kenneth turned around to look at the man, and said:

"A guy gave it to me on the road."

That nearly killed the guy. He was bald as a pear. "A guy gave it to you on the road, eh?" he said. "Think he could fix me up?"

"Sure," Kenneth said. "You gotta give him a blue card, though. Last year’s. He won’t take this year’s."

That really killed the guy. "Gotta give him a blue card, eh?" he asked, shaking.

"Yeah. Last year’s." Kenneth told him.

The fat man shook on as he turned back to his newspaper; and after that he looked over at our table frequently, as though he had pulled up a chair.

Full context can be found here.

  • 5
    I think this is Off Topic American cultural history. My guess is it's something like this (a colour-coded card showing regular attendance at a "recovering alcoholics" club, or something similar). The man want's last year's cards because he was a backslider then, so he hasn't got any of his own to show an unbroken record of being on the straight and narrow path. Dec 23, 2013 at 19:01
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    This question appears to be off-topic because it is about culture, not language. Dec 23, 2013 at 19:02
  • @FumbleFingers: Thanks for the pointer. Should I delete the question then? What is the best practice?
    – some user
    Dec 23, 2013 at 19:03
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    @PeterShor, they don't read like alternate universes. They are set in actual places in US and the time is generally the same as that of the writing as far as I can tell. I cannot be sure but, my feeling is that the blue card existed at some point in time.
    – some user
    Dec 26, 2013 at 15:29
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    Another "blue card" is the one used the Boy Scouts of America for their Merit Badge applications.
    – ekhumoro
    Dec 27, 2013 at 2:15

4 Answers 4


Based on context (and Salinger's life), I'd guess it's referring some form of blue ration cards (perhaps like this one for cigarettes) - And the guy laughs because you can't redeem them anymore (e.g. they're now worthless).

Cigarette Ration Card


Look at the conversation they're having. Kenneth tells the guy someone "gave him" his hair. So clearly he's joking to begin with. Salinger makes this clear, he says it "kills" the guy, colloquial for "amuses greatly".

Then there's the extra goofiness of "last year's, not this year's." These guys sound like truckers to me. At the very least they're blue collar workers, used to the idea of "membership cards", licenses, union cards, id cards, clubs, etc. I think this is just a joke based on the guy's character, profession and culture.

Furthermore, a google search for "Salinger Blue Card" turns up numerous links to "Dr. Michael H. Salinger"...and this question. Safe to say this isn't a real thing but deeply subtle humor, classic Salinger.

  • We don't know much about the other guy, but Kenneth is definitely not a trucker. He's a little boy who is interested in baseball.
    – some user
    Dec 29, 2013 at 22:14
  • Well, Kenneth is interested in many other things, but baseball was my first guess since that would be a better common ground than poetry for small talk.
    – some user
    Dec 29, 2013 at 22:25

Blue might mean "risque" here, with blue cards referring to trading cards with pin-up pictures on them. I don't know when the story was written, but Holden Caulfield, Kenneth's brother, was a teenager in the 1940s, and Vargas girl cards were popular in the 1940s and 50s. A "blue" deck of Vargas cards is described here, and some are pictured on eBay here.

  • Very good point @Rebecca. The date of the story is not clear from the reports. Many of them talk about it being withdrawn from publication, but I haven't seen any which specifies a date. According to this article, though, it must be early 50s. One thing bothers me with this interpretation: in the story, "blue card" is singular; but in the case of pin-up pictures, it's a deck of cards (53 of them in a box). Little bit confused here :)
    – some user
    Dec 30, 2013 at 20:10
  • It's a great question. I'm eager to see what others come up with. About the singular: if the cards were traded, like baseball cards, it would be fair to refer to a single one that someone wanted for his own collection, even though they were originally purchased in decks. I'm not sure why "last year's" would be of special interest, unless the guy on the road hadn't been able to get a deck of those. About the date of the story, Wikipedia says a fiction editor at Collier's commented on the story in 1948, so it must have been written sometime before that.
    – user53907
    Dec 30, 2013 at 20:56

I spent the last few hours digging for clues that may shed some light on the joke. I cannot say I've got a definite answer, but some findings in the Google Books archive gave me enough courage to propose an answer.

On page 97 of the Communist Infiltration of Maritime and Fisheries Unions: Hearings Pursuant to H.Res. 111 we see the following:

(Whereupon the membership card referred to was handed to Mr. Kersten.)

Mr. Kersten. You are showing me a blue card, No. 40980, Communist Political Association membership card, William M. Brandhoven, seaman, city-can you read that city?

Mr. Brandhoven. San Francisco, I believe, yes it would be San...


Unfortunately I couldn't view the rest of the page (I would expect this document to be in public domain, strange).

In the story, the "guy" refers to Kenneth as "Red". Therefore, I think, the joke may be related to McCarthyism which was rising during that period. A guy giving you red hair on the road in return for a blue card, may refer to unsubstantiated accusations (disloyalty, subversion, or treason) made due to this political atmosphere.

Whether this sort of a joke suits Salinger's literary style is another story. Maybe it was the reason for him to stop the publication of an accepted story (long shot, I know)?

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