It’s been a while since I’ve done a magazine cover post, and last time I was kind of snarky, so I decided to set out in search of the top 10 magazine covers of January and February 1923.
Except that it was really hot outside (I’m in Cape Town), and I wasn’t feeling all that energetic, so I thought maybe ChatGPT could find them for me.
In other words, do your own blog post, I’m too busy writing term papers!
Feeling slightly chastened, I set out on my search.
I started out with a round of disqualifications, beginning with covers that reused illustrations that had originally appeared elsewhere. This led me down a rabbit hole of trying to figure out whether the Jessie Willcox Smith illustration from Little Women that appears on the cover of the February 1923 issue of Good Housekeeping is from the edition of the book that she illustrated. I tentatively decided that it isn’t.
I had an even harder time figuring out the provenance of Smith’s January 1923 cover featuring Hans Brinker. Irritated, I summarily disqualified Smith. I was looking for edgier covers in any case.
Next to go was the February Ladies’ Home Journal cover, which turned out to be a painting by French artist Gabriel Émile Edouard Nicolet, who died in 1921.
Then I eliminated covers that gave me the creeps, regardless of their artistic merit.
Ditto, covers with guns,
especially covers with babies with guns.
Next up are the covers that captured my interest for reasons other than the quality of the art, like this one from Fruit, Garden and Home, which, fascinatingly, turns out to be the original name of Better Homes and Gardens, from its founding in 1922 until August 1924, when sanity prevailed and the magazine was renamed.
And this one from Popular Mechanics, illustrating an article called “Down Popocatepetl on a Straw Mat.” As someone who rode up Popocatepetl (a volcano outside Mexico City) in a car and struggled to walk up a tiny bit of it, I have a great deal of admiration for anyone who accomplished this.*
And this intriguing cover illustrating the article “Stopped by a Pencil” in Personal Efficiency magazine. What the heck is going on here? A metaphor for bureaucracy? An actual giant pencil on the rampage? Sadly, Personal Efficiency is not available online, so I’ll never know.
And now for the Top 10! Ranking them was a challenge, not for the usual “it was so hard to decide, everyone deserved to win” reason but because of the lack of standouts. Most of the covers struck me as deserving to be ranked #5. Here’s what I came up with, after a lot of hemming and hawing.
10. Popular Science, January 1923, artist unknown
I toyed with the idea of relegating this cover to the same category as the giant pencil, but it’s just too cool. I mean, it’s a monster new airship that will carry passengers across the continent! Called the San Francisco Express! Okay, it might be a dubious bit of futurology at a time when transatlantic airplane flights had already taken place,** but still…cool!
9. Shadowland, February 1923, A. M. Hopfmuller.
I can never figure out what exactly is going on in A.M. Hopfmuller’s Shadowland covers, but I’ll miss them when the magazine ceases publication in November 1923.
8. Vanity Fair, February 1923, Anne Harriet Fish
I’m a fan of Fish’s Vanity Fair covers, and this one might have ranked more highly if I could figure what exactly was going on. A woman is looking through store receipts??? and is crying??? or holding another receipt up to her face??? while her husband smokes nonchalantly??? Or something??? Plus, what’s the deal with that chair?
7. Vogue, George Wolfe Plank, February 1, 1923
This cover, of a woman feeding a sugar cube to a dragon, is done with Plank’s usual artistry, but it just didn’t particularly grab me the way some of his other covers did.***
6. Saturday Evening Post, Coles Phillips, February 17, 1923
My love for Coles Phillips knows no bounds, and I’m always happy to see him pop up, but the Saturday Evening Post’s limited color palate doesn’t play to his strengths.
5. McCall’s, January 1923, Neysa McMein
I’m normally more of a fan of Neysa McMein as a fascinating 1920s figure (salon hostess, suffragist, Dorothy Parker’s best friend, etc.) than as an artist, but there’s something that haunts me about this woman. “Who are you?” I keep asking myself. “And what’s wrong?”
4. The Crisis, February 1923, Louis Portlock
I’m not familiar with Louis Portlock and I couldn’t find out anything about him except for one other cover for The Crisis, from 1922. I like the simplicity of this illustration.
3. Harper’s Bazar, January 1923, Erté.
Erté’s never not brilliant, but, as with Plank, I wouldn’t say he was at his best here.****
2. Motor, January 1923, Howard Chandler Christy
I was struck by this Motor cover, although I can’t figure out what’s going on in the lower left corner, where the woman’s dress seems to turn into a wall, or something. I didn’t think I was familiar with Christy, but it turns out that he was the artist behind some of the most famous World War I recruiting posters, like this one:
1. The Liberator, January 1923, Frank Walts
I almost disqualified this Liberator cover because I featured it with other New Year’s covers in last month’s top posts of 1922 post, but that just seemed unfair, especially given the lack of top-quality covers.***** It wasn’t a shoo-in for #1, but I like the simple artistry.
Even though I wasn’t wowed by this batch of covers, I had fun seeing what some of my favorite artists were up to, discovering a few new ones, and pondering the mystery of the giant pencil. In retrospect, I’m glad ChatGPT wasn’t up to the task.
*Although I have more admiration for the Mexican guy steering with the stick than for the the guy holding on for dear life in the back, who I assume is the writer of the article.
**If, like me until recently, you thought Charles Lindbergh was the first person to fly across the Atlantic, he was just the first person to do it SOLO. British aviators John Alcock and Arthur Brown made the first transatlantic flight in 1919.
***Like this one
and this one,
****As opposed to here
*****J.C. Leyendecker’s Saturday Evening Post cover was disqualified, though, because it came out on December 30. Besides, it was confusing.
Happy New Year, everyone! I’m full of New Year’s resolutions, including to do enough posts this year to actually do a Top 10 a year from now.*
Halfway through his Saturday Evening Post New Year’s baby cover run, J.C. Leyendecker weighs in with a cover that left me baffled. A prosperous gentleman with a treaty in his pocket is conversing with the baby. But the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919 and went into effect in 1920, so what treaty is this? A Google search revealed that the Treaty of Lausanne, which cleaned up some remaining Turkey-related bits and pieces from World War I, was signed in 1923. But the United States wasn’t a signatory, so why the U and S on either side of the baby? I have no idea.** The baby, on the other hand, seems totally up to speed.
Meanwhile, they’re ringing in the new year at Pictorial Review
and Liberator in ways that you don’t have to have a Ph.D. in history to understand.
Vogue is celebrating its 30th anniversary, with Miss 1892 and Miss 1922 holding the cake.
The Top Seven
Now on to the Top Seven! As was the case last year, they’re pretty much in chronological order, with the last post in the last spot, etc., except that the Top 10 Posts of 1921, which was the first post chronologically, politely steps back to the sixth position to make way for more substantive fare.
As I do every year, I took a look at the latest crop of children’s books. I found a few that are now regarded as classics, some more deservedly so than others, along with some intriguing lesser-known books like one illustrated by a teenaged American Indian artist and one illustrated by Freud’s gender-nonconfirming niece.
I scaled my ambition way back from my previous quest to earn all the badges from the 1916 Girl Scout book and set my sights on just one badge this time—Pathfinder, where you learn all about your community, Washington, D.C. in my case. But even that turned out to be an ambitious goal, so I focused on one requirement. Then I went to Belgium for six weeks, then back to D.C., then to Cape Town, where I am now. I’ll wrap this up with some long-distance pathfinding soon.
I loved loved loved writing this post about a 1920 book about Jane Austen by eccentric professor and critic Oscar Firkins. Firkins on Mansfield Park: “We feel that Edmund is overstarched, that Fanny is oversweetened, and that the two Crawfords are unfortunate in their resemblance to unstable chemical compounds.” For more, read the post, or better yet, Firkins’ book.
I was delighted to see this post, about Hughes’ first published writing in the children’s magazine The Brownies’ Book, in the top spot. His contributions included not just poems but also articles on Mexico, where he was living. “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” which became his signature poem, was submitted to The Brownies’ Book but ended up in The Crisis instead.
The Best of the Rest
Meanwhile, the backlist was going strong, with the top eight pre-2022 posts outperforming the top 2022 post. (This isn’t a fair comparison, though, since views of current posts are credited to the home page.) Here are the top three. The Rita Senger post, mentioned above, was the fourth most read.
This post about the eventful and tragic life of poet George Sterling, who founded the artists’ colony in Carmel-by-the-Sea, bumped My Quest to Earn a 1919 Girl Scout Badge out of its traditional top perch. Fame has its price: it also attracted my first angry reader, who didn’t appreciate my flippant tone.
This post, which started out with my idle curiosity about what happened to a young woman who won one of those star of tomorrow contests in a movie magazine, turned into an obsession as I tracked down the fate of Helen Lee Worthing and her African-American husband, Eugene Nelson. I’ve never worked harder on a post, and I’m pleased that it’s still finding readers.
The Journey Continues
This month marks five years since I set off on my journey to 1918. It’s been more rewarding than I could have imagined. I’ve made a number of online friends, including my fellow members of a 1920s bestsellers book discussion group. Some of them became real-life friends when I joined them in Bristol, UK, over the summer for a roundtable at a conference of the British Association for Modernist Studies. I spoke about Edna Ferber and Dorothy Canfield Fisher (that’s me in the mask).
*Who knows how that resolution will go—not very well, if the timeliness of this post is any indication—but I can tell you about one that’s a rousing success so far: to lift 3-pound weights every day while listening to a Taylor Swift song. This is a hybrid of my failed weight-lifting resolution of last year and my aspiration to improve my credentials as a Taylor Swift fan. I’m catching up on the pre-Red era, starting with the first song on the first album. Best song so far: Our Song.
**Apparently there was a side agreement with the United States called the Chester Concession, but my interest in understanding this magazine cover does not extend to learning what this was all about. Besides, it was never ratified by the Senate.
New on the Book List: The Secret Adversary, by Agatha Christie
Last year, I grumbled that my go-to children’s book resource, pioneering children’s librarian and Bookman columnist Annie Carroll Moore, was too busy waxing whimsical to make book recommendations. The year before, I moaned about the poor selection of books on offer.
Be careful what you wish for. This year I was hit with a veritable firehose of books. And I wasn’t the only one who felt that way: “Books for children continue to pour from the presses much faster than descriptions of them can be hammered out on the typewriter,” says the anonymous, but very relatable, writer of the Children’s Bookshelf column in the December 10, 1922, New York Times.
Over at The Bookman, Moore is back on form, wasting only the first page of her October 1922 column on flights of fancy (something about an imaginary train ride, don’t ask) before going on to six pages of solid recommendations.
Fellow children’s book columnist Marian Cutter weighs in in the December Bookman, but mostly about classics.* She and others, like Library Journaland The World’s Work,** are abuzz about a list of the best books for children that a group of librarians and educators had come up with. The idea is that, if you have a one-room schoolhouse and a limited budget, these are the books you should buy. Other than the boy-specific titles and some colonialism, the list holds up pretty well today. Little Women is the runaway winner, followed by the two Alice books, Robinson Crusoe, Tom Sawyer, and Treasure Island, followed by:
Publishers Weekly’s November 4 holiday issue has its usual extensive listing of children’s and every other kind of books, along with ads that are just as much fun. My only regret was that the snarky blurb writer of last year has been replaced with a more temperate colleagues (or else it’s the same guy and he’s recovered from last year’s burnout).
The October 1, 1922, issue of The Library Journal featured a charming article, originally published in the Manchester Guardian Weekly, called “The Books Children Like.” The writer, Evelyn Sharp, is a British suffragist and children’s book writer.*** “One has to be what is called a children’s author, perhaps, to know what it feels like, after writing a book for children, to discover that one has written a very nice story for fathers or aunts,” she sighs. The biggest mistake children’s writers can make, she says, is writing down to children, and the best children’s books are “the ones that make him feel on a level with the author, whether it is actually written for them or their elders.”
So here I am faced with an embarrassment of riches, which is great, except that the holiday season is ticking away, I have a huge (virtual) pile of books to get through, and seasonal activities keep getting in the way.**** So I’ll have to fly through the selection at a torrid pace. Here goes!
Fairy Tales, Nursery Rhymes, and Folk Tales
I was underwhelmed by Fairy Tales from Far and Near, written and illustrated by Katharine Pyle, with its muted illustrations and plethora of thous, thees, and thys.
Frances Jenkins Olcott’s retelling of Grimm’s Fairy Tales is a better choice. It’s told in refreshingly non-faux-archaic language, and Rie Cramer’s illustrations are brighter and more numerous than Pyle’s.
Back in 2020, I was charmed by Rose Fyleman’s Fairies and Chimneys, which mixed magic and city life a la Mary Poppins, but The Fairy Flutejust isn’t doing it for me. It’s just a bunch of poems about what to do if you come across a fairy (bottom line: don’t run away), with no illustrations. Plus, the first poem, “Consolation,” tells you that the fairies will love you even if you are “very ugly and freckely and small.”
Moore calls Parker Fillmore’s Mighty Mikko, a collection of Finnish tales, “a capital piece of work.” It’s an attractive volume, illustrated by Jay Van Everen, whose small wood-block drawings, like the ones on the lining pages above, I prefer to the full-page illustrations.
My most fascinating discovery of the year was Taytay’s Tales, a collection of American Indian stories collected by Elizabeth Willis De Huff. I skipped over it at first, since Moore said that “some of the tale are like Uncle Remus stories,” which wasn’t exactly a draw. It showed up on all the lists, though, so I decided to take a look. De Huff says that the book was illustrated by two Hopi teenagers, including 17-year-old Fred Kabotie. Since books by fake Native Americans are common even now, I was suspicious, but, it turns out that Kabotie not only was for real, but he went on to be a renowned artist whose honors included a Guggenheim fellowship and France’s Palme Academique. Two of his paintings are in the collection of the National Gallery of Art.
The stories in Rosetta Baskerville’s The King of the Snakes, advertised as Ugandan folk tales, also seem to be authentic—at least, the creation myth is—and E.G. Morris’s illustrations are respectfully done. On the other hand, “Ndaba kuki basebo, basebo ndaba kuki,” which is supposed to mean “The Song of the Forest Wanderer,” comes out in Google Translate as meaning “I see cookies, guys—guys, I see cookies!” in the Ganda language.
For Young Children
Luis Coloma, a Spanish priest and Royal Academy member, was commissioned to write Perez, the Mouse(originally Ratoncito Pérez) in 1894 for eight-year-old King Alfonzo XIII, who had lost a tooth. Perez lives in a box of cookies with his family and runs through the city’s pipes to the rooms of children who have lost their teeth. To this day, children in Spanish-speaking countries to this day leave their teeth under the pillows for the mouse. This 1914 version, reprinted in 1922, was adapted by Lady Moreton with illustrations by George Howard Vyse. “A great favorite with children,” Moore calls it, and I can see the appeal.
Sarah Addington’s The Boy Who Lived in Pudding Lane, illustrated by Gertrude A. Kay, is Santa’s origin story. “The younger children will be amused to read how the very fat little boy who always wore a red suit came to make toys for all children the wide world over,” Cutter tells us.
For Middle-Grade Readers
The Adventures of Maya the Bee by Waldemar Bonsels, illustrated by Homer Boss, was published in German in 1912 and (after a postwar cooling down period, presumably) first appeared in English in 1922. It’s the story of Maya, a bee who gets caught up in bee-hornet warfare. “One of the most delightful insect stories every written,” Cutter raves, which strikes me as a low bar. In any case, I’m not enthusiastic about the German militarism angle, plus the pictures freak me out, so I’m passing.*****
Kay Nielson’s illustrations for Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Engebretsen Moe’s retelling of the Norwegian fairy tale East of the Sun, West of the Moon are beautiful—she’s like the Erté of children’s book illustration—but the story itself is way longer than a fairy tale has any business being. Too bad, because I’ve always loved that title.
Ralph Bergengren’s David the Dreamer came out too late for Moore’s roundup, but Cutter gave it a rave review, and Tom Freud’s illustrations are sprinkled through the article. I couldn’t find a copy online, and when that’s the case I usually skip the book. Plus, who wants to read about someone else’s dreams? But then I found this blog post from The Marginalian (formerly Brain Pickings) about how Tom Freud started life as Sigmund Freud’s niece Martha but, at age fifteen, took on the name Tom and began wearing men’s clothes. Plus, just look at that illustration. (And lots more at The Marginalian.) Freud, sadly, committed suicide in 1930 at the age of 37.
For Older Children
Moore is quite taken with the whimsy of Gypsy and Ginger, about a carefree couple who get married right after they meet, like Dharma and Greg without the sexual innuendo. Me, not so much.
“The Southern slaves were childlike people,” Maud Lindsay says in Little Missy, a tale of life on the old plantation. And that’s just on page 1. I didn’t make it to page 2.
For Older Children
“Books written for girls present the usual problem,” Moore says, but doesn’t explain what the problem is. This is my fourth year on the beat, so I think I know what she means: they’re boring. I had high hopes for Red-Robin by Jane Abbott, though, since it had gotten rave reviews. I was sorely disappointed. If you think I’m just being grumpy, here’s the opening:
“Maybe she’s just setting the scene,” I said, trying to be fair, so I skipped to the next chapter, which started with more description. As I browsed, I encountered dialect, our heroine calling her father “Father dear,” and a young man who seemed promising at first (walking out of the store he works at, whistling, paying not the slightest attention to the sky) but then ruined everything by saying, “Giminy Gee!”
Moore says that the 1922 edition of Charles and Mary Lamb’s 1807 Tales from Shakespeare, with illustrations by Kay Nielson, is “perhaps the most distinguished in form of the books of the year,” and I can see her point. I would definitely get this for 13-year-old me.******
The standout poetry anthology for children in a season full of them, the critics say, is Rainbow Goldby Sara Teasdale. “Miss Teasdale works on the assumption that children prefer the poetry of such figures as Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Swinburne to what may be termed professional children’s poetry, and she is correct,” the New York Times reviewer says. I agree—I would buy this for thirteen-year-old me too. The frontispiece is, disappointingly, the only color illustration in the book, but, as a Dugald Walker fan from way back,******* I’m happy with his black-and-white Art Nouveau illustrations.
Oh, wait! I forgot something. As much as I balk at the gender-specific reading lists of 1922, I have to admit that there’s a good swath of the adolescent male population that isn’t going to happy with any of these choices. Well, I have just the thing for them! Won for the Fleet: A Story of Annapolisby Fitzhugh Green (Lt.-Commander – U.S.N.) is a rollicking tale of…well, I just skimmed through the beginning and there was Naval Academy hazing (with trash talk like “Oh, you slacker! Oh, you kindergarten kid!”) and someone’s father’s financial ruin and I think a battle in Cuba. It was a bit confusing, but definitely rollicking.
For Young Adults
Young adults want to read about actual adults, not about fake for-children’s-consumption adults like Gypsy and Ginger. And what could be more entertaining than reading about the out-of-control party couple Anthony and Gloria Patch in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s second novel, The Beautiful and Damned? Well, honestly, I found it a bit boring when I read it during my freshman year in college, and critics generally agree, but subpar Fitzgerald is better than peak almost anybody else.
Or, if that young person in your life needs help finding a partner (and hasn’t been scared away from the whole idea by The Beautiful and Damned), there’s always Dancing Made Easy, by Charles Coll and Gabrielle Rosiere. It is the tragedy of my life that I have never hung out with a crowd that does dances like this:
Classic or Not?
The following 1922 books make a claim for the title of “classic,” or at least fall into the category “really old but I’ve heard of it.” Let’s see how well they hold up.
I remember being so eager to get back to The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle, Hugh Lofting’s Newbery Medal-winning sequel to The Story of Dr. Dolittle, that I woke up early to read it in bed. What can I say? My racial politics weren’t very evolved when I was nine. Luckily, I don’t have to dig around in the book for all the racism because Sara Beth West did it already in this excellent blog post, part of a series on Newbery winners, She says that, while some egregious passages have been removed, “the edition I read was still thoroughly offensive.” Example: a monkey successfully disguises himself as a black woman to get passage on a ship. Not a classic!
Moore is a big fan of Carl Sandburg’s Rootabaga Stories, which plays a big part in the aforementioned incomprehensible whimsical journey. I looked at the first page, which featured characters named Gimme the Ax, Please Gimme, and Ax Me No Questions, and could get no further. Which may be unfair, but do you know of anyone who has actually read this book? I don’t. Not a classic!
The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams, is one of those books that was always lurking around when I was a child but that I never got around to. It was old and about animals, so it had two strikes against it. Adult me was charmed by it, though. It’s the story of a toy rabbit that is initially ignored in favor of flashier, but breakable, mechanical toys but eventually finds its way to a boy’s heart and, thereby, life as a real live rabbit. It has humor that I actually found funny, like the self-importance of the other toys: “Even Timothy, the jointed wooden lion, who was made by disabled soldiers, and should have had broader views, put on airs and pretended that he was connected with Government.” Finally—a classic!
So that’s it! This is definitely the best holiday children’s book selection I’ve come across. There’s something for everyone. And it’s only 9:30 p.m. at Christmas Eve Cape Town Time, which is 2:30 p.m. or earlier if you’re in the United States, which, if you’re celebrating Christmas, gives you HOURS to get your shopping done.
Best wishes for the holiday season, everyone!
*I learned from this fascinating post on the blog “Bibliophemera” that Cutter was the founder of the first children’s bookstore in New York.
**I had the idea that The World’s Work was a socialist magazine, but it turns out to be a pro-business magazine with stories like “How a Business Man Would Run The Government.”
***Evelyn Sharp gossip: She and her best friend’s husband were in love for many years. They married after the friend died, when Sharp was 63 and her husband was 77.
****I returned to Cape Town from Washington, D.C., this week, and the obligations are along the lines of picking young people up at this beach, so I’m not expecting a lot of sympathy.
*****The film industry was more enthusiastic, and Maya’s story was recently made into a series of animated films.
******14-year-old me would have turned my nose up at Lamb and plowed uncomprehendingly through the original text.
*******Although I see I misidentified him both of the times I’ve mentioned him, calling him Dugald Steward Walker one time and Dugald Stewart the other time (although I may have fixed these errors by the time you read this). His actual name was Dugald Stewart Walker.
I haven’t done a post on magazine covers since last August. I tried early this year, but the covers I found were uninspiring. Has the Golden Age of Illustration come to an end, I wondered.*
I decided to give it another shot, and I spent a long time looking at covers from March and April 1922. They weren’t bad. Most of them were quite good, in fact. But nothing seemed new or fresh or different.
I expect Erté’sHarper’s Bazar covers to be attractive and haunting, but the March one is haunting without being attractive and the April one is attractive without being haunting.**
This A. H. Fish Vanity Fair cover was solid but not memorable.
Are these either houses or gardens? I think not, House & Garden!
Okay, maybe I was just in a bad mood. I’ll stop carping now and just tell you what I found.
Regular Good Housekeeping cover illustrator Jessie Willcox Smith was her usual competent, family-friendly self.
The kids were up to their usual wholesome fun at St. Nicholas.
With Ireland newly independent, St. Patrick’s Day celebrations were especially festive.
There was a newcomer, Tom Webb, at the Saturday Evening Post,
The insanely prolific Rockwell was all over the place in March and April, at The Literary Digest
and The Country Gentleman
For the Ladies’ Home Journal, N.C. Wyeth (father of Andrew) painted a boy dreaming of stolen loot.
Over at Vogue, a Helen Dryden cover featured an old-timey couple,
and there were two new-to-me Vogue cover artists, Pierre Brissaud and Henry R. Sutter.***
So, this is all very nice, and if I hadn’t been looking at hundred-year-old magazine covers for over four years I might be impressed. It’s just that there wasn’t anything that hadn’t been done before.
And then I came across this Vanity Fair cover from March 1922, by newcomer Eduardo Garcia Benito, who had arrived in New York from Spain the year before.**** I hadn’t seen anything yet like the sleek, clear lines and bold colors of this cover, which would come to typify Art Deco illustration.*****
And then I took a second look at the other March Vogue cover, by Georges Lepape, which, maybe because of the muted colors, I hadn’t paid particular attention to.
Same minimalist design. Same clear lines. Same boyish silhouette on the woman.
Two years into the decade, the twenties have begun!
**Here is an examples of an attractive and haunting Erté cover:
***UPDATE 5/1/2022: I looked into this some more and these both seem to be Vogue debuts. Brissaud went on to be a regular Vogue cover artist. Sutter only did six covers that I could find (i.e. that appear on art.com, which I think has all of them), all in 1922 and 1923. I haven’t been able to find much information about him other than that he lived in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
****This wasn’t Benito’s Condé Nast debut, though. This November 15, 1921, Vogue cover was his first (as far as I can tell) of many for the magazine.
*****I could do without the “Women can smoke too!” message, though.
Happy 2022, everyone! I wish I had some memorable words of wisdom to share as we head into another uncertain year. But I don’t, so let’s look at some magazine covers, okay?
As always, the year starts out with a J.C. Leyendecker New Year’s baby at the Saturday Evening Post. I had a bit of trouble with the semiotics of this one. I knew that the dove with an olive branch in its mouth represented peace, of course, and I knew that salting a bird’s tail symbolized something, but I forgot what. All I could think of was that the baby wanted to eat the dove of peace, but that didn’t make much sense.
Fortuitously, Googling “salting bird’s tail” took me to a Wikipedia article that features this very illustration and explains that sprinkling salt on a bird’s tail is supposed to render the bird temporarily unable to fly, ergo the baby is trying to prevent the dove of peace from flying away.
This was Leyendecker’s 17th New Year’s baby, the middle of his 36-year run, and a lot of other magazines had gotten onto the baby (or sometimes young child) bandwagon. There was a mechanic baby at Collier’s,
a cowboy tyke at Sunset,
a toddler cutting off his or her golden locks at Woman’s Home Companion,
and, boringly, a just plain baby at Good Housekeeping.
Even high-art Vogue is getting into the spirit.
St. Nicholas rings in 1922 with a carload of revelers, which is irrelevant to the whole baby theme but I had to shoehorn it in so I could crop this cover for the featured image up top.
Now let’s turn back to 1921/2021 one last time to look at the top ten posts of the year.*
Or, more accurately, the ten posts. This year, everyone gets a participation trophy. As was the case last year, longevity was rewarded, with the posts’ number of views roughly in order of when they were published.
In which I read children’s books from 1921 so you don’t have to. Not that I imagine you were under much pressure. I did find some good ones, though, and one gem: Unsung Heroes by Elizabeth Ross Haynes, a series of biographic sketches of notable people of African descent.
For my Thanksgiving post during the first year of this project, I wrote about ten people from 1918 I’m thankful for. In 2019, I wrote about ten illustrators. In 2020, three women illustrators. Having painted myself into a corner with these increasingly narrow categories, I struck out into a new direction last year and gave thanks for real-life (well, virtual real-life) people I’ve met as a result of this project.
In my four years of trawling through the world of 100 years ago, I’ve unearthed a lot of potential projects that (as far as I knew) no one had tackled. I asked people to let me know if they were working on any of them, and was excited to hear from someone who has an extensive collection of Erté Harper’s Bazar covers (Project #1).
I test-drove the ads in the June 1921 issue of the Ladies’ Home Journal and found, along with some beautiful artistry, a passive-aggressive dish-breaking husband, a canned-meat picnic, and some vile Italian food.
This post, in which I read Elements of Retail Salesmanship by Professor Paul Wesley Ivey, picked at random from the 1920 edition of Book Review Digest, was one of my favorites of the year. I even ended up making a (kind of lame) pilgrimage to Professor Ivey’s place of employment, the University of Nebraska. This was so much fun that I decided to make it an annual tradition. I’ve picked my random book for 1921 but haven’t read it yet.
I don’t think I love anything from a hundred years ago as much as I love The Brownies’ Book, the NAACP’s magazine for African-American children. You know how people want to go back in time so they can buy Apple stock? I want to go back in time and give W.E.B. Du Bois a bunch of money so that The Brownies’ Book can last more than two years (1920-1921).
Nothing in this project has meant more to me than this post, in which I set out to find out what happened to the promising young illustrator Rita Senger and ended up interviewing her granddaughter. I’m thrilled that it reached so many readers.
For the second year running, a post about magazine ads tops the list. Note to self: do more posts about magazine ads.
It tops the list of this year’s posts, anyway. As was the case last year, the top-ranking of all my posts this year was 1919’s My Quest to Earn a 1919 Girl Scout Badge. While this post had more than twice as many views last year as the top 2020 post, it edged out the top 1921 post by only four views. The third most-viewed post this year was The Uncrowned King of Bohemia: The fascinating story of a not-so-great poet, a 2018 post about the poet George Sterling. At the other viewership extreme were a few posts that only got one view, including Exploring Provo—And Mormon History, which tied the record for daily views on the day it was published. Come to think of it, Provo may have been the last new place I explored before the world came to a halt.
My book list for this year is extremely feeble, only two books. For this I blame my 1920s best-seller discussion group. We’ve read a book a month over the past year, and I’ve kept up,** but most of them are from after 1921 so they don’t count. (Actually one of them was from the 1910s, but I haven’t written it up yet. (UPDATE 1/13/2022: Done!))
In 2018, I read almost nothing written after 1918. In 2019, I returned to the world of the present but went back to visit a lot. In 2020, I changed my the name of my blog from My Year in 1918 to My Life 100 Years Ago. In 2021, I posted about my first interview (which actually took place in 2020) and my first random book (although I read it 2020—there was a lot of catching up going on in 2021). So what will be new and different in 2022?
This year is the centennial of The Waste Land and Ulysses, so they’ll probably feature in some way. I’d like to look into what’s going with in the Harlem Renaissance. And I recently completed an ambitious project I look forward to telling you about soon.*** Other than that, who knows? If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past four years, it’s that there are surprises around every corner in the world of 100 years ago. I look forward to continuing the adventure.
*If you go back and look at any of these posts, the wacko sizing of the photos and images isn’t my fault. Some weird WordPress glitch resized everything a while back.
**Well, until this month. This month’s selection, J.B. Priestly’s 1929 tome The Good Companions, seems likely to be my Waterloo. (UPDATE 1/13/2022: I finished it just in time!)
***I hope this is vague enough to avert the Promised Post Curse.
Immersing myself in the children’s books of a hundred years ago has become one of my favorite holiday traditions, and it’s one that I especially appreciate during a season when many of our more extroverted traditions have to be set aside.
For my third annual children’s books holiday shopping guide (the previous ones are here and here), I turned first, as always, to pioneering children’s librarian and The Bookman columnist Annie Carroll Moore.
Who totally let me down. Her November 1921 holiday roundup starts out as a foray into incomprehensible whimsicality that seems to have something to do with an imaginary trip to France and England. Example: “Put a paper cover on John Farrar’s ‘Songs for Parents’ and paste up the title-page until you get to ‘Fairy London,’ then ask Rose Fyleman to give new titles to some of its enchanting verses and to the book itself while she autographs your last year’s copy of her ‘Fairies and Chimneys.’”
Moore, it transpires, actually made a trip to Europe. “I came back too late to do full justice to our own output of children’s books,” she tells us blithely, before rushing through the entire American national output, much of which she has not had time to read, on the last page. YOU HAD ONE JOB, ANNIE!**
Luckily, I had other help. Publishers Weekly’s November 5 Christmas Bookshelf issue included an encyclopedic children’s book roundup, penned by an uncredited writer whose task of reading through dozens of children’s books had left him (or her, but it sounds like a him) entertainingly grumpy.*** The Survey magazine, which was published by the Charity Organization Society of the City of New York but is way more interesting than that makes it sound, ran an article called “The Season’s Books for Children” that includes some charity-ish selections like “a group of health rhymes and jingles written by the children of Public School Fifteen in New York,” but others that looked promising. One, which wasn’t reviewed anywhere else, turned out to be my Children’s Book of the Year. I recommend that you check it out if you’re otherwise just scrolling through and looking at the artwork (which is fine! You’re a busy person!).
Also, the Newbery Medal for excellence in children’s literature was first awarded in 1922 for books published in 1921. There were some runners-up as well (later designated as Newbery Honor Books), so that provided several good candidates.****
Without further ado, here are the books of the season.
Fables, Folk Tales, and Songs
An Argosy of Fables
Moore says that “Paul Bransom’s fine illustrations for ‘The Argosy of Fables,’***** selected by Frederic Taber Cooper, bespeak special consideration for this book, which is to be issued in two editions, both too expensive for most libraries I fear.” I fear too! When I saw the price–$7.50—in the Publishers Weekly roundup, I thought that it must be a typo. That’s $116.46 in today’s money.
The illustrations are fine indeed, but there are only 23 of them in the 500-page book, way too low a ratio of pictures to text to be worth plowing through prose like “The mouse besought him to spare one who had so unconsciously offended.”
Cantilene Popolari and Grilli Canterini
Moore devotes a huge amount of real estate in her column to Cantilene Popolari and Grilli Canterini, two books of children’s songs published in Italy. She says of Grilli Canterini that “the pictures are so full of the detail children love as to tell their own story to children of any race.”
These books may not be quite the thing, though, for children who (unlike me) have not been studying Italian. Also, the dedication in Cantilene Populari to the “future defenders of the rights and honor of our nation,” which Moore finds “refreshing,” is chilling in retrospect.
American Indian Fairy Tales
Publishers Weekly calls American Indian Fairy Tales “enchanting,” and John Rae’s illustrations are lovely, but I’m leery of a book that depends on the research of an “ethnologist and government agent” from 1837, as this one does.
For Young Readers
Orphant Annie Story Book
Orphant Annie Story Book, written and illustrated by Johnny Gruell of Raggedy Ann and Andy fame, purports to be a collection of stories told by Little Orphant Annie, the household servant of the James Whitcomb Riley poem (and inspiration for the later cartoon character). Books featuring color pictures on every page hadn’t been introduced yet in 1921, but this one comes as close as any I’ve seen, so, even though the goblin illustrations freak me out, this is going on my list.
Bubble Books are slender books that come with records. There are fourteen so far, Publishers Weekly tells us, with two new ones out for the 1921 holiday season. Cooooooool! “The happy owner of the ‘Chimney Corner Bubble Book’ may snuggle up on a rug, close to the warm fire, and listen to the howling of the winter wind as the phonograph plays ‘The North Wind Doth Blow,’” PW says. Throw in some cocoa and some snow and you have my ideal life. The Child’s Garden of Verses Bubble Book sounds cool, too, as does the cut-out Bubble Book that you can find on this website devoted to all things Bubble Book.
For Middle-Grade Readers
Katharine Adams’ Midsummer, which Moore called “a girl’s book of great charm,” seemed promising. It’s about two American children who visit Sweden, where I’ve spent a lot of time but, thanks to COVID and work, not lately. And it was a timely read, seeing that it was the summer solstice here in South Africa. But Midsummer started slowly, and also there was this,
so I was about to give up. But when a new day dawned (at 5:32, but luckily I slept later than that), I decided to give it another try. I figured that the sun might have been making me, like Audrey, our heroine, a little cranky. I skipped ahead to the chapter about the midsummer festival, and there were pancakes with strawberry jam, and slabs of sticky gingerbread, and a merry-go-round, and folk dancing, and a bonfire, and “Astrid wore her new pink and white dress and there were wide pink ribbons on her stiff little braids.” Also Swedish kids who think it would be much more exciting to visit Coney Island. I’m glad I gave it another try.
Modern Physiology, Hygiene, and Health
Survey magazine isn’t suggesting Mary S. Haviland’s Modern Physiology, Hygiene, and Healthas a gift for a child; it’s more of a resource for teachers. I found it strangely compelling, though. First I checked out whether I was following the eleven steps to be a Modern Health Crusader.
I washed my hands before every meal to-day. Check!
I washed not only my face but my ears and neck and I cleaned my finger-nails today. Check! (Well, my finger-nails were already clean.)
I kept fingers, pencils, and everything likely to be unclean or injurious out of my mouth and nose. Check!
I was on a roll!
I failed a few of the later steps, though, like being in bed for at least ten hours with the windows open, drinking no tea, coffee, or other injurious drinks, and trying to sit up straight. (I am slouching on the sofa with my laptop as I write this.) And I wasn’t sure what to make of “I went to the toilet at my regular time.”
Most of the rest of the book consists of Ruth and Paul talking to Uncle George in great detail about what should be in your house. There’s a lot of sensible talk about the need for fresh air, and some fun activities like picking out furniture for your living room from pictures in a magazine.
Still, as much as I, personally, might find Modern Physiology, Hygiene, and Health a delightful gift, it’s the book equivalent of giving a kid socks for Christmas. Even though it’s a bargain at eighty-three cents, I’m going to have to give it a pass.
Games—School, Church, Home
Survey magazine says that George O. Draper’s Games—School, Church, Home is “a convenient volume for the play director,” but, unlike Modern Physiology, I think it would be an excellent gift for children as well. They can play some of the games on their own, like Fox Den, which involves chasing each other around this diagram marked on the ground or in the snow,
and they can devoutly wish that they went to the kind of school where complete chaos reigns and games like Seat Vaulting Tag are played.
For Older Children
The Story of Mankind
Last year, I was startled by Hendrik van Loon’s contemporary-looking illustrations in his 1920 book Ancient Man, and I found the narrative interesting, if dated.
So I had high expectations for Van Loon’s The Story of Mankind, which was awarded the first-ever Newbery Medal in 1922.****** The illustrations were less bold and less numerous than those in Ancient Man, though, and, despite Van Loon’s claim that “this is a story of mankind and not an exclusive history of the people of Europe and our western hemisphere,” the vast majority of the book’s 465 pages are devoted to Europe and the United States.
Still, I kept coming across interesting facts as I flipped through the book, like that “Jesus” is a Greek rendition of the name that we know in English as Joshua, which is one of those things that everyone else probably knows but I didn’t. And, while I’m sure careful perusal would reveal some howlers, Van Loon’s treatment of non-Europeans is respectful by the standards of the day. Plus, no one can accuse Van Loon of dumbing down history for children. Here’s a sample:
If I ever decide to learn, for example, who exactly the Phoenicians were, I may turn to Van Loon. So might your favorite teenager, if he/she is of an intellectual bent.
The Old Tobacco Shop
Moore assures us that William Bowen’s The Old Tobacco Shop“will give pure joy to boys and their fathers,” and it was a runner-up for the Newbery Medal. All of this did little to inspire my confidence in what I feared would be a heartwarming story about a boy’s coming of age as a smoker. The book’s opening—a father sends his little son, Freddie, out to buy tobacco for his pipe—didn’t help.
The Old Tobacco Shop turned out, far more weirdly, to be a trippy tale of why preschoolers shouldn’t smoke opium. Freddie disobeys the tobacconist’s warning never to smoke the “magic tobacco” stored in a pipe shaped like a Chinaman’s head, and tediously surreal adventures ensue. For anyone who’s on the fence as to whether to leave their head shop in the hands of a small boy, this is an instructive read. Everyone else can take a pass.
The Windy Hill
Another Newbery runner-up, Cornelia Meigs’ The Windy Hillis the story of a brother and sister who go to the country to stay with their uncle. He’s acting mysteriously, and they try to get to the bottom of it.
And presumably succeed, but you couldn’t prove it by me. I wasted an hour two years ago on Meigs’ The Pool of Stars, about a girl who goes to the country and tries to figure out why her neighbor is acting mysteriously, and I’m not going to make that mistake again.
The Scottish Chiefs
The period of 1890 to the 1920s is referred to as the golden age of illustration. No one has ever accused it of being the golden age of children’s literature, though,******* so there were a lot of reissues of classic books with new illustrations. One of them Moore mentions is Jane Porter’s 1810 book The Scottish Chiefs, illustrated by N.C. Wyeth. I checked it out and it turned out to be a rip-roaring tale of Scottish nationalism, although not rip-roaring enough for me to commit to reading all 503 pages. (The Scottish Chiefs, like many books that make their way into the childhood cannon, was intended originally for adult readers.) There were a lot of “thees” and “thys” for a story that starts out in Scotland in 1296, and sentences like, “I come in the name of all ye hold dear to tell you the poniard of England is unsheathed!” But there are also strong women characters, and an Elizabeth and Darcy-like marriage between our hero, William Wallace, and his wife Marion: “Affection had grown with their growth; and sympathy of taste and virtues, and mutual tenderness, had made them entirely one.” And the Wyeth illustrations are wonderful and numerous.
More Newbery Runners-Up
If you don’t want your kid to grow up with a one-sided view of 13th-century English-Scottish tensions, you can add Newbery runner-up Cedric the Forester, Bernard Marshall’s tale of an English nobleman and his squire in the days of Richard the Lionheart, to your gift list. Moore says that Cedric the Forester “is written in somewhat stilted style, but the idea of freedom is admirably brought out.” Apparently forgetting that she had just reviewed The Scottish Chiefs, she adds that “the historical period represented is one for which little story writing has been done.” Perusal of the first few pages includes the inevitable faux-Shakespearean dialogue and someone saying “gadzooks.” But there are also several aperçus by our narrator, Dickon (Cedric is the squire), like “My father laughed as one laughs at the sorriest jest when he is gay,” that left me inclined to follow him on his adventures.
Charles Boardman Hawes’ The Great Questis about a Massachusetts lad’s adventures fighting against slave traders in Africa. I figured that, despite the anti-slavery message, any 1921 book on this subject was going to be super-problematic. It was.
A Princeton Boy Under the King
“If Princeton is hovering in the background of your boy’s day dreams,” Publishers Weekly tells us, “he will want to read a story of student life at the College of New Jersey in the middle of the eighteenth century.”******* The history of my graduate alma mater is an interest of mine, so A Princeton Boy Under the Kingsounded like just the thing. I gathered from my own reading that the university’s early years consisted mostly of drunkenness and food fights in Nassau Hall, and I wondered whether A Princeton Boy Under the King would present a sanitized version. But no, that’s pretty much what goes down. It’s like an 18th-century This Side of Paradise.
The Children’s Book of the Year
Last year, I couldn’t find any books about people of color at all, so I recommended the magazine The Brownies’ Book, from the publisher of The Crisis magazine, which was described as being “designed for all children, but especially ours.” (I wrote about The Brownies’ Book in more detail during Black History Month this year.) Sadly, the magazine failed to meet its circulation goals and the December 1921 issue was the last of its two-year run.
As I learned in the Survey article, there’s a silver lining. “What is there in the autumn output to open up to the boy or girl any of the avenues of civic life; any of the nationalities with which we have been brought into greater contact since the war; of the Negroes, neighbors of the children of the South…?” the magazine asks. (Since almost no one else was asking this kind of question, I’ll skip over the “neighbors” issue.) The magazine points us in the direction of Unsung Heroes, by Elizabeth Ross Haynes, an African-American social worker, which was also published by The Crisis’ publishing company.
Each of the book’s seventeen chapters is a portrait of a notable person of African ancestry from the United States or elsewhere, including Frederick Douglas, Booker T. Washington, Harriet Tubman, Haitian general Toussaint Louverture, Alexandre Dumas, and Alexander Pushkin. (I knew that Dumas was of partly African descent, but I didn’t know about Pushkin.)
The profiles in Unsung Heroes start out, like the children’s biographies of my youth, with fictional scenes from the subjects’ childhoods and go on to recount their later achievements. Some of the language wouldn’t make it into a book published today (“Many years ago a keen-faced little boy with protruding lips, Toussaint by name, was busy, day by day, tending a great herd of cattle on the Island of Hayti in the West Indies”), but I don’t care. The stories are compelling, and the fact that this book was written and published at all in 1921 is a small miracle.
Judging from Goodreads (0 ratings, 0 reviews) and Google Scholar (one hit, for a 1990 article on the history of African-American children’s literature that I had already read for my post on the children’s novel Hazel), Unsung Heroes is little remembered today. Haynes is my new unsung hero, and Unsung Heroes is my choice for Best Children’s Book of 1921.
Some Final Thoughts
Moore complains in The Bookman that “in robbing fairy tales of all their terrors and poetry of all its sadness, we have let loose a new sort of made-to-order story, which needs the cleansing wind, wide spaces, and hearty laughter created by Mary Mapes Dodge in her time.” My perusal of the Publishers Weekly roundup left me with some sympathy for Moore’s argument that children’s books were becoming generic. On the other hand, after all the morbid stories I came across last year, I was relieved to see 1921’s children better protected from the horrors of the world. There are worse things for a child than blandness.
Happy holidays, and happy holiday reading, to all of you!
*Further research revealed that 1) John Farrar, who later founded Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, was the editor of The Bookman in 1921, and 2) Songs for Parentsis a truly awful book of poetry.
**I also checked out Moore’s other 1921 Bookman column, from May. It starts out with the magazine’s new editor (Farrar) saying, “Won’t you give us something new and different in place of the old omnibus review? Make it purely fanciful if you like.” Dangerous words when spoken to someone who had a puppet as an inseparable companion. My desperate cries of, “No! Do the old omnibus review!” failed to turn back time, and this column turned up nothing useful.
***1920s Publishers Weekly is one of those magazines where the ads are as good as the editorial content, and this issue had a treasure trove. This one left me scratching my head, though.
****Sadly for me, there were no more runners-up until 1925. One of the 1925 runners-up, in an act of blatant favoritism by the American Library Association, was Moore’s horrible book about her puppet.
*****It’s actually An Argosy of Fables, not The. 1920s book reviewers make an amazing number of mistakes with the titles of books.
******I first came across The Story of Mankind at the top of the list of Newbery Medal winners that was posted in my school library, and it totally creeped me out. The 1920s seemed like the stone age back then. Now they’re twice as far away and they seem like yesterday!
*******UPDATE 12/28/2021: Well, this syllabus for a class on the Golden Age of Children’s Literature dates it from 1865 to 1926, but the latest book on the reading list is Pollyanna, from 1913.
********Publishers Weekly’s holiday roundup includes a “Books for Boys” section and a “Books for Girls” section, along with a section for both boys and girls and others for younger readers. I was fuming about the sexism of this until I came across three books in a row on railroads in “Books for Boys.” “Fine, I admit it, I’m a girl!” I said. “Just give me a story about two friends who make a cake on a snowy day and leave out the baking powder, with disastrous consequences.”
On Thanksgiving every year, I’ve taken the opportunity to give thanks for some aspect of my adventures in the world of a hundred years ago. In 2018, I expressed gratitude for ten of the extraordinary people I’d come across during my year of reading as if I were living in 1918, like scholar/editor/activist W.E.B. Du Bois, food safety pioneer Harvey Wiley, and bra inventor Mary Phelps Jacob. The next year, I paid tribute to ten wonderful illustrators. The year after that, it was three women illustrators. (I had meant to cover more, but Neysa McMein proved to have such a fascinating life that I had to stop or the turkey wouldn’t have been done on time.)
As I was contemplating what to give thanks for this year, my thoughts turned to one of the best parts of this project—the twenty-first century people I’ve encountered along the way. I’ve given them shout-outs before, but now they’re front and center. Here they are, roughly in order of when I “met” them.
Pamela Toler and History in the Margins
One morning in February 2018, just five weeks into my project, I noticed a spike in my traffic. I soon discovered that Pamela Toler had recommended my blog, then titled My Year in 1918, on her own blog, History in the Margins. We’ve kept in touch through our blogs and Twitter since then.
Pamela has a job—“freelance writer specializing in history and the arts,” as she describes it—that I can imagine having in a parallel universe. She takes her readers down fascinating, little-known byways of history. Sometimes it’s a quick dive on a subject like the history of microphones, which end up being newer than she (or I) thought. Sometimes it’s a whole book, like Women Warriors, a fascinating history of women soldiers through the ages that combines the expertise of a Ph.D. historian (which she is) with the flair of the natural storyteller. Here’s a sample from the introduction: “As a nerdy tweenager I read everything I could find on Joan of Arc, from biographies designed to give young girls role models to George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan.* As a less obviously nerdy graduate student, I was fascinated by Lakshmi Bai, the Rani of Jhansi, who led her soldiers onto the battlefield to fight the British in the Indian mutiny of 1857.”
I’m thankful to have discovered Pamela the writer, and even more thankful to have gotten to know Pamela the online friend.
Connie Ruzich and the Forgotten Poets of the First World War
World War I Twitter led me to Robert Morris University professor Connie Ruzich and her blog, Behind Their Lines, which originated with a Fulbright project on World War I poets. She describes her blog as “a site for sharing lesser known poetry of the First World War, what I think of as lost voices and faded poems.”
Connie, like Pamela, has become an online friend. When I drove across the country last October,** pre-vaccination, it gave me a pang as I passed through Chicago and Pittsburgh not to be able to stop by and see Pamela and Connie.
Frank Hudson and the Parlando Project
Early on in this project, when I was posting several times a week, I’d occasionally feel overwhelmed. Whenever this happened, I’d give myself a little lecture, saying, “Well, Frank Hudson posts as often as you do AND writes a song for every post AND sings it.”
Amazing guy, that Frank.
For the typical Parlando Project post (tag line: “where words and music meet”), Frank takes a poem that’s in the public domain, puts it to music, and shares his thoughts about the writer and the poem. He covers a much wider time period than I do, all the way back to classical Chinese poetry, but he often records poems from 1910s and 1920s, including a multi-year serial performance of The Waste Land to celebrate National Poetry Month.
Maybe I’m biased because it was my idea (okay, there’s no maybe about it), but my favorite of Frank’s songs is his interpretation of the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow poem “Snow-Flakes,” featuring the wonderful line “This is the poem of the air.” In Frank’s rendition, recorded on Christmas 2018, “Snow-Flakes” and another Longfellow poem, “A Psalm of Life,” are being performed in a Beat Generation-era jazz club. If you’re in the mood for something seasonal but weary of the holiday standards, check it out!
Witness2Fashion and Century-Old Styles
Susan, the creative force behind the blog Witness2Fashion, is, like Frank, only a part-time resident of the world of a hundred years ago, but she stops by often. She’s a former theater costume designer who casts an expert eye on the fashions of the past while also tackling broader societal issues.
Witness2Fashion rang in the current decade, for example, with a visit to the January 1920 issue of Delineator magazine, showing us some Butterick patterns but then moving on to an article on sexual harassment called “It Won’t Do! A Warning for Business Women.”
Sometimes the posts take a more personal turn, like this one, featuring her detective work about the life of a TB patient named Ollie, a friend of her mother’s, whom she came to know through family photographs. My favorite Witness2Fashion post, with the irresistible title “Prudery in Advertising Used to Confuse Me,” is a mix of the personal and the historical.
Susan and I check in with each other in the comments sections of our blogs every once in a while. When I wondered, a few months back, why hand-washing wasn’t one of the many uses listed for P and G White Naptha soap, she explained, “Naptha is a petroleum product, akin to mineral spirits (aka “Paint thinner,”) so you wouldn’t want to use it on your skin.” Mystery solved!
On a Witness2Fashion post about the evolution about corsets, I posted this comment: “I just came across a fascinating article in a 1922 issue of Printer’s Ink magazine, aimed at panicky corset sellers, assuring them that going corsetless is just a fad and reminding mothers to educate their daughters on the health benefits of corsets, including supporting internal organs and strengthening back muscles.” The actual Printer’s Ink article is unfortunately, as I have noted, lost in the mists of time.
It’s nice to have a kindred spirit!
Patty Stein and Rita Senger
Last year, I was wondering what happened to Rita Senger, a talented illustrator who disappeared from the covers of Vogue and Vanity Fair in 1919. A Google search led me to the blog of quilter Laurie Kennedy, who mentioned that Patty Stein, a fellow quilter, was Senger’s granddaughter. I e-mailed Laurie one night last November telling her of my interest in Rita Senger, and by morning I had heard from Patty.
Soon after that, I called Patty, who, while baking a cake, shared her memories of her grandmother, who traded her artistic career for marriage to a wealthy businessman. Rita came to life through Patty’s vivid stories, and hearing and writing about her was one of the high points of this project.
Old Books and New Friends
Last October, when I was out in Colorado, I spent two happy days virtually attending the annual meeting of the International T.S. Eliot Society. “Annual meeting” makes it sound like people introducing motions and voting, but it’s actually an academic conference. This was the year of the unveiling of the Emily Hale Archive at Princeton, which consists of over a thousand letters from Eliot to Hale, his long-distance companion of many years. The Eliot world was abuzz! But I digress.***
After the meeting, I followed some of the people I’d come across on Twitter. Just a few days later, one of them, Birkbeck/University of London lecturer Peter Fifield, tweeted that he was planning to start a 1920s best-seller discussion group. Needless to say, I was thrilled. In the year since, the group, which spans three continents, has read good books (The Home-Maker, So Big****) and not-so-good books (The Middle of the Road, The Green Hat) and problematic books (The Sheik, God’s Stepchildren), and we’ve had a great time talking about them all. (Sometimes, the worse the book, the better the discussion.) It’s become a group of friends that I look forward to seeing every month.
Happy Thanksgiving to All!
I haven’t met any of the people mentioned here (yet) in person, but my interactions with them, on Twitter, in blog comments, on the phone, and on Zoom, have greatly enriched my life—a silver lining to the virtual world we’re living in. So, to all of them, and to the rest of you who have shared my adventures in the world of a hundred years ago, happy Thanksgiving!*****
*This is me, except Eleanor of Aquitaine.
**Okay, sat in the passenger’s seat. My brother did all the driving.
***The T.S. Eliot gang almost got its own entry, but my interest in Eliot precedes this project, so they were disqualified.
****Going out on a limb here—this is next month’s selection so I’m only speaking for myself. But it’s Edna Ferber! And it’s wonderful!
*****I was going to round up this post with some charming Thanksgiving magazine covers, but this Norman Rockwell Literary Digest cover doesn’t look at all like a Rockwell,
and this pilgrim/Indian warfare-themed Rockwell Life cover leaves me scratching my head,
People sometimes complain that the world of a hundred years ago is so picked over that there’s nothing left to write about.* After spending a year reading as if I were living in that period, though, I can tell you that there’s a treasure trove of subjects just waiting to be turned into books, articles, dissertations, or academic projects. Here are ten topics that I’m mystified that no one has gotten to yet.**
1. Archiving Erté’s Harper’s Bazar covers
Over the (yikes!) almost four years of this project, I have spent many happy hours finding online copies of Harper’s Bazar covers by Erté, the legendary art deco artist, designer, and crossword puzzle clue stalwart who worked as the magazine’s regular cover artist from 1915 to 1936. I included him in my Thanksgiving lists of 10 1918 People I’m Thankful For and Ten 1919 Illustrators I’m Thankful For.***
But I have also spent many unhappy hours searching for Erté covers in vain. HathiTrust, the Google Books online archive, is missing some issues from 1918 and doesn’t have any at all for 1919 (or from 1923 to 1929, but I’ll worry about that in the future). I’ve found images for some, but not all, of these covers elsewhere, often on Pinterest, which is the source of most of my magazine cover images anyway. Those images that do exist aren’t at the level of quality that these important cultural artifacts deserve.
Someone needs to make high-quality digital scans of the full collection and archive them online**** before the original covers deteriorate any further. (Maybe Harper’s Bazaar—the extra A was added in 1930—has done this, but, if so, the archive isn’t available online, as Vogue’s is.) A book or scholarly article about the covers would be good, too. Get on this, digital humanities people!
2. A biography of cartoonist Percy Crosby
One of the most intriguing people I’ve written about for this blog is Percy Crosby, who penned the cartoon The Rookie from the 13th Squad. The hapless but ultimately stouthearted Rookie was the Sad Sack of World War I. Crosby, who received a Purple Heart after being hit in the eye with shrapnel, went on to create the popular cartoon Skippy, which the Charles Schulz website cites as an influence for Peanuts. He also, I kid you not, won the silver medal in the 1932 watercolors and drawing event in the 1932 Olympics.
Crosby’s personal life was troubled, though. He ran with a hard-drinking crowd that included Jerome Kern, Ring Lardner, John Barrymore, and Heywood Broun. Following a violent episode, his wife divorced him and got a restraining order, and he never saw her or their four children again. He began taking out two-page ads in major newspapers, espousing left-wing views and taking on targets like the FBI, the IRS, and Al Capone. After a 1948 suicide attempt, he was confined to a mental hospital and diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. One of the purported symptoms of his paranoia was his endless ranting about how Skippy Peanut Butter had violated the trademark on his character’s name. Now, I’m no intellectual property rights lawyer, but that doesn’t sound all that paranoid to me. Crosby himself believed that his left-wing views contributed to his prolonged confinement. He died in the mental hospital in 1964.
A biography of Crosby was published in 1978, but his life, and his long confinement, deserve a closer look.
3. Girl Scout badges through the ages
What gives you a better sense of what was expected of girls in a given era than its Girl Scout badges? Well, lots of things, probably, given that the 1920 edition of Scouting for Girls included badges for telegraphy (“send 22 words per minute using a sounder and American Morse Code”), bee keeping (“have a practical knowledge of bee keeping and assist in hiving a swarm…”), and rock tapping (“collect two or three scratched or glaciated pebbles or cobblestones in the drift”). But, as I discovered during my quest to earn a 1919 Girl Scout badge,***** Girl Scout badges do provide an interesting window into the era. I learned all about caring for sick relatives and found out what a cruel practice plucking egret feathers for women’s hats is.
My own Girl Scout book was written closer to 1920 than to today (it had been around a while, but still!). There are some cool badges in that book, like Observer, where you learn about constellations and rock formations and make a conservation exhibit. Others, like Indian Lore and Gypsy, wouldn’t pass muster today.
The current badges look kind of trippy and feature topics like cybersecurity, coding, entrepreneurship, and preparing for STEM jobs. That all sounds way too stressful and careerist for me. Personally, I’d rather learn telegraphy.
Well, I’d better stop before I end up writing the book myself.
4. Did Daisy Ashford really write The Young Visiters?
The Young Visiters, nine-year-old Daisy Ashford’s unintentionally hilarious account of sometimes unsavory high-society goings-on, became a runaway bestseller following its 1919 publication. The manuscript, written in 1890 or so, was discovered by the adult Daisy and circulated among her friends until it reached novelist and publisher’s reader Frank Swinnerton, who arranged for its publication, with an introduction by L. Frank Baum.
Or so the story goes. Some reviewers at the time were skeptical, and there was speculation that Baum himself was the author. When Ashford died in 1972 at the age of 90, her obituary in the New York Times mentioned the doubts about her authorship.
Here is the opening paragraph. You decide for yourself whether you buy it as the work of a preteen or if, like me, you’re with the skeptics.
Except you don’t have to leave it at that! Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, you can figure out the authorship for yourself. In recent years, researchers have used computer software that analyzes similarities between texts to discover new sources for Shakespeare’s plays and help unmask J.K. Rowling as the author of the mystery novel The Cuckoo’s Calling, published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. I wonder what a comparison between The Young Visiters and the works of L. Frank Baum (or maybe Frank Swinnerton) would reveal. Go for it!******
5. The Crisis Press, The Brownies’ Book, and Jessie Redmon Fauset
The life and work of W.E.B. Du Bois is not exactly lost to history. To cite only one recent example of his place in the culture, the novel The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois was an Oprah book club pick and was long-listed for this year’s National Book Award. The Crisis, the NAACP magazine that he edited, is rightly celebrated as a groundbreaking publication for and about African-Americans. Less well-known are the side projects of the magazine’s publishing company, including books like Hazel, by Ruth White Ovington, the first children’s book to figure an African-American protagonist, and The Brownies’ Book, an all-too-short-lived magazine “designed for all children, but especially for ours.” Recent high school graduate Langston Hughes published his first poems in the magazine. There have been a number of academic articles about The Brownies’ Book, as well as a 1996 anthology, but the magazine and the Crisis Publication Company’s other ventures deserve to be better known today.
While you’re at it, how about a biography of The Brownies’ Book managing editor Jessie Redmon Fauset, who was a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance?
6. Women Illustrators of the 1920s
Career opportunities for talented women in the 1920s were limited, but magazine illustration was one field where women could, and did, succeed. Their work and their lives are worth revisiting.
Why did Helen Dryden, once the highest-paid woman artist in the United States, end up living in a welfare hotel?
How did Gordon Conway make it to the top of her profession without taking a single art class?
Why did talented illustrator Rita Senger disappear from the covers of Vogue and Vanity Fair in 1919? (Well, I told you all about that here.)
As for Neysa McMein, suffragist, Saturday Evening Post illustrator, best friend of Dorothy Parker, lover of Charlie Chaplin, Ring Lardner, Robert Benchley, and others, I just want to spend a winter afternoon reading a gossipy account of her life.
In May 2018, I read a May 1918 New York Times article about the apparent death of popular aviator Jimmy Hall, who had been shot down behind enemy lines. I decided to Google him to see if by any chance he had survived. But James Hall is a common name, and I kept getting articles about the co-author of Mutiny on the Bounty. Eventually I realized that the courageous aviator and the successful writer were…one and the same!
Hall, it turned out, had been captured by the Germans. After the war, he moved to Tahiti, where he and co-author Charles Nordhoff penned Mutiny on the Bounty and other best-sellers.******* His wife was partly of Polynesian descent. Their son, cinematographer Conrad Hall, won three Oscars, including one for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Amazingly, no one seems to have written a biography of this fascinating man. If I haven’t done enough to persuade you to take on this project, it would definitely require a trip to Tahiti, where his modest house is now a museum.
8. Edna Ferber biography and revival
Edna Ferber checks a number of boxes to spark contemporary interest: she took on racism and sexism in her novels and short stories, and she may have been a lesbian. On top of that, she was a wonderful writer, at least judging from the early novel and short stories that I’ve read, featuring the dreams, disappointments, and, very occasionally, triumphs of department store saleswomen and accountants and stenographers. Ferber was a regular at the Algonquin Round Table, which would make for entertaining research.********
Harper Perennial Classics has reissued some of Ferber’s novels, which is a good start, but she’s due the kind of revival that Tim Page sparked for novelist Dawn Powell a few decades back when he published her diaries, her letters, and a biography. Any volunteers?
9. The Illustrators of New Rochelle, New York
High on the list of nonexistent books I’m longing to read is a group biography of Norman Rockwell, Coles Phillips, the Leyendecker brothers, and the other illustrators who turned suburban New Rochelle, New York, into one of the country’s most important artists’ colonies. If you can believe Wikipedia, New Rochelle was the source of more than half of the illustrations in major publications in the early 1920s.
I want SO much to read about J.C. Leyendecker’s romantic relationship with the model for his Arrow shirt ads
and about his brother Frank’s short life and tragic death.
I want to read about Coles Phillips’ apparently happy marriage (one of all too few I’ve read about in the period) to his wife Teresa, who served as his primary model, “making up in keen interest and endurance what I lacked in pulchritude,” as she wrote in the Saturday Evening Post after his death in 1927 at the age of 46.
I want to read about Normal Rockwell’s…well, I can’t think of anything I want to read about Norman Rockwell. But, if you write it, I’ll read it!
10. This one’s for me!
By now, you may be wondering why I’m asking the rest of the world to do all of these projects and not saving any for myself. Well, don’t worry—I’ve set aside a project, or two, or three. I’m not sure when I’ll be able to finish, or, um, start them, but I look forward to telling you more when I can.
In the meantime, get to work, everyone!
*Actually, this is mostly an amateur opinion. The academics I know who are working on this period have more than enough to keep them busy.
**That I know if. If I’m wrong, please let me know!
***I’ve noticed recently that some of my old posts have gone all Alice in Wonderland on me, with small photos suddenly huge, like this squiggle from the Thanksgiving 2019 post.
I’ll get with WordPress to see what this is about and in the meantime am resizing the giant photos as I come across them.
****Or at least the covers (currently up to 1925) that are out of copyright.
*****Actually, a 1916 Girl Scout badge. My logic in using 1919 in the title was that this was the Girl Scout book being used 100 years ago at the time of the post. If I had known that this would go on to be by far my most popular post, read by many people who didn’t have a clue about my 100 years ago project, I would have used the 1916 in the blog post title.
******Go for it yourself, you might reasonably say. I tried once, with some different texts, and it’s kind of hard.
*******Speaking of fake child authors, Hall confessed in 1946 that he had written the critically acclaimed 1940 poetry collection Oh Millersville!, supposedly the work of a 10-year-old girl named Fern Gravel.
********That’s Ferber on the bottom right corner, looking like she’s wearing a skeleton mask, in the Al Hirschfeld cartoon of Algonquin Round Table members. I can’t post it here because it’s still under copyright.
Objectively speaking, winter in Cape Town is not all that bad. The temperature rarely dips below the high 40s, and a cold day is one when it doesn’t make it into the 60s. Subjectively speaking, though, winter in Cape Town is miserable. It rains a lot, and houses don’t have central heating, so we sit around freezing and grumbling.*
What I needed to improve my mood, I decided, was some summer fun from the covers of 1921 magazines. I could pretend I was somewhere hot, hanging around at the beach**
or the pool
or playing golf
or basking in the moonlight
or cavorting about in the altogether,
or just hanging around,
maybe at the summer house.
(Okay, these are not all ACTUAL wishes. I’m not much of a fisherman, for example.)
Lo and behold, I did actually make it to the northern hemisphere in time for the last few weeks of the summer. It turns out, though, that my image of Washington in August was a teeny bit romanticized. Life has been more like this
But I’ve had a great time hanging out with my friends,
and even though I haven’t spent much (okay, any) time working on my manuscript
I swear that’s going to happen before the fall sets in.
But fall is weeks away, so let’s not think about it right now. After all, in the words of the #1 hit song of late summer 1921, “In the meantime, in between time…”
*Of course, I always keep in mind how fortunate I am compared to most people in Cape Town.
Turns out that you can use this soap for laundry, dishwashing, and cleaning around the house. No mention of washing your hands, surprisingly. (UPDATE 7/2/2021: As Susan of witness2fashion points out in the comments, naphtha is a petroleum product and not suitable for use on the skin.) I don’t know how the ship fits into the story, but the illustration is appealing. I’ll take it!
Mmm, a can of fat! But look at those baked goods. Plus, you can send away for a free book of recipes by Mrs. Ida C. Bailey. I’m in!
I love this cozy scene, complete with a bedside bookshelf. The text brags that “wamsutta” made it into the dictionary, which sounds to me like the first step toward losing your trademark, but if Wamsutta’s happy I’m happy. I’ll take a set of percales!
I’m not sure why the owners of this mansion need a fold-out sofa, and if they do why it needs to go in the doorway, but this one is nice-looking as sofa beds go, and I’m impressed that it opens by one easy, well-balanced motion.** Yes, please send me handsome illustrated booklet and name of nearest dealer!
I’m a little freaked out by the clown, but real food, what a novelty!
I’m not QUITE convinced that the men looking downward in their dinner partner’s direction are admiring her vanilla dessert. But look at that cake! I’ll go to my grocer and insist on Burnett’s.
More cake? It would be rude to say no!
I know I’m supposed to be focusing on the products, not the ads, but I looked at this, said, “Coles Phillips!”, zoomed in, and saw his initials under the seat of the rocker. I’ll take the polish and buy the white shoes later.
If I were in D.C., I would be saying, “Are you out of your mind? It’s 95 degrees! I don’t even want to THINK about black stockings!” But I’m in freezing Cape Town–well, in the 50s, but no one here has central heating–so bring on the hosiery!***
Thomas Edison is offering $10,000 to whoever can come up with a phrase of no more than four or five words to convey the idea that his phonograph is not a mere machine but “an instrumentality by which the true beauties and the full benefit of music can be brought into every home.” That doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue, so I can see why he’s looking for help. I’ll get on it.
If it’s not a corset, I’m all in.
The small print says you have to send them a name of a new LHJ subscriber, and I usually balk at selling out my friends to corporations. Plus, I already have a copy. Still, I love the idea of this giveaway.
I’ll take all the gingham! And sure, what the hell, send me the free book about Mrs. Prentiss’s humorous gingham-related experiences.
Can I skip the camera and buy the dress?
Brown soap is so 1919.
Sure, I WANT an olive spoon and a pickle fork. But do I NEED an olive spoon and a pickle fork?
This bedspread is the definition of meh.
No! Nooooo! Traumatic flashbacks of the awful government-issued furniture that I had in my Foreign Service housing, and that my friend Emily once took the desperate step of jamming into a spare bedroom. Granted, they’re not selling furniture here, they’re selling Congoleum. Which, as attentive readers will remember, is actually tar paper.
This canned meat picnic might be fun for Mother, but it’s not going to be much fun for anyone else.
No offense to exploding fairies, but this is “fragrantly Parisian” and I have fragrance allergies.
Ditto for giant perfume bottle worshipers.
Not buying the “corn syrup is health food” claim.
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud, it is not conditional on what kind of soap you use.
As an expert on Italy–as in, I’ve never been there but I’m taking a beginning Italian class–I take offense at this.
“They are fresh peaches…” Yeah, and I’m a debutante.
This one almost made “Meh” but was a victim of its placement in the magazine, right next to this story,
which made me wonder why she’s living the laundry dream all alone.
Speaking of helpful husbands, this one is so beguiled by this cabinet that he comes to the kitchen to give his wife a hand with the dishes. “What matter a few smashed pieces? Think how quickly he will learn.” Not even the nifty flour dispenser would make me willing to put up with this nitwit.
If I were judging artistry, this one would get kudos for the surprisingly modern graphics. However…prunes.
I don’t believe judging anyone by their appearance, let alone a baby, so I’m strictly commenting on the skill of the artist in replying “That it has a nice personality?”****
*Well, there was the time when this ad left me desperately craving bread.
**But frankly a little skeptical given my life-endangering experiences with ca. 1970 sofa beds at childhood sleepovers.