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.
Last year, I celebrated Black History Month by writing about The Brownies’ Book, the groundbreaking magazine for African American children that was edited by W.E.B. Du Bois. Sadly, the magazine failed to reach its subscription goals and, after a two-year run, ceased publication in December 1921. While it lasted, The Brownies’ Book not only provided young African Americans with a chance to read about young people like themselves but also gave them a chance to see themselves in print by sending in letters to the editor, photos, poems, or stories. Aspiring writer Langston Hughes did all of these things.
Hughes, who graduated from Cleveland’s Central High School in 1920,* made his first appearance in the pages of The Brownies’ Book in July of that year. Along with his graduation photo, he submitted a letter saying, “It might interest you to know that I have been elected Class Poet and have also written the Class Song for the graduates. I am, too, the editor of The Annual and am the first Negro to hold the position since 1901, when it was held by the son of Charles W. Chestnut. I thank you for the honor of having my picture in your publication.”**
After his graduation, Hughes went to Toluca, Mexico, to live with his father, who had separated from his mother shortly after he was born. Hughes was hoping to convince him to pay for his education at Columbia University. There was tension between the two, in part because Hughes’ father disliked what he thought of as his son’s sissified demeanor.*** Hughes’ father eventually agreed to pay his tuition, but only if he studied engineering instead of literature, which Hughes agreed to do.
In September 1920, Hughes submitted three poems to The Brownies’ Book. Jessie Redmon Faust, the magazine’s literary editor, wrote to Hughes accepting one of the poems, “The Fairies,” which she considered “very charming.” She asked if he had any stories about Mexico, or if he knew of any Mexican games. Hughes sent her an article about Mexican games, along with some more poems. “Fairies” and another poem, “Winter Sweetness,” appeared in the January 1921 issue of The Brownies’ Book, along with the article.
You can judge the poems for yourself, but, as something of a connoisseur, I have to say that “The Fairies” is not top-tier ca. 1920 fairy poetry. It is, however, the kind of writing that gets you published in The Brownies’ Book, which is what Hughes was aiming for.
On to the games! In one of them, called Lady White, a girl is chosen as Lady White and another as her suitor, Don Philip. The other players circle her in Ring Around the Rosie formation and sing a song about how Lady White’s suitor must break a window to behold Lady White. Some more singing goes on, and then Don Philip tries to break through the circle to get inside. Curious about this Freudian game, I Googled “Doña Blanca” and found this video from a children’s program, which I beg you to drop everything this instant to watch. In this version, the children don’t try to ram through each other’s enlaced hands, so it’s safer but makes for kind of a lame game.****
More publications soon followed. The March 1921 issue included another poem, and an article about the Mexican city of Toluca appeared in April. In the article, Hughes recounts interesting details of daily life, such as, “On the second of November, which is a day in honor of the dead, they sell many little cardboard coffins and paper dolls dressed as mourners, and if a person meets you in the street and says ‘I’m dying,’ you must give him a gift unless you have said ‘I’m dying’ first; then, of course, he has to treat you to the present.”***** Also, Hughes notes that people’s houses have hardly any furniture except chairs, 27 in the case of one of his friends. “Perhaps it is a good idea, for on holidays there is plenty of room to dance without moving anything out,” he philosophizes.
In July 1921, there was a play by Hughes about a young couple who earn a gold piece selling pigs at the market, fantasize about what they can buy with it, and end up giving it to a poor old woman with a blind son. This is as close to hack work as Hughes gets.
The November 1921 issue featured a poem by Hughes, “Thanksgiving Time,” as well as a story, “Those Who Have No Turkey,” about a country girl who, visiting her snooty city cousins on Thanksgiving, is shocked to hear from a newsboy that his family has no turkey to eat and invites him and his family to dinner at her relatives’ house. It’s an engagingly told story, although Hughes spends too much time on buildup and rushes through the dinner in two paragraphs.
Hughes’ account of accompanying a high school class on a hike up Xinantecatl, an inactive volcano near Toluca, appeared in the December 1921 issue, the magazine’s last. Again, there are lots of interesting details, like the list of items he was told to bring along: “first, plenty of lunch; then, two warm blankets because we were to sleep in the open mountains; my camera for pictures; a bottle for water; a small amount of cognac or some other liquor in case of mountain sickness in the high altitude; and a pistol. ‘But above all,’ they said, ‘take onions!” The reason, it turned out, was that smelling them helps with altitude sickness. Indeed, Hughes reports, the onions turned out to be a lifesaver in the thin mountain air.
Hughes’ work in The Brownies’ Book shows us an aspiring writer who knows his audience and has a flair for words, but there’s no evidence of budding genius. There’s more to the story, though. Early in 1921, he sent Faust a poem that he had written in July 1920, after crossing the Mississippi on his way to Mexico. She told him that she would publish it–not in The Brownies’ Book but in The Crisis, the NAACP’s magazine for adults.
The poem was “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” It appeared in the June 1921 issue of The Crisis and became Hughes’ signature poem.******
The career of one of America’s greatest poets had begun.*******
*Hughes believed throughout his life that he was born on February 1, 1902, but, as this fascinating 2018 New York Times article recounts, a writer and poet researching his own family history came across several 1901 references to the infant Langston Hughes in the Topeka Plaindealer, an African American newspaper. February 1, 1901, is now widely accepted as his date of birth. So “Teenaged Poet” is a bit of a stretch–but he thought he was a teenager in 1921.
**Charles Waddell Chesnutt was a well-known writer and political activist. His daughter Helen Chesnutt was Hughes’ Latin teacher and a figure of inspiration to him. Chesnutt’s Wikipedia entry says that he had four daughters but does not mention a son.
***Information about Hughes’ personal relationships is scant, but many scholars now believe that he was gay.
****We used to play a version of the ramming through the hands game when I was a kid, which, like many aspects of 1960s-1970s childhood, is horrifying in retrospect.
*****I lived in Mexico City in the 1980s, but sadly never observed this particular Day of the Dead tradition in practice. I suppose it would have been impracticable in a city with a population of 20 million.
******Unfortunately in retrospect, The Crisis often used swastikas in the magazine’s graphic design. The symbol had no political significance at the time, of course.
*******Blogger/composer Frank Hudson of The Parlando Project has been focusing on Hughes’ early work this month. His post about “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” is here.
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.
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.
And came up with…almost nothing. Just a handful of magazine covers, most of which I’d already seen, the last one this August 1919 Vanity Fair cover.
Armed with the last name Stein, I found a listing for a Mrs. Rita Senger Stein of Highland Park, Illinois, among the life members of the Art Institute of Chicago in its 1925 annual report. That was it.
If I wanted to find out more about Rita Senger, I realized, I was going to have to do something almost without precedent for this blog: contact an actual living person.*
So, one evening back in November,** I sent a message to Lori Kennedy asking if she could put me in touch with Patty Stein. By the time I woke up the next morning, there was an e-mail from Patty.
Patty turned out to be a delightful person, and we talked on the phone for almost an hour. She was making a cake as we talked, which I found extremely impressive, since I consider myself a decent baker but I can’t even focus if there’s music on in the background.
Rita Senger was born in New York City in 1893, the daughter of Adolph and Barbara (Ehrlich) Senger. (The name was sometimes spelled “Sanger.”) She was an art prodigy as a child, and she went to art school at the age of sixteen or seventeen.
Senger illustrated one cover for each magazine in 1916,
June 15, 1916
two Vogue covers in 1917,***
July 15, 1917
September 1, 1917
one Vanity Fair cover in 1918,
Patty is not sure how Rita met her husband, Joseph Stein. It was an unusual match for the time; he was Jewish and Rita, who came from a non-religious family, was not. Stein’s grandfather was one of the first Reform rabbis in Chicago, but he himself was not a practicing Jew. He was a wealthy businessman, the owner of Lucien Lelong, Inc., the U.S. affiliate of the Paris-based Société des Parfums Lucien Lelong. (The two companies were sold to Coty in 1953.)
These drawings of Lucien Lelong’s Paris office appear on a blog about the company’s history. The magazine and date are unidentified, but they look like ca. 1920s Vanity Fair to me.****
Joseph had a keen artistic sense himself, and he paid a great deal of attention to the appearance of his products. Here is his patent for a Lucien Lelong perfume bottle:
When I saw a picture of Rita with her extended family on Lori Kennedy’s website, I hoped that, having given up her career, she had gained a fulfilling life of a different sort. Life is rarely so simple, unfortunately. Like many parents of their time and class, she and her husband sent Tom to boarding school from an early age. Living outside of the hustle and bustle of the city, she felt isolated. “I believe she was a very frustrated artist and wife,” Patty said.
Rita did appreciate the benefits of wealth, though. In addition to their home in Highland Park, she and her husband owned, over the course of their marriage, an apartment on the Champs-Élysées and houses in Maine and in the Long Island town of Oyster Bay.
When their son Tom grew up, he wanted his own family to be very different from the one he was raised in. He married Pauline Blume, the daughter of Ernest Blume, a Marshall Field’s home goods buyer. Ernest and Joseph had had a nodding acquaintance before the couple met. The two men, who shared an appreciation for aesthetics, saw each other occasionally at lunch at Marshall Field’s.
Art was an important part of the family’s daily life. “I did not grow up with a mom who had crocheted doilies on the sofa,” Patty said. When the family went to an exhibition of Bertoia’s work, Patty’s sister was told to stop touching the tree sculptures. “My grandmother lets me,” she said.
Rita died on December 30, 1990, at the age of 97. For her descendants, her art collection, her furniture, and her own art work serve as tangible reminders of her artistic sensibility and her talent. For the rest of us, her art lives on online. The Library of Congress, which has the original of the July 1916 Vanity Fair cover in its collection, featured it in a 2002 exhibition titled “American Beauties: Drawings from the Golden Age of Illustration.”
If Rita had enjoyed that same freedom in her own life, the world would be the richer for it. Still, I feel lucky to have discovered the work she did leave us, and, through Patty, to have learned this remarkable woman’s story. I can think of no better way to celebrate Women’s History Month than telling it here.
*The “almost” being because in 2018 I called the Huntington Museum of Art in West Virginia and talked to a very nice woman who confirmed that the museum still owned the painting “Lead Kindly, Light,” by William Edouard Scott, which was featured on the cover of the April 1918 issue of The Crisis. Also, I e-mailed the Library of Congress in 2019 for a post that’s still on my to-do list. But contacting people whose job it is to answer your questions is very different from reaching out to a stranger and saying, “Tell me all about your grandma!”
**I know, not exactly lightning speed. In my (feeble) defense, I left Washington, D.C., where I’d unexpectedly spent almost a year, for Cape Town shortly after my conversation with Patty, and after that I had some time-specific posts to do for the holidays, Black History Month, etc. Still!
***Or possibly three. Vogue’s website identifies this September 15, 1917, cover as being Senger’s,
but credits the September 1 cover, which is definitely hers, to Alice De Warenn Little, so it’s possibly that they flipped the attributions. Vogue published two issues a month at that point, and I’ve never come across two covers by the same artist during the same month.
****The life of Lelong, who was also a prominent couturier, makes for fascinating reading. During his marriage (possibly of convenience) to Princess Natalia Pavlovna Paley, she had a messy entanglement with the writer Jean Cocteau, who was gay. Another one of Lelong’s wives later married Collette’s widower.
I spent much of today binge-reading the first fourteen issues of The Brownies’ Book, the NAACP’s magazine for African-American children. Doing this on the last day of Black History Month is the blogging equivalent of cracking open the textbook for the first time on the night before the final exam, but I had a wonderful time taking in the stories for and about African-American children, reading the poems and games chosen especially for them, and, most of all, hearing from the children in their own words.
In 1919, W.E.B. Du Bois, the editor of the NAACP magazine The Crisis, announced the upcoming launch of a new magazine “designed for all children, but especially for ours.” The Crisis ran a children’s issue every October, featuring African folk tales, stories and poems about African-American children, and photos of cute babies; The Brownies’ Book included these and many other features. Jessie Redmon Fauset, the literary editor of The Crisis, served in this position at The Brownies’ Book as well, and later as its managing editor.
Jessie Redmon Fauset, date unknown
There’s no way I could do justice to this wonderful magazine in one blog post, so I’ll just share a few of my favorite items.*
“The Jury,” a page of letters from young readers, is the part of The Brownies’ Book I enjoyed the most. In the January 1920 inaugural issue, a boy named Franklin Lewis, who dreams of being an architect but isn’t sure if this is possible, writes in asking “if you will please put in your paper some of the things which colored boys can work at when they grow up.”**
The Brownies’ Book, January 1920
This photograph of children in the “Silent Parade,” the famous 1917 march protesting violence against African-Americans, also appeared in the inaugural issue.
The Brownies’ Book, January 1920
A profile of child violinist Eugene Mars Martin, with this accompanying photo, ran in the “Little People of the Month” feature. Mars, I was saddened to learn, died suddenly at the age of 22 while working as the director of a music school.
The Brownies’ Book, January 1920
This cri de coeur by a reader, addressed to The Crisis but printed in “The Jury,” is both sad and hilarious. “P.S. I’m only fifteen years old, so please have a little pity,” she concludes.
The Brownies’ Book, April 1920
Here are some drawings sent in by readers.
The Brownies’ Book, May 1920
The pageant in this photo took place at Atlanta University, where Du Bois had formerly served as a professor.
The Brownies’ Book, September 1920
The Brownies’ Book encouraged readers to send in their high school graduation photos and printed them all. Check out the graduate in the middle row on the right.
The Brownies’ Book, July 1920
Here he is with a byline, describing games children play in Mexico, where he had gone to live with his father after his graduation. (UPDATE 5/1/2021: After reading this post, Frank Hudson of The Parlando Project put the words of a Langston Hughes poem from The Brownies’ book to music.)
The Brownies’ Book, December 1920
I also love “The Judge,” the monthly column where a wise elder (could it be Du Bois? (UPDATE 5/1/2021: no, it was Fauset)) teaches lessons to children in a nuanced and non-preachy way. I was sorry to see the Judge explaining to children why they shouldn’t have done the things that led to whippings, but happy to see him back in the next issue gently telling the parents that there are more effective ways to discipline children.
Particularly popular among readers were the stories of African-American role models like Frederick Douglas, surveyor and almanac writer Benjamin Banneker, and Katy Ferguson, a freed slave who founded the first Sunday school in New York.
Katy Ferguson, The Brownies’ Book, June 1920
And then there were the covers. Unlike The Crisis, which frequently used well-known white illustrators as cover artists, The Brownies’ Book featured work by African-American illustrators, including many women.
As ahead of its time as it was, The Brownies’ Book was of its time as well. There were some head-scratching features, such as the stories about babies who scored impressively on eugenics tests.*** I didn’t know quite what to make of the story of how Mississippi Senator Blanche Bruce saved his former owner from the poorhouse by intervening with the President to get him a shipyard job, and then, to save him from the humiliation of knowing he had been rescued by his former slave, asked Mississippi’s white senator to make the nomination in his place. (UPDATE 2/1/2021: The blogger at Whatever It Is, I’m Against It, who writes about the New York Times of 100 years ago, points out in the comments that Bruce’s owner was also his father. This sheds a fascinating new light on the story.)
The Brownies’ Book, March 1920
These are minor quibbles, though, about a magazine that, in the face of the uniform whiteness of children’s literature, gave African-American children stories about children who looked like them, and about adults whose achievements they could aspire to emulate.
The Brownies’ Book only lasted two years. The magazine wasn’t able to meet its circulation target, and the December 1921 issue was its last. As much as that breaks my heart, it seems like a small miracle that it existed at all.
I’ve only scratched the surface. For more, you can read the magazine here.
*I’d promise to return to The Brownies’ Book later but fear invoking the Promised Post Curse.
**I do have my doubts about whether Franklin was real. This and some other letters strike me as suspiciously on the nose in espousing the magazine’s beliefs. Others are unmistakably from real children.
***One baby was declared perfect except for a slightly imperfect left tonsil.
Having this in the kitchen would ALMOST be worth the incredible hassle of cooking with it.
Ladies’ Home Journal
Least Cute Old-Timey Product
We can all be thankful that we don’t live in a world where linoleum rugs are a thing.
Ladies’ Home Journal
Ladies’ Home Journal
Worst Product Name
Ladies’ Home Journal
Ladies’ Home Journal
lose out to pure evil.*
Least Convincing Advertising Claim
There are plenty of dubious claims, like this
Ladies’ Home Journal
which, if you can’t read the small print, is about a woman who decides to go to a party based solely on the quality of the inviter’s stationery. Strong contestants all, but I’m taking an Italian class at the moment, and one of my classmates recently sent us pictures of his Italian grandma’s gnocci preparations,
Karl Robert Schaberg
so I know whereof I speak when I award top honors in this category to
Most Absorbing Narrative
Helen and her friend muse about men, gas mileage,** and socialism on their way to pick up Helen’s husband Harry at the station.
Ladies’ Home Journal
Most Distinctive Advertising Trend
Trompe-l’oeil curling pages were apparently all the rage.
Ladies’ Home Journal
Most Retro Ad Design
As I’ve mentioned, the perfume industry hasn’t gotten the memo that Art Nouveau*** is over.
Ladies’ Home Journal
Least Cute Kid
In this always-competitive category, here are the runners-up
Ladies’ Home Journal
and the winner.
Least Appropriate Literary Reference
Because what says “let’s go whitewash some fences!” like a necktie?
Ladies’ Home Journal
Most Diet-Busting Ad
If I hadn’t been so hungry when I was judging this category, the prize probably would have gone to this,****
Ladies’ Home Journal
but after seeing this
Ladies’ Home Journal
I yelled out desperately to my husband, who had just returned from the grocery store, asking him if he had bought any bread. Which, given that we had vowed to abstain from it, he hadn’t. All I could think about was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and my Swedish-inspired smoked salmon salad,
which I normally love, just wasn’t doing it for me. This didn’t help.
Ladies’ Home Journal
If you needed proof that advertising, even 100-year-old advertising, works, there it is.
Least Diet-Busting Ad
Creepiness was a surprisingly popular advertising trend a hundred years ago. I first took note of it in my least popular post of 2018. It’s still with us in the form of these corn medicine drop people
Ladies’ Home Journal
and, the winner, this giant wall baby.*****
Best Good Riddance
I’ve been meaning to do a post on Aunt Jemima for months, and have done a huge amount of research, which is a sign I’ll probably never get to it. So I’ll just say that after years of ads where she’s constantly ordered to make pancakes as an enslaved person
Good Housekeeping, December 1919
and hassled for free pancakes even after emancipation,
Ladies’ Home Journal, January 1920
I’m pleased to see her heading up north to finally earn some money.******
This isn’t a highly competitive category, with only one contestant featuring people of color in non-servant roles. Here it is:
Ladies’ Home Journal
Most Revolutionary Ad
There I was, flipping idly through the Ladies’ Home Journal, when I saw this.
Ladies’ Home Journal
“Wait, what?” I said. I had never seen an ad for a sanitary product in a 100-year-old magazine before. Deodorant was about as personal as advertising got.
Ladies’ Home Journal
I did some research and found that, while disposable sanitary napkins had been around in various forms since the 1880s, this was indeed the first advertisement for them in a major magazine and, therefore, their debut as a large-scale commercial product. The ad, which never explains exactly what these newfangled things are for, says that they’re made of a material that was first used for soldiers’ bandages during the war. This struck me as probably bogus but turned out to be true.
Best Ad Artistry
I read an interview with Lionel Messi once where someone asked him who the best player in soccer was. He said that there were himself and Ronaldo and then there was everyone else, and he went on to rank-order everyone else. In 1920s advertising terms, that would be Old Dutch Cleanser and Indian Head cloth. Old Dutch Cleanser is absent from LHJ and GH this month, so the winner by forfeit is
Ladies’ Home Journal
On to February!
*Actually there was a worse product name, which was (unintentionally) an ethnic slur, but it was disqualified from inclusion for that reason.
**Twenty-five miles per gallon!
***Which I love, don’t get me wrong. Missing the heyday of Art Nouveau is one of my greatest regrets about the timing of this project, up there with coming along after Jessie Willcox Smith replaced Coles Phillips as Good Housekeeping’s regular cover artist.
****Unless I DQ’d it out of annoyance over its sexism.
*****In fairness, Nujol also has one of the best ads ever:
Woman’s Home Companion, January 1918
******Of course I realize that the whole thing is still highly problematic.
Happy new year, everyone! I’m sure you’re as glad to say good-bye to 2020 as I am.
It is, incredibly, my fourth New Year’s here at My Life 100 Years Ago. That’s four Saturday Evening Post covers by J.C. Leyendecker. In 1918 we had a baby soldier,
in 1919 a baby celebrating peace,
and in 1920 a shushing baby,
which didn’t make much sense until I realized that it was a censored version of this original:
This year we have a baby coal miner.
This puzzled me, because the violent conflicts in the mining industry seem more up The Liberator’s or The Crisis’s* alley than the business-friendly Post’s. The magazine’s website explains that “the 1921 cherub anticipates an end to the bitter coal miners’ strike in Alabama.” If Leyendecker were still at it (his streak ran from 1907 to 1943), this year’s baby would be getting a vaccine.
Meanwhile, Good Housekeeping and Sunset have New Year’s babies of their own, going for cute and creepy respectively.
Jessie Willcox Smith
The Top 10 Posts
I only published 15 posts total this year, and the top ten were the first ten. This struck me at as strange and a little alarming at first, but when I looked more closely at the numbers it made sense. Four out of the top five were from March, April, and May—i.e. peak COVID lockdown time, when everyone was desperate for entertainment.
Smart Set co-editors H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan may have been the greatest critics of their era, but their attitude toward woman left a lot to be desired. I had a wonderful time writing this post on July 4 and managed to finish it just in time to watch the fireworks from the roof of my building. This is probably my favorite post ever as far as the pictures go.
It was fun comparing magazine covers from 1915 and 1920, and I enjoyed hearing about your favorites. Rita Senger’s winning 1915 Vanity Fair cover took me in a fascinating direction that you’ll be hearing about soon. (UPDATE 4/6/2021: You can read more about Rita Senger here.)
This Valentine’s Day post started out with idle curiosity—what happened to four aspiring actresses after they won a movie magazine contest? It turned into a bit of an obsession as I delved into the lives of popular Follies girl Helen Lee Worthing and her husband Eugene Nelson, a prominent African-American physician. Of all the posts I’ve done, I may be proudest of this one, and I’m glad it found so many readers.
Okay, I get the hint! I’ll do another ad roundup soon.
A Pioneering Gay Novel of 1919. Not that being #11 out of 15 is such a spectacular achievement, but I can’t resist giving this post a plug. Finding a novel about a loving gay couple who just wanted to live like normal people was my biggest surprise of the year.
My Quest to Earn a 1919 Girl Scout Badge. This was my most fun post ever, and it lives on, with more than twice as many views in 2020 as the #1 post published during the year. In the meantime, a new edition of the Girl Scout handbook has been published—I should get on it.
Best Readership News
You know how when you’re just starting out in your profession you work like crazy, and then when you get more senior you can just coast? Yeah, me neither, but blogging works like that. In 2018, when I was reading full-time as if I were living in 1918, I published 94 posts. In 2019, I had 21. This year, 15. But here’s what happened to the numbers.
There are technical and highly boring reasons for this having to do with the impact of longevity on how search engines assess websites, but whatever! I’ll take it!
Happy 2021! May it be better than your 2020.
*The January 1921 Liberator and Crisis covers:
**Although not as bad of a rut as the time back in 2019 when four out of five posts in a row started with “Celebrating.”
The children’s books holiday shopping guide was going to be my farewell to 1920, but I’m back in Cape Town after an unexpectedly long sojourn in DC, and while all my friends there are longing for summer weather and the beach I’m pining for snow.*
And where better to find snow (in Cape Town, anyway) than on the cover of a December 1920 magazine?
The award for snowiest magazine cover goes to Helen Dryden at Vogue,
December 15, 1920
followed by Motor,
and The Farmer’s Wife, which consistently punches above its weight cover-wise.
Santa makes an appearance on the Saturday Evening Post’s Norman Rockwell cover,
December 4, 1920
on the Ladies’ Home Journal,
and, naturally, on St. Nicholas.
One of Santa’s helpers is hard at work on the Saturday Evening Post.
J.C. Leyendecker, December 25, 1920
There’s holiday greenery at Modern Priscilla
Blanche K. Brink
and House & Garden.
They’re wrapping presents at Woman’s Home Companion
and hoping for presents at Literary Digest.
and The Smart Set
pay halfhearted tribute to the holidays with red-and-green color schemes.
Children on Norman Rockwell’s Life cover ask, “Is he coming?”,
along with the children on Maclean’s up in Canada
and millions of children around the world tonight, and a hundred years ago tonight.
Happy holidays to all!
*Not that they actually have snow in DC at the moment, or pretty much ever at Christmas, but it did snow a week after I left. Which quickly turned into slush and then into ice, as my friends, who have little patience for my foul-weather nostalgia, were quick to remind me.