So Much Nostalgia!

If you remember my post on Currier & Ives and the Nostalgic Past, you’ll remember that I wrote about the sharp divide between the world depicted by Currier & Ives prints and reality. I also wrote about how these images created a nostalgic vision of the world that didn’t reflect reality accurately, kind of like a funhouse mirror (historian Roland Marchand uses the term ‘Zerrspiegel’ to describe this phenomenon among advertisers and commercial artists).

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This was what comfortable country life looked like in 1868, according to Currier and Ives. Image credit: Library of Congress.

If you recall (or even read) my other post, then you might remember that I quoted a passage from historian Jackson Lears about what nostalgia meant to Americans in the 19th century.  I thought it was especially useful in understanding how longings for the past shaped how Americans looked at their lives in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Tom Watson
Tom Watson, Populist Leader and opponent of false agrarian nostalgia. Image credit: C. Vann Woodward’s “Tom Watson: Agrarian Rebel” (1938).

Turns out that Dr. Lears has written another interesting book, “Rebirth of a Nation.” Its a history of the United States from 1877 (end of Reconstruction) to 1922 (not sure yet what he is using as a bookend here). I’m only a few chapters in, and I came across this interesting passage that made me think about nostalgia, Currier & Ives artwork, and how Americans thought about themselves and their history at the turn of the 20th century. In his chapter on the struggles between city and country Americans, he quotes Tom Watson, a Populist farmer from Georgia who championed poor farmers and agrarian causes. In 1888, Watson was a member of the state legislature and found himself speaking out against “prosy people” who had never worked the tough farm life and were trying to make money by investing in agriculture from their distant city offices:

“It takes these city fellows to draw ideal pictures of Farm life- pictures which are no more true to real life than a Fashion plate is to an actual man or woman…In Grady’s farm life there are no poor cows. They are all fat! Their bells tinkle musically in clover scented meadows & all you’ve got to do is hold a pan under the udder & you catch it full of golden butter. In real life we find the poor old Brindle cow with wolves in her back & “hollow horn” on her head & she always wants to back up where the wind won’t play a tune on her ribs & when you milk her you get the genuine ‘blue milk’…”

Continue reading “So Much Nostalgia!”

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Yearbook Ephemera Fun

You have read our modest production;
We trust it appeals to all.
Now read our advertisers,
And go to see them all.

I always enjoy reading old yearbooks, trade literature, and other “small run” publications from the past. Especially before the 1950s, the writers and editors of these works were really quite clever in their writing and it makes for a really fun and interesting time. It feels like the writers are free to be a little more honest and less scripted than usual. I wonder if part of the reason why the writer’s personality can really come out is because editing isn’t quite as rigorous or serious as it would be for a major publication that is circulated to a large group of people. Or maybe its because these types of publications aren’t created for the money and there is a friendlier relationship between writers and readers…Today I was going through old issues of the “Reveille,” yearbook for the Maryland Agricultural College (University of Maryland, College Park today). Here’s a neat little drawing that I found on one of the last pages, before the patron ads:

Ad Clown
Image Credit: 1913 Reveille
RV Truitt
Truitt was one of two “Humorous Editors” on the yearbook staff. Image Credit: 1914 Reveilee

I flipped through the yearbook and it looks like our clever poet (and perhaps artist?) was R.V. Truitt of the Class of 1914. According to his senior biography, he was a biology student from Snow Hill, Maryland. Involved in a dozen campus activities from yearbook to lacrosse and the Programme Committee on Junior Prom. He was also “quite a military man” and was a captain in the college’s military cadet program. “Although it took the Faculty a long time to realize Truitt’s ability,” his fellow students confessed the students were not so slow, judging by the positions of responsibility they have entrusted to him. We believe that his ability will place Truitt on top in his future undertakings.” Whatever happened to Truitt, I’m sure his creativity and clever writing served him well. Click here to read his full senior entry! Luckily, the University of Maryland University Archives has digitized most of their yearbooks, you can find more of them here. Happy reading!

John Haberle: A Counterfeit Artist

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John Haberle, Imitation, 1887, oil on canvas, Image credit: Smithsonian Gallery of Art.

Take a good look at this picture. Does it look like a photograph? Well look again, its a painting! And its 130 years old! I was at the National Gallery of Art in D.C. the other day walking through a room of still life paintings when I came across one called Imitation by artist John Haberle. I thought it was so detailed and real-looking that I had to stop and admire it for a good long while. Usually when I’m walking around the National Gallery I stop and look at the paintings that have funny hats or interesting facial expressions. When I’m being serious I’m usually more drawn to landscapes, especially from Hudson River School artists. But this time it was Haberle’s painting of what looks like the contents of someone’s pockets tossed onto a board and framed.

Upon further research, I learned that Haberle was not just a still life painter, he was particularly gifted at a special kind of still life painting called “trompe l’oeil” (French for “fool the eye”). Though the art-style had been around since at least the Renaissance, it was particularly popular in the late 19th century in Europe and the United States. Perhaps artists felt like they had to compete with photography which seemed like the most “real” depiction of real life. Other popular American artists who specialized in trompe l’oeil were John Peto and William Harnett. According to one writer, “Trompe l’oeil images share an affective intention of double wonderment: first, to make their viewers wonder “Is this real? and What is real?” and, second, to make us wonder (in the sense of “marvel”) at the artist’s virtuosity in provoking such questions in the first place.” Where photographs offer a way for viewers to look through a “window” at reality, trompe l’oeil paintings subvert this kind of realism in a way, by appearing “real” for a moment before the viewer realizes that it is not. Continue reading “John Haberle: A Counterfeit Artist”

A Fiddler, a Poet, and a Graveyard: The Spoon River Anthology’s Happier Poetry

fiddler
“Fiddler,” early 20th century. Image source: Smithsonian American Art Museum

The Earth keeps some vibration going
There in your heart, and that is you.
And if the people find you can fiddle,
Why, fiddle you must, for all your life.
What do you see, a harvest of clover?
Or a meadow to walk through to the river?
The wind’s in the corn; you rub your hands
For beeves hereafter ready for market;
Or else you hear the rustle of skirts
Like the girls when dancing at little Grove.
To Cooney Potter a pillar of dust
Or whirling leaves meant ruinous drouth;
They looked to me like Red-Head Sammy
Stepping it off, to “Toor-a-Loor.”
How could I till my forty acres
Not to speak of getting more,
With a medley of horns, bassoons and piccolos
Stirred in my brain by crows and robins
And the creak of a wind-mill- only these?
And I never started to plow in my life
That some one did not stop in the road
And take me away to a dance or a picnic.
O ended up with forty acres;
I ended up with a broken fiddle-
And a broken laugh, and a thousand memories,
And not a single regret.

In 1914, poet Edgar Lee Masters anonymously published a series of poems that were later called “The Spoon River Anthology.” I got the book as a Christmas present and am enjoying reading them. The poems are free-verse and are written as epitaphs of deceased people in the fictional town of Spoon River. But it wasn’t all made up. Masters himself lived in a small town in rural Illinois and used his neighbors as inspiration for his poetry, sometimes barely even changing peoples’ names. Real-life banker Henry Phelps was changed to Henry Phipps. Henry Wilmans became Harry Wilmans. Continue reading “A Fiddler, a Poet, and a Graveyard: The Spoon River Anthology’s Happier Poetry”

Currier and Ives and the Nostalgic Past

There’s a happy feeling nothing in the world can buy…It’ll nearly be like a picture print by Currier and Ives. These wonderful things are the things. We remember all through our lives…

“Sleigh Ride” by Leroy Anderson, 1948

Currier and Ives has a special place in American society and our memory of the past. The prints made by the 19th century lithography company usually invoke fond memories today, which is exactly what they were designed to do. “Mention Currier and Ives and most people think of images of 19th-century home life — of lovers whispering in each other’s ear; elegant children holding fluffy kittens; idyllic farmhouses set in a snowy landscape,” a 1998 New York Times article wrote when describing a new museum exhibit of their prints. Back in the day Currier and Ives was called “the Grand Central Depot for Cheap and Popular Prints,” though its rare to see original prints in homes today. But, they had an impact on home decoration and our ideas about what a “good home” looked like that I think are still relevant today. There is one print called “The Four Seasons of Life: Middle Age” that I really like, and I think is a good example for understanding the wider world of Currier and Ives. Continue reading “Currier and Ives and the Nostalgic Past”

Jumbo: A “Civilized” (and Giant) Terrapin

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Could Jumbo be one of Testudo’s ancestors? Photo credit: UMD Libraries.

When I was researching for my “Dutch Belted Cow” post, I came across a neat 1886 newspaper article called “The True Story of a Pet Land Turtle Named Jumbo.” Being a University of Maryland graduate, this story of a huge terrapin that could perform tricks and was a beloved family pet was a lot of fun to read.

Jumbo and his Mistress.JPG
Artists’s depiction of Jumbo from the original article.

Jumbo the terrapin was a seriously impressive creature! Weighing in at around 100 pounds by the author’s estimate, Jumbo could walk around his yard with a boy balancing on his back and liked to eat bananas and other fruit that his mistress would feed him.  Jumbo was devoted to his mistress and liked to lay his head in her lap, especially whey she had some tasty fruit for him to munch on! He also loved company and would play with the cat and anyone who would spend time with him. I’ve transcribed the entire article below so you can read the whole thing. Continue reading “Jumbo: A “Civilized” (and Giant) Terrapin”

War of the Worlds (Who Scared Who?)

My first experience with War of the Worlds was pretty frightening, to say the least. It was in second grade, and I was sick with pink eye on Halloween day. I was home with Dad, and for reasons I can’t remember why anymore, we decided to watch the 1953 classic War of the Worlds. Though I thought I was brave enough for an ‘old people’ movie, I never made it to the end. Too scary for me. And to this day, I haven’t ever gone back and finished the film. Maybe I never will, who knows?

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A lot of accounts of the famous 1938 radio broadcast of War of the Worlds sound like my own experience with the terrifying tale of alien invasion. There are a lot of newspaper headlines from the next day that read “Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama on as Fact,” or something similar, painting a picture of masses of listeners confused, scared, or some mix of emotions that resulted in general panic and outrage. As a result, fire was added to ongoing debates about radio and its influence on society, and Orson Welles earned a reputation as a dramatic actor that would help him have a long and storied career.

Orson Welles
Photo credit: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Now, there seem to be two schools of thought about the 1938 War of the Worlds broadcast and its reception: 1- it scared tons of people, or 2- it didn’t scare anyone at all. Its easy to search the internet for sensational headlines about the War of the Worlds panic, and there are still a lot of accounts of millions of Americans who believed that invasion was upon them. In 1940 Hadley Cantril, a big name at the time in radio research, co-authored a book with Herta Herzog and Hazel Gaudet called The Invasion from Mars. Using data from the American Institute of Public Opinion, the book claimed that over one million people believed that the broadcast was a report of a real-life invasion and was not made-up at all. Continue reading “War of the Worlds (Who Scared Who?)”