“Coastal Post Office” by artist Stevan Dohanos published by the “Saturday Evening Post” magazine on August 26th, 1950.
In this day and age of Facebook, Twitter, and e-mail, when information travels at the speed of light, the U.S. Post Office system seems a quaint and costly anachronism – and an easy target for government budget cutters.
Yet despite the changes that have come to the system in recent decades, and the carping about rising postage, slow service, or overpaid workers, the U.S. Post Office as place and institution in the local community – whether remote rural outpost or big-city neighborhood branch – is still, even today, a much-loved part of the American scene.
And over the years, in the nation’s cultural tableau and social register, the post office has been portrayed fondly as a valued place and integral part of the community.
Take, for example, how the Saturday Evening Post magazine portrayed a local post office scene on one of its covers from August 26, 1950. This rendering, shown at right, by artist Stevan Dohanos (1907- 1994), is titled “Coastal Post Office.” It portrays the “Menemsha Post Office” – an actual place on Martha’s Vineyard Island, Massachusetts.
Detail from Stevan Dohanos’ “Coastal Post Office.”
Dohanos depicts this post office as something of a busy community hub in 1950, with people coming and going. A line of patrons is queued up, extending out through the entrance doorway, each person awaiting his or her turn at the postal services window. Outside, a local artist has set up a display of one of his paintings, being admired by two onlookers. A couple of other locals are simply biding their time at the front of the building, one leaning on a cane, and another siting on the porch.
A close-up portion of Dohanos’ painting displayed at left reveals a bit more detail about the postal patrons and the services being offered — a woman reading her mail on the way out; signs in the post office window announcing, “Skiffs Rented” and “Home Baked Goods,” and another higher up for a local “bake” of some kind on “Friday.” True to form, and as suggested by Dohanos in this rendering, the thousands of local post offices that stood across mid-20th century America were active community hubs — and many remain so today. Thousands of post offices that stood across mid-20th century America were and still are active community hubs. Then and now, they have been and continue to be important gathering places and information centers, offering multiple services beyond just the mail, also as Dohanos relayed of Menemsha in 1950.
Those were surely the halcyon days of the U.S. postal system; a time when letter writing, mail, and the local post office were all a more central part of everyday American life. Yet still today, the U.S. Post Office system is a major player in American communities and the American economy. In 2010 it had revenues of $67 billion, which if it were a private company, would place it at roughly No. 29 on the Fortune 500 list. The U.S. post office system has more domestic locations – i.e., some 31,800 post offices – than Walmart, Starbucks, and McDonald’s combined. And despite the system’s current financial woes and the rapidly changing nature of information culture, the long-standing community place known as the local post office is still a welcomed and valued presence in many communities.
Recent photo, Menemsha Post Office.
Artist Stevan Dohanos, meanwhile, were he alive today, might be pleased to know that the Menemsha Post Office – which is actually located in the town of Chilmark, Massachusetts on the southern end of Martha’s Vineyard Island – appears to be still operating today as a combination grocery story and Postal Service substation. It’s open for business mid-May thru mid-September, Monday through Saturday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The structure, shown at left, appears somewhat differently than it did in the time Dohanos did his rendering more than 60 years ago, but the resemblance is still there. A story about its local operation and one of its long-time postmasters and store owners appears as a link in “Sources” below. It is not known, however, if the Menemsha Post Office is on the latest list of targeted post office closings.
A Stevan Dohanos illustration, “Rural Post Office at Christmas,” provides the seasonal cover art for the Saturday Evening Post of December 13, 1947.
Another post office rendering by Stevan Dohanos for TheSaturday Evening Post appeared on the cover of the magazine’s December 13, 1947 issue. This one, entitled “Rural Post Office at Christmas,” shown at right, depicts a wintry scene with a rural resident, likely a farmer, who has parked his truck out front with a cow riding in back and a dog in the cab. The farmer is carrying several packages – Christmas presents, no doubt – to the entrance of the red brick post office building. The overhead sign at the building’s entrance says “Post Office, Georgetown.” It is believed the model for this rendering was the actual Georgetown, Connecticut post office which in those years was located on North Main Street in that town from about 1920 to sometime in the 1950s, when it then moved to a new location.
A somewhat crisper portion of this Dohanos painting, displayed below, reveals a bit more detail in the scene. A sign on the ground at the corner of the post office building features a Santa Claus on the move with mail sack over his shoulder, also bearing the seasonal admonition: “Don’t Delay, Mail Today.” Through the doorway, an older man in a white shirt can be seen, likely the postmaster waiting to help with the packages. Behind him, through the doorway, rows of postal boxes can be scene, and through the window, tacked to the wall, are various notices and announcements. Prints of this particular Dohanos painting – both in its Saturday Evening Post cover form and as the painting by itself – can be found for sale online. The painting used for the Saturday Evening Post cover was offered for sale at Sothebys in March 2010 with an estimated price of between $15,000 and $20,000.
Detail from "Rural Post Office at Christmas," S. Dohanos.
At the Saturday Evening Post, Stevan Dohanos – along with J. C. Leyendecker and Norman Rockwell – was one of the magazine’s most prolific and popular cover artists, doing more than 100 covers there as well as others for story composition.
Dohanos also worked for Esquire and Medical Times magazines and provided advertising art for Caterpillar, Four Roses Whiskey, Maxwell House coffee, Pan Am airlines, Cannon Towels, Olin Industries, John Hancock Insurance, and others. In addition, Dohanos illustrated WWII posters, did Christmas Seal art, film art for White Christmas, and also wall murals for a number of federal buildings from West Virginia to the Virgin Islands.
“Wanted Posters,” cover scene title for the February 21, 1953 Saturday Evening Post, by artist Stevan Dohanos.
Another Dohanos rendering of post office activity in the American community came on the cover of the February 21, 1953 edition of The Saturday Evening Post. Entitled “Wanted Posters,” the scene shows a group of three young boys in their cowboy attire, complete with hats and six-shooter guns, looking up at the latest FBI wanted posters on a wall in the post office lobby. The “most wanted” posters have been regular fare in many post office lobbies for decades, and have typically included unflattering mug shots of the nation’s most notorious criminals. The boys in this rendering appear somewhat in awe of what they are viewing and reading. They have apparently taken a break from their play, and wandered into the free and open lobby of the local post office, deciding to take a look at the posted information on the nation’s real criminal element. They are not likely contemplating a try for the reward money, but perhaps they may add to their play fantasy by what they read. And who knows, maybe one of them might even be inspired to go into criminal justice work. But surely such cold and stark “money-on-your-head” public postings must have helped dissuade the young play outlaws that this was no real life for them. Meanwhile, the postal worker at the stamp window in this scene is watching the boys with seemingly amused approval.
Detail from “Wanted Posters” reveals that one of the offenders is wanted for “mail fraud” the other “bank robbery.”
The FBI’s “most wanted” poster program came about after a reporter for the International News Service asked the FBI in 1950 for the names and descriptions of the “toughest guys” the Bureau wanted to capture. The resulting story generated so much publicity and had so much appeal that then FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover began the “Ten Most Wanted Fugitives” program. The program at post offices, however, has done its share, as at least 14 of the “Ten Most Wanted” FBI criminals between 1950 and 1999 were apprehended as the result of folks recognizing the criminals from postings they saw at their local post offices.
Mailmen & The Mail
“Mailman,” is the title of the cover art for the May 13th, 1944 edition of the Saturday Evening Post, by Stevan Dohanos.
Other Saturday Evening Post covers by Stevan Dohanos featuring postal themes includes his “Mailman” cover for the May 13th, 1944 edition. This illustration shows an umbrella-covered mailman slogging through an early spring rain making his appointed rounds, bulging mailbag in tow. And today, more than 60 years later, there are thousands of letter carriers that continue to make their daily rounds, rain or shine.
The U.S. Postal Service currently has something on the order of 570,000 full-time workers, making it the country’s second largest employer. All of these folks are not letter carriers, or course, as many work in various other parts of the mail system. Still, only Wal-Mart employs more people in the U.S. than the Postal Service. And the U.S. mail system still handles an enormous amount of “product.”
As of 2010, the U.S. Postal Service was delivering an average 560 million pieces of mail each day; more than 170 billion annually, accounting for about 40 percent of all global mail. However, in recent years, the composition of the U.S. mail bag has been changing in major ways. In the late 1970s, for example, Congress prevailed upon the Postal Service to allow private companies to carry letters needing urgent delivery. As a result, Federal Express and the United Parcel Service (UPS) built enormously valuable businesses on what was once Post Office turf. Today, UPS and FedEx have respectively 53 and 32 percent of the American express and ground-shipping market, while the Postal Service has about 15 percent.
“Mailman” detail – What’s in the U.S. mail sack today?
Then came e-mail in the 1990s, which has since devastated first-class mail – the primary funder of most U.S. mail operations and the Postal Service’s most profitable form of mail. With e-mail’s ascendancy, “old-fashioned,” physical-form letter-writing declined fairly dramatically, pushing first-class mail volume way down, declining from 103.7 billion pieces in 2001 to 78.2 billion pieces in 2010.
By 2005, junk mail had surpassed first-class mail for the first time. Yet junk mail, per piece, is only a third as valuable as a first-class letter. And junk mail rises and falls with the vagaries of the economy. Recently in the U.S., when times were flush with booming real estate sales and easy credit, banks deluged mailboxes with mortgage deals and credit-card offers. But when the recession hit in 2006-2010, total mail volume plunged 20 percent.
Stevan Dohanos did this “Stamp Collecing” cover for the Saturday Evening Post of February 27, 1954.
Back at the Saturday Evening Post in the 1950s, artist Stevan Dohanos did another postal-related cover illustration, this one depicting a father and son engaged in stamp collecting, shown at right. Stamp collecting then and now, is a fairly huge global enterprise. There are some 200 million stamp collectors world wide, 25 million of those in the U.S. The first U.S. postage stamps were authorized by Congress in 1847, with Benjamin Franklin and George Washington appearing on some of the earliest known issues in July 1847. Commemorative stamps have also been issued in the U.S. since 1893, when a set of 16 were issued to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World (1492-1892). Those were $1 stamps and the first one depicted a scene entitled “Isabella pledging her jewels” — to finance Columbus’s first expedition. Since then the U.S. commemorative and postage stamp universe has expanded broadly to include many different categories of stamps along with collectors who partake of them — stamps of presidents, statespersons, and politicians; stamps of famous places, historic events, and famous battles; stamps of birds and other wildlife; stamps of sports figures, film stars, and celebrities of all stripes; and more. Among notable stamp collectors have been, for example, Franklin Roosevelt, who also designed several American commemorative stamps while he was U.S. President. Libertarian author Ayn Rand revived her childhood interest in stamps to become an avid collector in later life. And even some rock stars such as Freddie Mercury, lead singer of the band Queen, and John Lennon of The Beatles, were childhood stamp collectors.
“Stevan Dohanos” 1940s-1960s
Photograph of Artist Stevan Dohanos at work, undated.
Stevan Dohanos, it turns out, was not just a casual observer of the American postal scene. In later life he would become quite involved with art for U.S. postage stamps and would also do some post office wall murals during his career. Born in Lorian, Ohio. Dohanos was the son of Hungarian immigrants. A childhood admirer of Norman Rockwell, Dohanos’ own talent was noticed by his family and men he worked with at a local steel mill. After a two-year home study course in art, he enrolled at the Cleveland Art School as a ful-time student, graduating to become a commercial artist in Cleveland. He later settled in the Westport, Connecticut area and began submitting his work to The Saturday Evening Post, his first cover appearing there in the March 7, 1942 edition, depicting a WWII search-light team. During the next fifteen years he became one of the Post’s regular cover artists, his work categorized as “American realist,” influenced by Edward Hopper. He also painted some wall murals for the government during the Great Depression.
“Legend of James Hamilton--Barefoot Mailman” (mural study, West Palm Beach Post Office), 1940, S. Dohanos, panel 2.
Stevan Dohanos also had a role in depicting some of the “remote delivery” mailman lore, as postal carriers, especially in the earlier years, were often known for their heroics delivering mail in difficult and out-of-the way places. In 1939 the Treasury Department’s Section of Fine Arts contracted Dohanos to paint six murals depicting the “Legend of James Edward Hamilton, Mail Carrier” in the West Palm Beach, Florida Post Office. Hamilton was one of the “barefoot mailmen,” letter carriers who worked a remote stretch of rural Florida in the 1880s – a 68-mile roadless and part-by-boat route from Palm Beach to Miami, much of it by beach walking. The round trip of 136 miles from Palm Beach to Miami and back took six days. Hamilton mysteriously disappeared on the route, either drowned, taken by alligator, or some say, murdered. In conducting his work on the murals, Dohanos corresponded with Charles W. Pierce, postmaster in Boynton Beach, Florida who had also been one of the carriers on the “barefoot route,” which ended in 1892 after a rough road was installed. Pierce first used the term “barefoot mailman” in conversation with Dohanos, the term then applied to the murals Dohanos produced. In 1943, the novel, The Barefoot Mailman, by Theodore Pratt, was based on the story of James Hamilton, and a film followed in 1951 starring Robert Cummings and others. Some of the studies for the Dohanos post office wall murals are now in the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum and have also been displayed at the Library of Congress.
Stevan Dohanos helped design this 1967 JFK stamp.
In 1959, Dohanos was asked by the U.S. Post Office to design a stamp commemorating the 10th anniversary of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. In the 1960s, after the Saturday Evening Post ceased to use artist illustrations on its covers, Dohanos took a position as chairman of the National Stamp Advisory Committee where he helped design and select art for postage stamps. Dohanos worked with stamp art during the administration of seven U.S. presidents and nine postmaster generals, and he knew from his own experience how much the public display art work meant to its creators. “Artists are always interested in seeing their art reproduced,” he said at one point during his Stamp Advisory Committee years. “Imagine seeing your work reproduced four and a half billion times.” Dohanos designed 46 stamps for the U.S. Postal Service, including one honoring John F. Kennedy in 1967. Among others he designed were those commemorating the statehood of Alaska and Hawaii, another on the Food for Peace Campaign in 1963, and one featuring duck decoys with the caption, “Folk Art U.S.A.” As a design coordinator Dohanos also oversaw the art work for more than 300 other stamps. In 1984, the Postal Service’s Hall of Stamps in Washington was dedicated in his honor. He died of pneumonia in 1994 at the age of 87.
Stevan Dohanos’ paintings today can be found in the collections of the Avery Memorial of Hartford, The Cleveland Museum, New Britain Museum of American Art, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and the Whitney Museum of American Art.
“The End of Mail” cover story illustration, Bloomberg Business Week, May-June 2011.
Today’s magazine cover art featuring the U.S. Postal system has not been in the tradition of those old Saturday Evening Post covers capturing community bustle at a picturesque post office in a coastal town, or of Christmas cheer a-coming in December’s mail. Rather, today’s magazines are now focused on the financial side of the story, as Bloomberg Business Week did with its May-June 2011 cover story displayed at left.
Yet for millions of Americans there is still something of the Stevan Dohanos and Saturday Evening Post imagery and vitality that survives in today’s real world postal system – and a longing among many that something like it should survive into the future. But how to do that has been the major problem facing Congress and country in recent years, as a variety of bills proposing major changes have been offered and debated. And as this is written in September 2011, more than 3,600 U.S. Post Offices across the land have been slated for shut down.
Yvonne Rennolds stops by the Arrow Rock, Arkansas post office in August 2011 to get her mail and bring postmaster Tempe McGlaughlin a container of pasta salad. The post office is among those slated for closing. Sarah Hoffman.
The U.S. postal system it would seem — as Stevan Dohanos’ historic renderings remind us – is about more than just money. The post office, especially at the community level, is also about social connection – people-to-people and community-to-government. Like Facebook and Twitter, the local post office is a kind of social networking – the actual on-the-ground physical network that is out there working every day, connecting people to government, or at least extending that opportunity. These brick-and-mortar places then, are a kind of connective national tissue. Post offices still help to “bind a nation together” – words from the founding language and Congressional debate to justify the system. So what sense is there in tearing apart this connective tissue?
Kim Billington of Waverly, WA, a city council member, at her town's post office which serves 100 residents in southern Spokane County. Billington says the post office is the only building in town that is staffed every day. Photo, AP.
Those American small towns and remote rural regions now targeted for post office closings will surely become future assets; places that can and will absorb future growth. Why disconnect them now?
Paring down far-flung networks and centralizing services may seem an efficient accounting at the moment. Yet if it costs the nation citizen connectedness today and imposes a future capital replacement cost tomorrow, isn’t that really a false economy? Rather, if a network of connectedness exists out there now, why take it apart? Why dismantle something that connects people to their government, is in place now, and can serve the future?
Some 60 post offices may close in Mississippi...
Would it not be better to rebuild and repurpose this network – or even expand or combine it with other government services, old and new – but at all costs, keeping it in place? Why not refurbish these places and bolster their networking capability by adding community services – from worker training counseling and housing assistance, to energy conservation outreach and computer training? Surely with all that the government is doing now – or should be doing – to help American communities and lift local economies, there ought to be a way to keep and revitalize today’s national network of local postal locations.
Article Citation: Jack Doyle, “The U.S. Post Office, 1950s & Today”, PopHistoryDig.com, September 29, 2011.
Sources, Links & Additional Information
Stevan Dohanos wasn’t the only cover artist at the Saturday Evening Post who did postal- or mail-related cover art. This one, titled “Letter From Overseas,” by artist John Falter, appeared May 8, 1943.
December 8, 1945: “Post Office Sorting Room” by artist John Falter for the Saturday Evening Post.
February 22, 1936: “Reading Her Mail at the Greenville Post Office,” by artist Ellen Pyle for the Saturday Evening Post.
February 18, 1922: “Sorting The Mail,” by artist Norman Rockwell for the Saturday Evening Post.
Sandra Taylor Smith and Mark K. Christ, “Arkansas Post Offices & Treasury Dept.’s Section Art Program, 1938-1942,” Arkansas Historic Preservation Program, 1500 Tower Building, 323 Center Street, Little Rock, AR 72201.
Lot 171, Stevan Dohanos, “Georgetown Post Office (Don’t Delay, Mail Today),” American Paintings, Drawings & Scuplture, Catalogues, Sothebys, March 2010.
Norman Rockwell’s painting of six year-old Ruby Bridges being escorted into a New Orleans school in 1960 was printed inside the January 14, 1964 edition of Look magazine.
In June 2011 at the White House, Norman Rockwell’s 1963 painting, The Problem We All Live With, depicting a famous school desegregation scene in New Orleans, began a period of prominent public display with the support of President Obama. The White House exhibition of Rockwell’s piece, which ran most of 2011, drew national attention to an iconic moment in America’s troubled civil rights history.
Rockwell’s painting focuses on an historic 1960 school integration episode when six year-old Ruby Bridges had to be escorted by federal marshals past jeering mobs to insure her safe enrollment at the William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans. Ruby was the first African American child to enroll at the school, and the local white community – as elsewhere in the country at that time – was fiercely opposed to the court-ordered desegregation of public schools then occurring. Rockwell’s rendering focuses on the little girl in her immaculate white dress, carrying her ruler and copy book, as the four U.S. marshals escort her. The painting also captures some of the contempt of those times with the scrawled racial epithet on the wall and the red splattering of a recently thrown tomato.
Norman Rockwell at work, mid-career.
Rockwell’s portrayal first appeared to wide public notice in January 1964 when it ran as a two-page centerfold illustration on the inside pages of Look magazine. The painting ran as an untitled illustration in the middle of Look’s feature story on how Americans live, describing their homes and communities.
The context of the Ruby Bridges scene rendered by Rockwell had been heavily reported in print and on television in November 1960, with the anger of the mobs that day burnished deeply in the public mind. Magazine readers viewing Rockwell’s piece in 1964 would likely recall the unhappy context of young school children being heckled and needing federal protection.
July 15, 2011: President Obama with Ruby Bridges (girl in painting), Rockwell Museum CEO, Laurie Moffatt, and behind Obama, Rockwell Museum President, Anne Morgan, viewing Rockwell’s painting at the White House near the Oval Office. White House photo, Peter Souza.
In 2011, President Obama had a hand in bringing Rockwell’s original painting to the White House, as did others, according to the Washington Post, including Ruby Bridges herself, the Norman Rockwell Museum which owns the painting, Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), and U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA). Some quiet lobbying helped bring the painting to the White House, suggesting it be displayed there at the 50th anniversary of Ruby Bridges’ admission to the Frantz school. “The President likes pictures that tell a story and this painting fits that bill…,” explained a statement in the White House blog. “In 1963 Rockwell confronted the issue of prejudice head-on…” However, at the time of the painting’s White House display, some reporting had erroneously stated the Rockwell piece had initially appeared on thecover of the January 14th, 1964 Look magazine. That is a forgivable mistake given the fact that so much of Norman Rockwell’s work frequently did appear on magazine covers, most notably at the Saturday Evening Post. But the error raises an important question, nonetheless. Why didn’t the Rockwell painting of the famous civil rights incident run on the cover of Look magazine or some other magazine?
Norman Rockwell, circa 1940s.
Well, therein lies a whole other tale, or at least a part of the story not often told – about how depictions of race and civil rights evolved in American art and popular magazines during those times. By way of presenting some of that story here, the article that follows will look at the history of Rockwell’s Ruby Bridges piece; three other works he did related to race and civil rights; and how Rockwell, his magazine sponsors, and popular magazine publishing dealt with race and civil rights in the 1940s-thru-1960s period. First, some background on the artist.
Born in 1894, Norman Rockwell grew up in New York city, and as a boy dreamed of becoming an artist. By the time he was ten he was drawing constantly. He soon dropped out of high school and enrolled in art school, first at the National Academy School, but by 1910, at the prestigious Art Students League. After graduation he did some of his first work for Boy’s Life magazine. In 1916, Rockwell did his first cover for Saturday Evening Post, then one of America’s premiere weekly magazines. For nearly the next fifty years, he would continue making much-loved Saturday Evening Post covers, most depicting everyday scenes of 20th century Americana. Rockwell in fact, would do more than 320 covers for the Saturday Evening Post through 1963. But that’s only part of his story.
1929: Girl & Doll's Heart.
1949: Game Called, Rain.
1954: Girl in The Mirror.
1958: The Runaway.
Rockwell’s cover subjects for the Post ranged across American daily life – from a young boy in a doctor’s office awaiting a curative needle or teenage girls gossiping at a soda fountain, to a rookie baseball player reporting to play his first game or a worn-out politician at the end of a hard day of campaigning. Some of Rockwell’s covers dealt with aspirational themes and democratic values. In 1942, in response to a speech given by President Franklin Roosevelt, Rockwell made his famous “Four Freedoms” series, each of which also ran as a Saturday Evening Post cover – Freedom of Speech (Feb 20, 1943), Freedom of Worship (Feb 27, 1943), Freedom from Want (March 6, 1943), and Freedom from Fear (March 13, 1943).
During this period as well, his Rosie the Riveter cover for the May 29th, 1943 edition of The Saturday Evening Post, and another depicting a “liberty girl” for the September 4th, 1943 edition, helped the government recruit female workers for the war effort during WWII. Some of these paintings traveled around the country in the mid-1940s, shown in conjunction with the sale of government war bonds. “The Four Freedoms” series reportedly brought in a tidy sum of $132,992,539 in war bond funds. Rockwell also did poster art for the U.S. Office of War Information in conjunction with the war bond drives.
Norman Rockwell at work on a 1953 painting for Saturday Evening Post cover, “Soda Jerk.”
While Rockwell’s name became practically synonymous with the Saturday Evening Post, he also did art for other publications, including: Ladies’ Home Journal, McCall’s, Literary Digest, Look,Country Gentleman, Popular Science, and others. Rockwell’s art appeared on the covers of some 80 magazines. His work also appeared in numerous advertisements and he became well known for illustrating the Boy Scouts of America annual calendar. (Galleries of Rockwell’s covers for the Saturday Evening Post are found at a number of very good websites, a few of which are listed at the end of this article in “Sources, Links & Additional Information”). In the 1950s and 1960s, Rockwell in particular — and other artists at the Saturday Evening Post as well — became chroniclers of American culture and America’s culture past as nostalgia. Rockwell worked at the heyday of the Saturday Evening Post’s reign as a magazine powerhouse, when circulation reached 4-to-5 million copies a week, and when a Rockwell cover alone could boost non-subscription sales by 250,000. For millions of magazine readers in those years, Norman Rockwell became a household name in America, even if many art critics at the time didn’t regard his work as “serious art.”
Civil Rights Subjects
“Freedom of Speech” was one of a Rockwell’s “Four Freedoms” series admired by African American activist Roderick Stephens, who urged Rockwell in 1943 to do a similar series to promote racial tolerance.
Rockwell appears to have been first nudged toward civil rights as subject matter in June 1943 when Roderick Stephens, an African-American activist and head of the Bronx Interracial Conference, wrote to Rockwell urging him to do a series of paintings to promote interracial relations. Stephens had been moved by Rockwell’s “Four Freedoms” and was worried at the time that urban race riots would ensue in major cities like his own New York, touched off by the migration of southern blacks to major cities. Race riots, in fact, had then already occurred in Houston, Los Angeles, and Detroit. Although Stephens expressed his admiration to Rockwell for his “Four Freedoms,” he noted that two of the freedoms – “Freedom From Want” and “Freedom From Fear” – were, for most blacks at the time, freedoms denied. Stephens proposed that Rockwell do a series of paintings to be printed and circulated as posters, just as the “Four Freedoms” had been, to promote racial tolerance, featuring subject matter that would illustrate the contributions of blacks to American society and how they helped realize the Four Freedoms. Stephens believed Rockwell was an artist who could make a difference at the time, and could help “advance racial goodwill by years,” offering art to point up what was then in American practice, a restricted conception of freedom. Rockwell is believed to have replied to Stephens, but he never embarked on Stephens’ proposal, more or less rejecting the series idea, explaining to Stephens the difficulties he had encountered creating the “Four Freedoms” series. But there may have been more to it than that, as Rockwell was then laboring under restrictions imposed by The Saturday Evening Post.
Dec 7 1946: “NY Central Diner,” Saturday Evening Post cover by Norman Rockwell.
Rockwell’s venturing into controversial material such as race and civil rights did not come until later in his career, after he had left the Post. Like other artists of the 1940s and 1950s who did commercial art and magazine illustrations, Rockwell was bound by certain publishing covenants and restrictions, written and unwritten, that determined what could and could not appear in magazine covers and illustrations. The Saturday Evening Post, for example, would only allow minorities to be shown in servile roles.
In a 1971 interview with writer Richard Reeves, Rockwell explained the unwritten rule laid down by his first editor at the Post: “George Horace Lorimer, who was a very liberal man, told me never to show colored people except as servants.” Lorimer was Rockwell’s editor at the Post for his first twenty years there. The Rockwell cover illustration at left from the December 7th, 1946 Saturday Evening Post illustrates the rule in practice. The scene, which is also known as Boy in Dining Car, shows a young boy in a railroad dining car studying the menu with purse in hand, trying to determine the proper payment and tip for the black waiter.
Rockwell’s “Full Treatment” SEP cover of May 1940 includes black shoe shine boy.
In addition to the 1946 Post cover above, Rockwell also did other magazine covers and illustrations from the mid-1920s through mid-1940s that depicted African Americans in various roles, usually in minor or servile roles, and sometimes not facing the viewer. Among a few of these Rockwell pieces, for example, are: The Banjo Player, an illustration for a Pratt & Lambert varnish advertisement appearing inside The Saturday Evening Post of April 3rd, 1926; Thataway, a March 17th, 1934 cover illustration for The Saturday Evening Post depicting a young black boy pointing to the direction taken by a thrown rider’s horse; Love Ouanga, a June 1936 illustration for a short story in American Magazine depicting a beautiful, stylishly-dressed young African American woman in a church scene contrasted against more coarse and country dress of other farming and working African Americans also in the scene; Full Treatment, a May 18th, 1940 cover for The Saturday Evening Post depicting a wealthy man being attended to by a barber, manicurist, and a black shoe shine boy; The Homecoming, a May 26th, 1945 cover for The Post depicting a returning military veteran arriving home to a scene of welcoming family and neighbors that also includes an African American worker; and Roadblock, a July 9th, 1949 cover for The Saturday Evening Post depicting a moving van that is blocked by a small dog in an urban alley scene with a variety on onlookers, including some black children.
Continuing into the 1950s and early 1960s, publishing art and mainstream magazines generally were slow to portray African American success stories and the civil rights struggle.
Cover Art, 1950s
1947: Jackie Robinson.
1954: Dorothy Dandridge.
1954: Segregation story.
1955: Thurgood Marshall.
During the 1950s and early 1960s, a time when the civil rights movement was struggling for recognition, the American art community – then involved with modern art and abstract expressionism – was generally not at the ramparts fighting racial discrimination. Nor, for the most part, were America’s most popular magazines in that era featuring African Americans on their covers or doing prominent stories on civil rights. In its May 8th, 1950 edition, Life magazine featured a photograph of baseball player Jackie Robinson on its cover, the first individual African American to be so featured by that magazine. Robinson had become the first African American to break the color barrier in professional baseball three years earlier with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Time magazine, for its part, had used an artist’s rendering of Robinson on an earlier cover in September 1947. Back at Life, meanwhile, actress Dorothy Dandridge became the first African American woman to be featured on a cover at that magazine, for the November 1st, 1954 edition. Dandridge was then appearing in her Academy Award-nominated best actress film role in Carmen Jones. A few stories on segregation also appeared on major magazine covers in the mid-1950s. On September 13, 1954, Newsweek ran a cover story on segregation in schools, showing a white and a black child in a Washington, D.C. school. Time magazine put Thurgood Marshall on the cover of its September 19th, 1955 issue, Marshall then having risen to notice as chief counsel for the NAACP arguing the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education school desegregation case before the U.S. Supreme Court. (see “Brown vs Board…” sidebar, later below, for more details).
A portion of the January 24, 1956 cover of Look magazine showing “Approved Killing” story tagline.
Look, another pictorial magazine similar to Life, and also popular in the 1950s, had rarely if ever used cover art that solely featured an African American. There were black sports stars shown on Look covers occasionally – such as Jackie Robinson, Joe Louis, and Sugar Ray Robinson – but usually as one among five whites in a framed, six-photo layout. Look did give cover billing to a few articles on racial issues in the 1950s. On the cover of its January 24th, 1956 issue, Look ran the title of an article by William Bradford Huie, “The Shocking Story of Approved Killing in Mississippi.”
Although there was no mention of race in the title, and it ran on a somewhat incongruous cover featuring the U.S. teenager (partially shown at left), the “shocking story” inside was truly shocking. It was the story of the August 1955 murder of Emmett Till, a 14 year-old Chicago boy who was savagely beaten, shot, and mutilated by white men in Mississippi while the boy was visiting relatives there. Till, a brash kid who knew nothing about the realities of the South, made the mistake of whistling at a white woman at a local country store. Later abducted from his relatives’ home, Till was brutally pistol-whipped and dumped into a river, his body tied to a heavy metal fan.
Click to read at PBS.org.
Two white suspects – Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam – were later tried and acquitted by an all-white jury in less than two hours. Their defense attorney had called on the jurors to honor their forefathers by not convicting white men for killing a black person. Back in Chicago, Till’s mutilated body was displayed at an open-casket viewing. No mainstream print publication in America at that time published the gruesome photos, although a few black-owned publications did, provoking outrage throughout African American communities.
Inside the January 24th, 1956 Look magazine, the article by author William Bradford Huie covered the Till murder and he also interviewed the two suspects, Roy Bryant and J. W. Milam, who were paid $4,000 to tell how they killed Emmett Till. In the article, the two suspects – then safe from conviction after having been acquitted in their friendly Mississippi trial – confessed to the crime. A year later, in its January 22nd, 1957 edition, Look published a follow-up article on the killing, also by William Bradford Huie, entitled “What’s Happened to the Emmett Till Killers?” That story reported that blacks in the local community stopped using stores owned by the Milam and Bryant families, putting them out of business, as both men were also ostracized by the white community.
1957: MLK bus boycott.
1961: Freedom Riders.
1963: Negro in America.
Cover Art ( cont’d)
On September 3rd, 1956, Life magazine featured a cover story related to slavery and segregation – “Beginning A Major Life series – Segregation,” stated Life at the top of the cover. Time magazine featured Martin Luther King on its cover February 18th, 1957, as King was then in the news for his leadership in the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott. Later that year, on October 7th, 1957, Time and Life both featured the school integration conflict at Little Rock, Arkansas with National Guard troops shown on their covers. By the time of the Freedom Riders in 1961, a Newsweek cover story featured photos and quotes from three key players in the controversy: U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Mississippi Governor, John Patterson. For its June 28th, 1963 edition, Life featured a cover photograph of the wife and child of slain civil rights activist Medgar Evers at his Arlington National Cemetery funeral. Evers, a Mississippi organizer, was shot in the back in his own driveway by a Ku Klux Klan member. In July 1963, Newsweek published a special issue on “The Negro in America,” picturing an unnamed black man on the cover. In smaller type on the cover, Newsweek further explained the focus of its series with the following: “The first definitive national survey – who he is, what he wants, what he fears, what he hates, how he lives, how he votes, why he is fighting … and why now?” For its September 6th, 1963 issue, Life magazine featured a cover story on the historic August 1963 “march on Washington” with a photograph of two of its leaders, A. Phillip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, shown standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial. And as the civil rights movement received more national notice throughout the 1960s, along with urban unrest, more magazine covers followed.
13 Feb 1960: Norman Rockwell, cover feature, Saturday Evening Post.
Rockwell & The Post
Norman Rockwell, meanwhile, was experiencing change at The Saturday Evening Post. By the early 1960s, the frequency of his covers there had slowed – down to a half dozen or so a year – and the magazine was experimenting with new formats. Still, after more than 40 years of his cover art being featured for millions of Post readers, Rockwell was clearly an asset to the magazine. In fact, for the February 13th, 1960 issue of the magazine and its cover story, he was the featured star and title subject. The cover used his famous “triple self-portrait” and gave full billing to a beginning series of articles about him for the magazine taken from a new autobiography written with the help of his middle son, Thomas Rockwell. Shown at right, the cover taglines for that issue of the Post explained: “Beginning in this issue: America’s Best Loved Artist Finally Tells His Own Story… My Adventures As An Illustrator.” Yet Rockwell was chafing at the Post by this time, and his days there were numbered.
1960: Window Washer.
1961: Artist at Work.
1962: Art Connoisseur.
1963: Nehru of India.
Through the early 1960s, Rockwell continued doing Post covers. In 1960, for example he did five more Post covers in addition to “triple self portrait,” shown above, three of which offered traditional subjects: “Repairing Stained Glass,” April 16, 1960; “University Club,” August 27, 1960; and “Window Washer,” September 17, 1960 (with the washer ogling the secretary). Two more Rockwell covers that year were portraits of the 1960 presidential candidates – U.S. Senator John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard M. Nixon. The magazine by then had begun shifting to more portraits of famous people as cover material, and was also using more cover photography rather than illustrations or paintings. Rockwell cover portraits, in any case, held their own at the Post, and included others in the early 1960s, among them: Indian prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, January 19, 1963; Jack Benny, entertainer, March 2, 1963; a serious portrait of President John F. Kennedy to accompany a cover story on his foreign policy challenges, April 6, 1963; and Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, May 25, 1963. Other more traditional Post covers by Rockwell in the early 1960s included: “Artist at Work,” Sept 16, 1961; “Cheerleader,” Nov 25, 1961; and “Art Connoisseur” of January 13 1962, showing a middle-aged man in a museum observing a Jackson Pollack-type painting (this issue also had cover billing for a story inside the magazine entitled, “The Little Known World of Our Negro Aristocracy.”).
Rockwell’s “Golden Rule” appeared on Saturday Evening Post cover, April 1, 1961.
One interesting departure for Rockwell from his normal Saturday Evening Post fare during the early 1960s – and a sign of his more liberal inner concerns – came with the April 1st, 1961 cover that appeared under the title “The Golden Rule.” This illustration actually had its genesis, in part, during the late 1940s when Rockwell had set out to do a painting honoring the United Nations (UN), an organization he admired and found hopeful for solving world problems. For the UN painting, Rockwell had in mind something that would highlight the cultural, racial, and religious tolerance of the organization, and he had visited the UN Security Council Chamber for ideas and sketches. His first efforts yielded a charcoal drawing of several major-nation delegates debating from their seats in a brightly lit foreground. Behind the delegates, in the shadows, was a crowd of more than sixty people – a cross-section of men, women, and children from around the world, some in native dress. But Rockwell had difficulty with the UN delegates agreeing to sit for the drawings, and he also had his own dissatisfactions with his art, so he set the project aside. Some years later, in 1960, he resurrected the project, then changing its composition somewhat and using “the golden rule” as theme. He also incorporated the phrase “Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You” directly into the painting using gold lettering.
Rockwell at work on “Golden Rule,” 1960.
The painting – which ran as a Saturday Evening Post cover on April 1st, 1961 – became a further expression of Rockwell’s inner values and interests, marking something of a turning point in his relationship with the Post, not the least of which was his depiction of people of color. African Americans were also included in the painting and placed in prominent positions – one as a Ruby Bridges-type young girl in the foreground holding her schoolbooks to her chest, and another as a middle-aged black man in a white shirt in the upper right corner looking out at the viewer. Art critics have noted that these African American depictions were positive portrayals that broke with the traditional servile stereotypes at the Saturday Evening Post. And along with the other Asians and Africans shown, were Rockwell’s way of following his conscience and “integrating” a Saturday Evening Post cover on his own. Rockwell also incorporated a portrayal of his second wife, Mary, in the painting. Mary was the mother of their three sons and had passed away in 1959. She is shown in the right middle of the painting holding their grandson she never saw. Rockwell is believed to have completed this painting in November 1960. He was later presented with the Interfaith Award from the National Conference of Christians and Jews for the painting, a citation he treasured.
Rockwell’s last cover for the Post, Dec 1963, an earlier JFK portrait.
By late 1963, Rockwell was about to embark on a career change. He was in his 60s by this time. The cover art at the Saturday Evening Post pretty much continued to focus on Americana and everyday life as it had in the past. Inside the magazine, however, there were contemporary stories of the day; the magazine was slowly changing.
Still, Rockwell had become frustrated by the limits the Post had imposed upon his art, especially regarding political themes and social concerns. By then he had begun thinking about and moving on to other subject matter. So in December 1963, he ended his near half-century with the Saturday Evening Post.
Rockwell’s final cover for the magazine appeared in mid-December 1963. It was actually an earlier portrait of John F. Kennedy he had done during the 1960 presidential campaign which the Post republished in a special memoriam issue that ran after Kennedy’s assassination.
Look magazine at about the time Rockwell signed on, December 1963, then featuring Hollywood’s Cary Grant & Audrey Hepburn.
Rockwell at Look
In December 1963, at the age of 68, Norman Rockwell signed on with Look magazine. Look covers at the time dealt with contemporary subjects, celebrities, and general topics of the day, using mostly photographs. A sample cover from December 1963 appears at left, this one also mentioning a civil rights story inside that edition.
Major circulation magazines in the early 1960s were beginning to feel the competition of television. Collier’s had ceased publication in 1956, and even the Saturday Evening Post was feeling the heat. Yet, Life and Look – the “picture magazines,” as they were sometimes called – remained strong, with solid advertising revenue. Look by the mid-1960s would have some of its best years for sales and circulation.
When Rockwell began doing work for Look, Dan Mich was editor there. Mich was a supporter of thought-provoking journalism, and along with art director Allen Hurlburt, they gave Rockwell freedom to pursue his “bigger picture” interests, as he called them. Look wanted to use Rockwell’s art as a compliment to current reportage and that gave Rockwell opportunity to pursue subject matter that interested him.
Rockwell’s third wife, Mary L. “Molly” Punderson, a fervent liberal, was an influence on Rockwell’s work through the 1960s, as was his friend and psychiatrist Erik Erickson. And Rockwell himself, despite being tagged “conservative” by association with his Saturday Evening Post covers, had his own internal guideposts and values, as already noted above. Rockwell was clearly more liberal/progressive than many of his Saturday Evening Post followers might have realized. Some who knew him described him as a “strict constructionist,” especially so when it came to American values. No surprise then, if given a subject and a free hand where American ideals such as freedom and equality of opportunity were at stake, his brush would be on the right side of those concerns.
Ruby Bridges exiting the William Frantz school in New Orleans, November 1960, with U.S. marshals.
And so it was with the Ruby Bridges episode from 1960. Rockwell came to this particular controversy somewhat after the actual event had occurred. The date of his painting, The Problem We All Live With, is 1963 and its use in the illustration in Look magazine appeared in January 1964. So the Ruby Bridges painting was a studied affair for Rockwell; a project he had worked on for some time and given considerable thought to. In November 1960, at the time of the actual incident, there had been television and news reporting of the event. Rockwell no doubt made use of this reporting and the news photographs of the event. He also employed models to work from as he painted.
Prior to the first integration actions in New Orleans – and there were two schools involved and several black students; three at another school – politicians in Louisiana, including the state’s governor at the time, segregationist Jimmie Davis, had maneuvered to prevent and forestall the integration. In September 1960, the schools there opened initially as segregated. By November, however, the courts had set a deadline to begin school integration, but parents did not know which schools would be involved
“Brown vs. Board…” Landmark Case: 1954
Ruby Bridges being escorted into school, November 1960.
The racial integration of American public schools was triggered by a Kansas welder named Oliver Brown who wanted a better education for his children. Brown had sought the opportunity for his daughter to attend a whites-only school that was closer to his home than the local school for blacks. An earlier U.S. Supreme Court decision dating from 1896 had allowed for the establishment of racially-segregated schools, which the court had then deemed acceptable under the constitution, calling them “separate but equal.” Yet most of these schools were not equal. A long legal battle – a court fight consolidated with other similar cases using the name Brown vs. Board of Education – eventually went to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the case was argued by Thurgood Marshall, chief counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (and who later became a Supreme Court justice). The court unanimously ruled in Brown’s favor on May 17, 1954, and the case became a landmark ruling in ending segregation, not only in schools but throughout a wide variety of public venues.
A federal marshal driving first grader Gail Etienne to McDonogh 19 school in New Orleans, November 14, 1960, one of four black children who entered two previously all-white schools in the city. Times-Picayune photo.
Putting the new law into effect, however, would take years. Initially, as Southern states and counties resisted integrating schools, federal marshals — and sometimes federal troops — had to be used to enforce the law, as in the case of Ruby Bridges in New Orleans. In 1956, U.S. District Court Judge J. Skelly Wright ordered the desegregation of the New Orleans public schools. After a series of appeals, Wright in 1960 set down a plan that required the integration of the schools on a grade-per-year basis, beginning with the first grade. The New Orleans School Board then tested black kindergartners to determine the best candidates. Six-year-old Ruby Bridges was one of six children selected; four agreed to proceed. On November 14th 1960, Bridges integrated the William Frantz School (the other three children were assigned to the McDonogh 19 School).
Rockwell’s Ruby Bridges
Sidewalk protest in New Orleans over school integration, November 15th,1960.
Once it was revealed which schools in New Orleans were the ones chosen for the court-ordered integration, sidewalk protests ensued and white parents promptly removed their children from those schools. However, at Ruby Bridges’ school – the William Frantz school — there were also two white parents who chose to keep their children in the school: a Christian minister’s five-year old daughter, Pamela Foreman, in kindergarten, and another white child, Yolanda Gabrielle, age six. In addition to the jeering of Ruby, these white kids and their parents were also jeered and harassed, even beyond the school grounds. Neighbor turned against neighbor and it got pretty ugly in those communities.
Rockwell, no doubt knew about all of this and likely read news accounts of the protests. On November 15, 1960, The New York Times reported the greeting Ruby and her mother received as they arrived that day: “Some 150 white, mostly housewives and teenage youths, clustered along the sidewalks across from the William Franz School when pupils marched in at 8:40 am. One youth chanted ‘Two, Four, Six, Eight, we don’t want to integrate’…”
Detail from Rockwell painting: note “K.K.K.” on upper left wall.
As four U.S. marshals arrived with Ruby and her mother, they walked hurriedly up the steps to the school’s entrance as onlookers jeered and shouted taunts. On the sidewalk that day, assembled mothers and school students were yelling at police, some carrying signs, one held by a young boy that said, “All I Want For Christmas is a Clean White School.” Another placard that day read: “Save Segregation, Vote States Rights Pledged Electors.”
The white parents kept up their boycott of the schools the entire year, and the protests and jeering continued periodically. On December 2nd, 1960, for example, housewives demonstrated at the William Frantz school, one standing with a placard that read “Integration is a Mortal Sin,” citing a biblical scribe as source.
Rockwell’s painting, of course, does not capture all of this, nor was it intended to. His focus appears to be solely on the girl, placed at center, giving no special notice to the marshals, other than they were needed, as he portrays them as anonymous and headless, from mid-torso down. The setting around the little girl is ugly and threatening, but she is innocent and perfect, as her white dress and ribbon-tied hair suggest. As far as she is concerned, she is just going to school.
1962: Steinbeck book.
One description of the 1960 New Orleans school integration protests that Rockwell may have read prior to or during his work on the Ruby Bridges painting was John Steinbeck’s observations of the episode, offered in his 1962 best-seller, Travels with Charley: In Search of America. “Charley” was Steinbeck’s dog and traveling companion during his road trip around the United States. Travels With Charley was published by Viking Press in the mid-summer of 1962, reaching No.1 on the New York Times nonfiction best- seller list October 21, 1962. In part four of that book, Steinbeck recorded his reactions on coming to the New Orleans communities where the school integration controversy had flared, and he came away gravely saddened by what he saw. In his book, Steinbeck offered a detailed account of Ruby Bridges’ arrival at the elementary school and her handling by the U.S. marshals:
“…The show opened on time. Sound of sirens. Motorcycle cops. Then two big black cars filled with big men in blond felt hats pulled up in front of the school. The crowd seemed to hold its breath. Four big marshals got out of each car and from somewhere in the automobiles they extracted the littlest Negro girl you ever saw, dressed in starchy white, with new white shoes on feet so little they were almost round. Her face and little legs were very black against the white…The little girl did not look back at the howling crowd but from the size the whites of her eyes showed like those of a frightened fawn. The men turned her around like a doll, and then the strange procession moved up the broad walk toward the school, and the child was even more a mite because the men were so big…”
November 1960: Demonstrators during school integration in New Orleans, Louisiana; one holding sign that reads, “Integration is A Mortal Sin.”
Steinbeck had come to New Orleans in part to see the “cheerleaders,” as he called those then protesting New Orleans’ school integration, and he describes what he found first hand, as he witnessed some of the protests:
“…No newspaper had printed the words these women shouted. It was indicated that they were indelicate, some even said obscene. . . . But now I heard the words, bestial and filthy and degenerate. In a long and unprotected life I have seen and heard the vomitings of demoniac humans before. Why then did these screams fill me with a shocked and sickened sorrow?…”
Steinbeck wrote that he knew “something was wrong and distorted and out of drawing” in what he had seen in New Orleans. He had formerly counted himself as a friend of New Orleans; knew the city fairly well, had his favorite haunts there, and also had many treasured friends there – “thoughtful, gentle people, with a tradition of kindness and courtesy.” Where were they now, he wondered – “the ones whose arms would ache to gather up a small, scared, black mite?” Answering his own question, he wrote:
“…I don’t know where they were. Perhaps they felt as helpless as I did, but they left New Orleans misrepresented to the world. The crowd, no doubt, rushed home to see themselves on television, and what they saw went out all over the world, unchallenged by the other things I know are there….”
Another influence on Rockwell at this time was likely Erik Erikson, a psychoanalyst at the Riggs Center in Stockbridge, Massachusetts where Rockwell then lived and worked. Erikson treated Rockwell occasionally for bouts of depression, was Rockwell’s friend, and also had a passion for civil rights. Erikson was a colleague and mentor to a younger child psychiatrist named Robert Coles, who had begun working with Ruby Bridges and other children in the early school desegregation cases in 1961. Coles had found that segregation had damaged the self-esteem of the little girls, and by 1963 he had written a series of articles beginning in March for The Atlantic Monthly magazine profiling Ruby Bridges’s experiences during integration of the Frantz school. He also published The Desegregation of Southern Schools: A Psychiatric Study, a short book. Erikson may well have made Rockwell aware of these at the time he was painting The Problem We All Live With.
Look magazine’s cover story of January 14, 1964 focused on “How We Live” – American’s homes and communities – city, farm & suburb.
It appears Rockwell began working on the Ruby Bridges painting sometime in 1963, also finishing it that year. The editors at Look decided to use it in their January 14th, 1964 edition. On the cover of that issue, a portion of which is shown at right, Look featured photos of American homes in various urban and suburban settings, along with a few family shots, billing its cover story as: “How We Live: Up in the city, Down on the farm, Out in the suburbs. In homes packed with pride, prejudice and love.”
There was no special mention or billing of Norman Rockwell’s painting on the cover. The illustration would be found in the middle of the magazine as a full two-page spread with no accompanying text. In the table of contents it was billed under “art” with the title “The Problem We All Live With.” It appeared amidst a series of articles with titles such as: “Their First Home,” “Down On The Farm,” and “Their Dream House Is On Wheels.” One of the stories focused on Theodore and Beverly Mason, a black family living in a mixed community in Ludlow, Ohio.
Detail from “The Problem We All Live With.”
Rockwell’s former Saturday Evening Post fans, coming upon this painting in Look, may have been quite surprised. In fact, the painting did elicit reaction from Look’s readers, as the magazine received letters from those who were deeply moved by it, as well as those who were angered by it. Some analysts would later note that precisely because Rockwell was an artist dear to the hearts of many conservatives for his renderings of Americana and American values, that his “new” work on civil rights subjects may have made some of these same fans think twice about America’s racial problem at that time, helping them face up to racism. Rockwell himself would later say of his change in subject matter: “For 47 years, I portrayed the best of all possible worlds – grandfathers, puppy dogs – things like that. That kind of stuff is dead now, and I think it’s about time.”
March 23, 1965, Look cover.
Rockwell appears to have been quite comfortable with what he offered in the Ruby Bridges painting. In fact, in a letter he later wrote to the NAACP, Rockwell offered the illustration to the civil rights group, suggesting they reproduce the illustration as a poster to publicize their progress and accomplishments. It is not known here what the NAACP made of this offer, or if the illustration was ever used as Rockwell suggested. Rockwell, in any case, had more work to come on civil rights issues; work that would also be published by Look magazine, two of which are explored below.
Apart from Rockwell’s work, Look also published cover stories on civil rights issues in that period. On March 23, 1965 the magazine featured “The Negro Now” story by Robert Penn Warren on its cover, describing its content with a series of questions, also on the cover: “How far has the Negro come?,” “What is the South ready to concede?,” “What happens next in the North?,” “Can we move forward without violence?,” and “Who speaks for the Negro now?”
Rockwell’s “Southern Justice” painting of 1965, also known as “Murder in Mississippi,” depicting the killings of three civil rights workers murdered in June of 1964.
Another step that Norman Rockwell took with his civil rights painting in the 1960s, came when he ventured into depicting violence then occurring in the civil rights movement. In 1964, he began work on a painting inspired by the murder of three young civil rights workers in Mississippi in June of 1964.
The three young men – James Chaney, a 21 year-old black man from Meridian, Mississippi; Andrew Goodman, a 20 year-old white Jewish anthropology student from New York; and Michael Schwerner, a 24 year-old white Jewish organizer and former social worker also from New York – were helping to register black voters in Mississippi. Initially, the three men were reported missing.
Within days of their disappearance, the story made national headlines, as President Lyndon Johnson ordered a massive search. However, it turned out that shortly after midnight on June 21, 1964, the three civil rights workers were murdered by local members of the Ku Klux Klan, aided in their plot by a local police chief. All three were beaten and then shot, and their bodies not located until August 8, 1964, found buried beneath an earthen dam.
Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman – the three civil rights workers who were murdered in Mississippi, June 1964. FBI photos.
Rockwell began work on his “Murder in Mississippi” in 1964, a painting which later used the name of the Look article that it ran with, “Southern Justice.” Rockwell typically worked on several projects at once, but with this project, he bore in on the work exclusively for five weeks straight. The painting, which depicts the horror endured by the three young men as they were being beaten, uses a barren, isolated rural scene as its setting, likely at the end of some dirt road in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night. The scene is lit only by an unseen torch. One man is portrayed by Rockwell lying on the ground, presumably beaten, but trying, with one arm, to push himself up from the ground. Another is standing in the glow of the attacker’s torch trying to help his colleague, who appears beaten and near death. Analysts of this painting have noted that Rockwell, rather than actually showing the murderers in the scene, casts them instead as six ominous shadows approaching from the right, indicating that the young men are outnumbered, and also perhaps, symbolically, indicating the problem is a larger societal issue.
Norman Rockwell’s rough study sketch of beaten civil rights workers as it ran with article in Look magazine, June 29, 1965.
In considering this piece, the editors of Look were more taken with Rockwell’s initial sketch for the illustration and favored it over the finished painting, using it in the magazine. The editors felt the coarser version offered a more powerful, emotional interpretation. Rockwell at first disagreed with their choice but he did allow the sketch to be printed. In the June 29, 1965 edition of Look, it ran as a single-page illustration alongside a one-page article by Charles Morgan titled, “Southern Justice,” which focused on “segregated justice” in the South, the Schwerner-Chaney-Goodman murders, other civil rights murders and beatings in the South, and the absence of black judges in Southern courts. Rockwell’s illustration was captioned as “Philadelphia, Miss., June 21, 1964.”
As with the Ruby Bridges episode, Rockwell no doubt learned of this civil rights story through the media accounts and newspaper reporting of that day. On June 22, 1964, for example, the New York Times ran a front-page story on the incident using the following headlines and description: “3 In Rights Drive Reported Missing; Mississippi Campaign Heads Fear Foul Play–Inquiry by F.B.I. Is Ordered….”After the three workers were found dead, however, local officials in Mississippi refused to prosecute the suspected killers. The U.S. Justice Department then charged eighteen individuals with conspiring to deprive the three workers of their civil rights (by murder). Seven were found guilty on October 20, 1967, but with appeals, did not begin serving their 3-to-10 year sentences until 1970, with none serving more than six years. Three other suspects had been acquitted, but no further legal action ensued in the case until pressure was brought decades later, in June 2005, when the state of Mississippi prosecuted and convicted Edgar Ray Killen – who planned and directed the killing – on three counts of murder.
May 3, 1966: KKK cover.
June 14, 1966: Peace Corps.
Look magazine, meanwhile, went on to do other stories on civil rights issues. Less than a year later, on May 3, 1966, Look ran a cover story on the Ku Klux Klan showing a hooded Klansman on the cover wielding two flaming torches. Rockwell had done some other work for Look in 1965 following his Southern Justice illustration. For the July 27, 1965 edition of Look, Rockwell did an illustration to accompany an article on President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty program for the poor, entitled “How Goes the War on Poverty.” Rockwell’s illustration featured a “helping hand” clasped to another’s seeking help, superimposed over a background of diverse faces with a quote from President Johnson lettered into the painting: “Hope for the Poor, Achievement for Yourself, Greatness for Your Nation.” In the following year, for the June 14, 1966 edition of Look, Rockwell did the cover art and four other pieces inside the magazine helping to illustrate a story on The Peace Corps – “J.F.K.’s Bold Legacy.” Rockwell’s cover piece included a profile of John F. Kennedy and others who actually served in the Peace Corps (some of whom also modeled for Rockwell as he did the painting), including one African American female. All were shown on the cover in profile looking left, with Kennedy in front (see cover above). Rockwell had thrown himself into the Peace Corps project, actually visiting Peace Corps volunteers in action in Ethiopia, India, and Colombia during 1966 as he created several narrative scenes of them at work. But Rockwell would also do more civil rights work the following year, also published in Look.
Look 1967: "Suburbia."
Story: Negro in Suburbs.
The May 16th, 1967 issue of Look magazine was billed as “A Report on Suburbia” – with added tagline, “The Good Life In Our Exploding Utopia.” Look’s cover for that edition also listed the line-up of suburban-related stories inside: “Parties and Prejudices,” “New Styles and Status,” Morals and Divorce, and “Teenagers in Trouble.” One of the stories to follow was by Jack Star, entitled “Negro in the Suburbs.” Mrs. Jacqueline Robbins, a young black housewife who then lived in the all-white Chicago suburb of Park Forest, Illinois with her chemist husband, Terry, 32, and their two sons, was quoted as saying, “Being a Negro in the middle of white people is like being alone in the middle of a crowd.” A Rockwell illustration — entitled New Kids in the Neighborhood — ran in the middle of that article. “Although Negroes are still a rarity in the green reaches of suburbia,” reported the Look article, “they are emerging from nearly all the large metropolitan ghettos with increasing frequency.” In Chicago during 1966, the story explained, 179 Negro families moved into white suburbs – more than twice as many as in the previous year, seven times as many as in 1963…”
Norman Rockwell’s “New Kids in the Neighborhood” ran as full two-page centerfold in Look magazine, May 17, 1967.
Rockwell’s full, two-page illustration inside this suburban-themed issue focused on a “moving-in” day scene for a new black family freshly arrived in some unnamed white suburb. In his painting, Rockwell uses black and white children as his focal point. The two sets of children are standing in front of a moving van sizing one another up. The two African American kids are presumably brother and sister. The three white kids – two boys and a girl – are kids from the neighborhood. Rockwell has included common elements for all the kids – the boys have baseball gloves, the girls each wear ribbons in their hair, and both groups have a pet. For the viewer, meanwhile, there is little escape, as Rockwell involves them quite directly with the central question, essentially asking them to complete the picture; asking them to think about how the interaction between these kids, their parents, their community and the larger society will unfold.
Child models used by Rockwell for “New Kids,” 1967.
Students of Rockwell have noted that he often used kids in his illustrations, sometimes as neutral arbiters and non-judgmental conveyors of life situations – but also as a means of reaching out to mainstream audiences to prod, send a needed message of some kind, or raise a pointed question. Rockwell’s two groups of kids in this painting might be seen as surrogates for the larger society, each group trying to decide what to do and whether or how to conquer that middle distance. The issue in the New Kids painting, of course, is not only the relationships that may ensue between the kids in the weeks and months ahead, but also the larger slate of societal and democratic issues that integration then posed for the nation and its future. The kids, in any case, are usually not the problem. As Ruby Bridges has remarked from her own experience with integration in Louisiana, “none of us knows anything about disliking one another when we come into the world. It is something that is passed on to us.” Rockwell, it seems, also tried to convey some of that, featuring childhood innocence amid adult turmoil, or just letting children be children. But Rockwell was also capable of more direct messages, using tougher themes and subject matter.
A black and white copy of Norman Rockwell’s “Blood Brothers” painting which he later gave to CORE.
In June 1968, during a conversation at a party, Norman Rockwell hit upon an idea for a painting. Following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in April that year, there had been rioting in more than 100 U.S. cities, with a number of people killed and injured. Rockwell was thinking of a scene resulting from this urban unrest, and he called his editor at Look, Allen Hurlburt, to get preliminary approval and begin work. What Rockwell began to sketch were two dead men on the ground – one black and one white – both bloodied and beaten, found on a ghetto street after a riot lying parallel to one another, their blood co-mingling in a pool on the ground. According to the Norman Rockwell Museum, “Rockwell hoped to show the superficiality of racial differences – that the blood of all men was the same.”
Norman Rockwell, 1968, in front of easel with his “Blood Brothers” painting as shown in photograph from Ben Sonder book, “The Legacy of Norman Rockwell.”
Rockwell continued working on the project though June 1968 when Allen Hurlburt at Look suggested that Rockwell change the ghetto scene to a Vietnam battlefield scene. Rockwell then had the two men in essentially the same position, now dressed in military uniform, presumably killed in action during the Vietnam War, their helmets cast beside them on the ground. In war, of course, there was no discrimination; death and injury came to soldiers the same way, no matter if they were black or white. At this point the painting began to be known as Blood Brothers. However, later that fall, the editors at Look decided not to use the painting.
Rockwell wasn’t happy with the decision, did some soul searching and talked with friends about the painting, but set it aside and moved on to other work. But later that year, Rockwell received an invitation from the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE), a civil rights group founded by students at the University of Chicago in 1942. CORE was active in desegregation protests and sits-in from its founding, and became a leading civil rights group in the 1960s, especially in the South, and also helped sponsor the 1963 March on Washington and other events. CORE wanted Rockwell to do an illustration for a Christmas card that the organization likely planned to use to send to its membership or perhaps for fundraising. But Rockwell did not send the group a typical Christmas or Holiday-themed illustration. Instead, he sent them the Blood Brothers painting. CORE, in any case, was happy to have Blood Brothers. However, it is not known how CORE used the painting or whether the group reproduced it for other purposes. One account has reported that the painting is missing from the CORE collection. The earlier studies and sketches Rockwell did for the painting are still held at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge.
Rockwell RFK sketches.
Rockwell, in any case, had been a very busy man in 1968. He had done portraits of all the presidential candidates for Look magazine that year – President Lyndon Johnson and U.S. Senators Eugene McCarthy, Hubert Humphrey and Bobby Kennedy for the Democrats, and Ronald Regan, Nelson Rockefeller and Richard Nixon for the Republicans.
Also in 1968, Rockwell’s Right to Know – a painting of a diverse group of citizens addressing their government – was published in Look’s August 20th edition. The 74 year-old artist had a number of other projects ongoing that year as well, including advertising work and illustrations for a children’s book. He also found time that year to appear on the Joey Bishop Show and the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.
Norman Rockwell continued painting through his 70s. However, it was only in his latter years that his work began to be recognized for its artistic value. During much of his professional life, especially during his Saturday Evening Post years, Rockwell’s work was dismissed by many art critics who regarded his portrayals of American life to be idealistic or too sentimental. They did not consider him a “serious painter;” others believed his talents were wasted or put to frivolous purpose. Yet time would work in Rockwell’s favor.
Norman Rockwell, later years.
Today, his body of work, stretching over more that 60 years, is highly regarded and continues to be studied by scholars while thousands flock to Rockwell exhibitions wherever they appear. During his lifetime Rockwell completed some 4,000 original works, some lost to fire. In addition to his several hundred magazine illustrations and covers for Saturday Evening Post, Look, and other publications, he also did illustrations for more than 40 books including Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn; made annual contributions to the Boy Scouts of America calendars between 1925 and 1976; did illustrations for the Brown & Bigelow publishing and advertising firm between 1947 and 1964; completed numerous illustrations for booklets, catalogs, movie posters, sheet music, stamps, and playing cards; and also painted a few wall murals. His portrait work in later years would involve a number of famous figures, among them, Judy Garland, Bob Hope, Arnold Palmer, Frank Sinatra, and John Wayne. He also did a few unexpected pieces, such as a 1968 album cover portrait of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper for their rock-blues recording, The Live Adventures of Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper.
In 1969, having lived in Stockbridge, Massachusetts for last quarter of his life, he agreed to lend some of his works to the Stockbridge Historical Society for a permanent exhibition. Word soon spread that his works were on display there and attendance grew annually, into the thousands. By 1973, then in his late 70s, Rockwell established a trust to preserve his collection, placed initially in a custodianship that would later became the Norman Rockwell Museum of Stockbridge. In 1977, Rockwell was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by then-President Gerald R. Ford, recognizing his “vivid and affectionate portraits of our country.” The following year, on November 8, 1978, Rockwell died at his Stockbridge home at the age of 84. An unfinished painting remained on his easel.
Rockwell’s “Rosie the Riveter” became a WWII & women’s rights icon. The original painting sold for 4.95 million dollars in 2002.
In July of 1994, the United States Postal Service issued a commemorative series of five Rockwell works including “Triple Self Portrait” and “The Four Freedoms.” In 1999, New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl said of Rockwell in ArtNews: “Rockwell is terrific. It’s become too tedious to pretend he isn’t.” Rockwell’s work was exhibited at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York city from November 1999 through February 2002.
Today, Norman Rockwell originals fetch millions at auction, and in recent years the values have been jumping. Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveterpainting, used for a Saturday Evening Post cover in 1943 shown at right, was sold twice in recent years – once in 2000 for $2 million, and when resold again in May 2002, escalated to $4.95 million. His Homecoming Marine sold for $9.2 million at auction in May 2006. And in November 2006 at Sotheby’s in New York, Rockwell’s Breaking Home Ties sold for $15.4 million. Collectors of Rockwell art today include the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Smithsonian, The National Portrait Gallery, the Corcoran Gallery, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and others.
1994 U.S. postage stamp for Norman Rockwell’s “Freedom From Want.”
The Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, MA – with visitors now trending upwards of 160,000 annually – holds the world’s largest collection of original Rockwell art, including some 574 original works as well as the Norman Rockwell Archives of photographs, fan mail, and other documents. Rockwell’s Ruby Bridges painting – The Problem We All Live With – featured at the top of this story, is on display at the White House from June 22 – October 31, 2011. Thereafter it is scheduled to rejoin the Rockwell museum’s traveling exhibition, “American Chronicles: The Art of Norman Rockwell.”
Other stories at this website dealing with magazine art and magazine history include: “FDR & Vanity Fair” (cover art in the 1930s); “Murdoch’s NY Deals” (history of New York magazine, 1970s); “Remington’s West” ( art & John Hancock advertising, 1959); and “Christy Mathewson” (art & John Hancock advertising, 1958). Thanks for visiting — and please consider supporting this website. Thank you. – Jack Doyle
Article Citation: Jack Doyle, “Rockwell & Race, 1963-1968,” PopHistoryDig.com, September 22, 2011.
Sources, Links & Additional Information
1940s: Norman Rockwell at work on a magazine cover.
"Thataway" - March 1934 Saturday Evening Post cover; example of early "rule" on African American depiction.
Nov 29, 1960: White parent, Rev. Lloyd Foreman (left) walks his five-year-old daughter Pam to the newly integrated William Frantz School where they were blocked by jeering crowd. At right is AP reporter Dave Zinman. AP photo.
Nov 30, 1960: White parent Mrs. James Gabrielle, with police escort, is harassed by protestors as she walks her young daughter home after day in the newly integrated William Frantz school in New Orleans. Crowd wanted total white boycott. AP photo.
Rockwell’s “Breaking Home Ties,” SEP cover art of Sept 25, 1954, depicts father and son sitting on automobile running board as son departs for college, sold for 15.4 million dollars at Sotheby's auction in 2006.
Norman Rockwell’s “Saying Grace,” SEP cover art of Nov 24, 1951 and a fan favorite, depicts an older women and young boy giving thanks for their meal at a shared table amid busy scene in a working class restaurant.
Norman Rockwell’s "Truth About Santa" or "Discovery,” captures the complete surprise of a crestfallen young boy who has discovered Dad’s Santa suit. SEP cover, December 29, 1956.
DeNeen Brown, “Iconic Moment Finds a Space at White House,” Washington Post, Monday, August 29, 2011, p. C-1.
Close-up artist’s rendition of baseball great, Christy Mathewson, for John Hancock Insurance Co. ad, 1958.
In the 1950s and 1960s, the John Hancock Life Insurance Co. of Boston, Massachusetts ran a series of low-keyed advertisements that touted historic figures from the nation’s past, including some sports figures and other notables. These ads, which typically ran in large-size weekly magazines of that era, such as Life magazine and The Saturday Evening Post, primarily laid out a short story about some significant person, place, or historic event of national interest. The company ran scores of such ads, sometimes venerating notable Americans – scientists, inventors, political leaders, historic events, and even the family doctor.
John Hancock, to be sure, was basking in a kind of positive association for telling the much-loved tales, and some of the ads ran with a shorter, adjacent-page column from a John Hancock official making a soft-sell pitch for life insurance. Still, the featured full-page ads were classy pieces of advertising; often done with a handsome original color illustration using known and unknown artists, some venerating history, individualism, character, etc., and most offering educational benefit as well. They appeared only once or a few times at most in the magazines of the day. Consequently, today, original copies of these ads are regarded as collector’s items, often showing up at auction houses or on E-bay. One of the John Hancock ads from the late 1950s features the famous baseball player Christy Mathewson, shown above. The image is a close-up from its full-page layout, which is shown below. In the narrative copy for this ad, also included below, John Hancock offers a commentary on Mathewson’s career and personality. Mathewson was one of the all-time great baseball pitchers who played most of his storied career with the New York Giants (also called the Nationals) between1900–1916. He was also one of the first five players to be inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame. More about Mathewson follows shortly, but first the John Hancock ad as it ran in 1958.
“He had more on the ball than a ‘fade away’…” Life magazine, September 22, 1958
In the 1940s and 1950s, John Hancock Life Insurance ads used history and famous people from sports, business, politics & the arts to help burnish its reputation.
The John Hancock ad on Mathewson features an artist’s rendition of the famous pitcher standing on the pitching mound in his distinctive hands-over-the-head wind-up preparing to deliver a pitch. Beneath that scene, and to introduce its story, the Hancock ad uses the tagline: “He had more on the ball than a ‘fade-away’….” The “fade-away” refers to a term used to describe a rare pitch known today as a screwball, or a reverse curve; a pitch that “breaks” or curves into right-handed batters, and away from left-handed hitters. Here’s the rest of John Hancock’s copy on Mathewson:
“Part of the story is in the record books. Oddly enough, it began in the football book. Walter Camp made an exception and put an 11th man known as “kicker” on his 1900 All-American [football team]. The name of the man filling the position was…Christopher Mathewson!
“He’s all over the baseball book, of course. A couple of no-hitters. The only man ever to pitch three shut outs in one World Series. An average of 17 big league victories a year for 12 straight years! … If you were a youngster in those years and dreamed of being a big league pitcher, you always imagined in your dream that you looked like Matty. For he was the image of all the story-book heroes rolled into one. You’d lean back on the haymow and close your eyes and see yourself on the mound… tall, trim, good looking, confident. Then, while the crowd hushed, you’d wind up and send one ‘swish’ right over the heart of the plate for strike three. Just like Matty.
Life magazine cover, Sept 22, 1958, featuring George & Gracie Allen.
“No one could control, as Matty could, the direction a baseball would go. They say he could stand 20 paces from a barn door and hit a knot in the door 9 times out of 10. In three games in one World Series he walked only a single batter. One season he pitched 391 innings and gave up just 42 base on balls.
“But Christy Mathewson also learned to control himself. And that was probably a bigger contribution to baseball than the figures he left in the record books. His clean life, his ideals, his religious scruples (he never played a game on Sunday) had tremendous influence on all baseball, and all America. He proved to millions of youngsters of his day that you didn’t have to be a rowdy to be a big league hero.”
“Christy died in middle age, his lungs damaged by poison gas in France during World War I. A few years later organized baseball built a memorial for him. The last word on the bronze plaque has a splendid message for every sports-minded boy in America. It reads… Christopher Mathewson: Athlete, Soldier, Gentlemen.”
- John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Co.
John Hancock's "pitch"...
Then, on the facing magazine page, in a slender column directly opposite the full-page ad, comes a sales pitch from John Hancock’s president, Byron K. Elliott. It features a smaller Mathewson-on-the-mound picture along with the header, “The Cornerstone Character…” That column reads as follows:
“One quality seems to be common to most of the men who have been featured in our series about great Americans. In their lives, you can see CHARACTER. Most of these men who accomplished great deeds were also men of decency and honesty, and of perseverance.
“We have always believed that character is all-important in the life insurance business. Counseling a family on its life insurance needs is a serious affair. . . We go to great lengths to make sure that John Hancock agents have skill and knowledge. We are them with the finest, most modern policies. Above all, in their selection, we seek character.
“When a man buys life insurance for his family, this too is a mark of character. . . of how seriously he considers his family’s well being…how willingly he looks beyond today, to provide for tomorrow.” – Byron K. Elliott, President.
Photograph of a young Christy Mathewson, circa early 1900s, in his New York uniform.
The John Hancock Insurance Company, certainly, was in the business of selling its policies in 1958, riding on the good name and reputation of Christy Mathewson and others like him. Still, the company did well in choosing to highlight Mathewson’s career in one of its ads, for he was truly one of the all-time great pitchers in professional baseball. During a 17-year career, Mathewson won 373 games and lost 188 for an outstanding .665 winning percentage. His career ERA – earned run average – of 2.13 and 79 career shutouts are among the best all-time for pitchers. And his 373 wins is still No. 1 in the National League, tied with Grover Cleveland Alexander.
Using his famous fade-away pitch, “Matty” won at least 22 games twelve straight years beginning in 1903 – winning 30 games or more four times. A participant in four World Series, Mathewson set an especially distinctive World Series mark in 1905 when he threw three shutouts in six days against the Philadelphia Athletics. He also set the modern National League record for most games won in a single season; 37 in 1908 – quite extraordinary, then and now.
1901 Bucknell University baseball team with Christy Mathewson in the back row, second from right.
Christy Mathewson, however, was not typical of the “rough-and-tumble” baseball era in which he played – a time when many players were known more for carousing and fighting than playing. For one thing, Mathewson was a college man; and a college man who had a range of interests beyond baseball. In fact, while attending Pennsylvania’s Bucknell University – in addition to playing football and baseball – he sang in the glee club and belonged to a literary society. A forestry major in his studies, Mathewson was also class president and a member of the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity. Football, however, was Mathewson’s main sport in college, putting in three years as the team’s first-string fullback, punter, and drop kicker. And those were years when Bucknell played top football powers such as Penn State, Army, and Navy. Sports writer Walter Camp, the originator of the All-America team referenced in the John Hancock ad, called Mathewson “the best all-around football player I ever saw.” In fact, in 1902 after he had turned a pro baseball player with the New York Giants, he briefly played football as a “punting fullback” for the Pittsburgh Stars of the new national Football League. However, for whatever reason, he did not last the season there, either because the baseball New York Giants objected, or a better fullback took his place.
Christy Mathewson & spare mitt...
Mathewson had begun playing minor league baseball in the summer following his freshman year at Bucknell, and would continuing doing so in subsequent summers. He played first in the New England League and then Virginia-North Carolina League in 1900, where he posted a 20–2 record, drawing the attention of big league teams.
In his first years in the major leagues, he bounced around for a time between the New York Giants and the Cincinnati Reds, but finally settled in the with the Giants where he would remain until 1916. With the Giants, he played under manager John McGraw, one of baseball’s feistiest competitors, but a manager who also took a special liking to Mathewson. Through the years, though quite different, the two men became friends and would help change the game of baseball. Mathewson, for his part, would become a role model to young boys, a charge he took quite seriously, as noted in one statement he made:
“First of all, no one can live up to everything that’s been written or said about me. And, I keep to myself. I’m a private man. Yet, because I pitch for the New York Giants, I realize that I’m able to reach more young men than the President of the United States. That’s not due to the fact that I’m more popular than Mr. Taft – I don’t believe – but, it’s a fact boys would rather read about yesterday afternoon’s event at the Polo Grounds. Because of that, I feel very strongly that it is my duty to show those youth the good, clean, honest values that I was taught by my Mother when I was a youngster. That, really, is all I can do.”
Christy Mathewson, further along in his baseball career, in his New York Giants uniform.
Mathewson was a tall and handsome young man, with blond hair and blue-eyes. Many believe he provided the basis for a fictional character in a popular reading series of that day – an heroic character named Frank Merriwell who excelled at football, baseball, basketball, crew, and track at Yale University while solving mysteries and righting wrongs. Merriwell’s tenure, in fact, tracked quite closely with the early years of Christy Mathewson’s career. The popular Merriwell series – many featured in Tip Top Weekly, a popular weekly reader for youth – began in April 1896 and continued through 1912.
Mathewson was also a devout Christian, never pitching on a Sunday, and was sometimes called “The Christian Gentleman.” Others lauded Mathewson’s “model citizen” status and off-the-field contributions. Grantland Rice, the famous sportswriter whose work appeared in the New York Herald Tribune and elsewhere, noted: “Christy Mathewson brought something to baseball no one else had ever given the game. He handed the game a certain touch of class, an indefinable lift in culture, brains and personality.” Mathewson’s various character qualities, his college education, his good looks, and his moral stance on no Sunday pitching, gave him a much-admired standing in American public opinion.
Christy Mathewson at work.
But it was on the pitcher’s mound that Mathewson’s baseball reputation would rise. In his first full season for the Giants, 1901, he won 20 games. On July 15th that year, he threw a no-hitter against the St. Louis Cardinals. Mathewson finished that year with a 20-17 record and a 2.41 earned run average (ERA). The Giants, however, finished in seventh place. At around this time, New York fans began calling him “The Big Six.” Mathewson believed the nickname came because of his height (6′, 1″, then on the tall side). But a sportswriter named Sam Crane once compared him to New York City’s Big Six Fire Co., described as “the fastest to put out the fire.” In any case, Mathewson’s “big six” nickname, as well as “Matty,” were used in later advertising, book promotions, and other product marketing endeavors.
In 1903, 1904, and 1905 Christy Mathewson won 30 or more games each year. In 1903, he had 267 strikeouts, a National League record that stood until Sandy Koufax broke it with 269 strikeouts in 1961. But 1905 was an especially impressive year for Mathewson, as he won the National League Triple Crown for pitchers that year – i.e., wins (31-9), strikeouts (206) and ERA (1.28). He also threw his second no-hitter that year. But in the World Series that fall against the Philadelphia Athletics, the 25 year-old pitching ace was even more impressive. He was the starting pitcher for the Giants in Game 1 and pitched a four-hit shutout for the victory. Three days later, with the series tied at 1–1, he pitched another four-hit shutout. Then, two days after than, in Game 5, he threw a six-hit shutout to clinch the series for the Giants. In a span of six days, Mathewson had pitched three complete games without allowing a run.
Baseball’s Christy Mathewson in his notable over-the-head windup.
As a national sports star in the nation’s most notable city, New York, Mathewson was a very popular figure. He received numerous offers to advertise and endorse products, ranging from tobacco, safety razors, bubble gum, and clothing to athletic equipment, Coca-Cola, and various other products. In later years, 1922-23, he also had an indoor baseball board game called “Big Six Baseball,” sold with his nickname and pitching image on the box lid. His name, image and endorsement also appeared in several Tuxedo tobacco ads – sometimes with other players in group endorsements. Tuxedo tobacco was used for pipe smoking or rolling one’s own cigarettes. Mathewson was a cigarette smoker himself, and said at that time he saw no harm in it. But he apparently drew the line at putting his name on a pool hall/saloon after his mother suggested he might not want to have his name “associated with a place like that.”
In 1906 Mathewson came down with diphtheria and nearly died. Still, he finished the baseball season that year with a 22-12 record. His best year was still to come. In 1908, he recorded his record-setting 37 wins in a single season, also claiming the Triple Crown that year. His ERA that year was an incredible 1.43. The Giants, however, finished behind the Chicago Cubs.
Christy Mathewson, circa 1916-17, with the Cincinnati Reds.
In the next six years, 1909-1914, Mathewson won 20 or more games each year; 25 or more in four of those years. His pitching during that six-year span helped the Giants win four more National League pennants. Famed Philadelphia Athletics manager, Connie Mack, who had felt the sting of Mathewson’s pitching prowess more than a few times, would later say of him: “Mathewson was the greatest pitcher who ever lived. He had knowledge, judgement, perfect control, and form. It was wonderful to watch him pitch – when he wasn’t pitching against you.” Christy Mathewson compiled a lifetime win-loss record of 373-188, with an ERA of just 2.13. His last few playing appearances in 1916 were with the Cincinnati Redlegs, where he became manager in 1917 and 1918. Then, in August 1918 during World War I, Mathewson became the only manager in professional baseball history to volunteer for military service. He was 38. He served in the Chemical Services Division of the U. S. Army along with another baseball great, Ty Cobb. Mathewson served overseas as a Captain for that year. However, he was gassed in a training accident in France, exposed to mustard gas, with his lungs taking a terrible hit. He later developed tuberculosis.
In 1919-1920, he returned to baseball, serving as a coach for the New York Giants. At about this time, he also began spending time in upstate New York at clean-air “cure cottages” in Saranac Lake fighting his lung disease. In 1923, Mathewson served as part-time president of the Boston Braves. Two years later, in October 1925, he died at Saranac Lake. He was 45 years old. Christy Mathewson is buried at Lewisburg Cemetery in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.
Frank Deford’s book explores how Christy Mathewson and John McGraw influenced modern baseball.
Although Christy Mathewson played in what is sometimes known as the dead ball era – before home run hitting and offense generally became prominent in a more lively ball era – his pitching, combined with the managing of John McGraw at the New York Giants, helped produce what some have called the modern baseball era, and along with it, some of the game’s first stars and heroes. Mathewson was certainly among a handful of “star” players in those years; stars who were helping improve the popular appeal of baseball. This was occurring just as an American middle class was taking form. Baseball was becoming more of a bigger business by then — especially championship baseball. Between 1904 and 1913, Mathewson and McGraw took the Giants to five National League pennants, boosting attendance and revenue for the Giants’ franchise, suggesting new business possibilities for all of baseball. In those years, Mathewson and McGraw — as well as other “stars” then engaged in pennant races and World Series play — became famous Americans. McGraw would outdistance Mathewson in the game, completing a 31-year career as manager in 1933, taking his teams to 10 National League pennants and three World Series. But Christy Mathewson was McGraw’s shining star in the first part of that era. Between them — along with other stars of that era — they helped elevate baseball to its national pastime stature, and they also helped to make baseball more a part of popular culture, drawing more general interest in the game and its players. At least one book of recent vintage, The Old Ball Game by Frank Deford, displayed above, explores some of that history, and there are no doubt others as well.
The October 1949 issue of “Sport” magazine did a cover story on Christy Mathewson.
After his passing, Christy Mathewson would earn a range of professional kudos for his play. In 1936, he was voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame – one of the famous “First Five’” inductees, along with Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson and Honus Wagner. Mathewson was the only one of the five who didn’t live to see his induction. But other recognition also came. In 1943, during WW II, a 422-foot Liberty Ship, built in Richmond, California, was named in his honor, the S.S. Christy Mathewson. And periodically, the sports press would do retrospective pieces on Mathewson’s career, such as an October 1949 piece in Sport magazine by Jack Sher entitled, “Christy Mathewson — The Immortal ‘Big Six’.” In 1957, the Christy Mathewson Little League was formed in District 17 of his home state and home town of Factoryville, Pennsylvania. Baseball historians, meanwhile, have marked him among the sport’s greatest players. In 1999, he was ranked No. 7 on The Sporting News list of the 100 Greatest Baseball Players, the highest-ranking National League pitcher on that list. ESPN selected his pitching performance in the 1905 World Series as the greatest playoff performance of all time. Today, in the left-field corner of the San Francisco Giants’ AT&T Park in San Francisco, a replica of his baseball jersey – which in his day, bore no numeral – is formally retired with the designation “NY.”
A somewhat weathered and worn cover to Christy Mathewson’s 1912 book, “Pitching in a Pinch,” G.P.Putnam & Sons edition.
Christy Mathewson also became something of a writer during his career – or at least had his name attached to several baseball books that appeared and sold quite well in the 1910s. In the winter of 1911 and 1912, Mathewson, wrote a series of baseball stories with the help of newspaper man named John Wheeler. That series was called “Baseball from the Inside.” In 1912, while still an active pitcher, Mathewson compiled the stories with Wheeler for publication as a book, Pitching in a Pinch. Mathewson had described pivotal points in a baseball games as “being in the pinch,” with the outcomes of games often decided on what pitchers especially would do in those moments, thus his book title, Pitching In A Pinch. The Mathewson book, at 304 pages, was first published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York and London. Grosset & Dunlap also did a 1912 dust jacket for the book – believed to be the one displayed at left. One reviewer in the New York Times noted when the book first came out: “Mr. Mathewson uses his pen with cleverness and tells a story remarkably well.” Pitching in a Pinch, in fact, is still in publication today, “rediscovered” in 1977 when it was published in hardcover and paperback editions by Stein and Day. It survives today as a baseball memoir from a professional player providing an inside perspective on the game in those years. Original editions of this book can sometimes do quite well among sports memorabilia collectors. According to Robert Edward Auctions of Watchung, NJ, a copy of a 1912 Putnam edition of Pitching in Pinch, with Christy Mathewson’s signature, sold for $26,437.00 in 2007. Certain vintage Christy Mathewson baseball cards have also been known to fetch substantial amounts at auction.
A promotional advertisement for Christy Mathewson’s 1911 book, “Won in the Ninth.”
Mathewson also wrote a series of other baseball books for young readers. Won in the Ninth, for example, is a fictional account of a college ballplayer whose supporting cast were modeled after real-life major leaguers. In this book, Mathewson drew from his college experiences at Bucknell, but he also included some instruction to his young readers on the finer points of playing the game.
Won in the Ninth was praised by the critics when it first appeared in 1911, and Mathewson intended the book to be the first of a series. Several others followed, including, First Base Faulkner, Second Base Sloan and Pitcher Pollock. However, these books appear to have been a collaboration between Mathewson and sports- writer W.W. Aulick, and were more the products of publishers capitalizing on Mathewson’s popularity than they were the writer’s works of art. The publishers, however, appear to have launched some considerable promotional efforts around these books, one example of which is displayed at right.
John Hancock, Inc.
The John Hancock Insurance Company, the sponsor of the 1958 Christy Mathewson ad which began this piece, is itself something of a historic entity. The company’s origins date to the 1860s in Boston, Massachusetts. The Hancock name derives from the famous American patriot and first signer of the Declaration of Independence, noted for his large “John Hancock” signature on that document – a term since used generically to describe anyone’s signature. The Boston-based John Hancock operated as its own company for many years, moving through a series of changes.
The John Hancock company logo as seen in 2010.
By 1976, the John Hancock company was one of the largest corporations in America, occupying the gleaming-glass, 62-story John Hancock Tower in Boston designed by I.M. Pei. By the late 1970s, the company was collecting more than $2 billion a year from its policyholders. In 1978, they were the nation’s fifth largest life insurance company. By 1990 they had slipped to ninth place, about to be passed by Northwestern Mutual. In 2004 the John Hancock company was acquired for $10 billion by Canada’s largest insurance company, Manulife Financial. Today, John Hancock continues to sell insurance and other services as a Manulife subsidiary.
John Hancock’s advertising and image-making, meanwhile, has its own history. In the 1860s, an early president of the company installed 1,000 tin signs at railroad depots and grocery stores touting the company’s business. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, John Hancock agents went door-to-door throughout America retailing their policies, collecting premiums and passing out booklets on American history. And during the 1940s-through-1950s period, its advertising “stories”– such as the one presented here on Christy Mathewson – could be found in mainstream magazines of those years.
Hancock’s Ad Series
Hancock's Frederic Remington ad & his art of the Old West; click for story.
By all accounts, the John Hancock 1940s-1950s advertising series that featured historic figures was a big hit in America. In the art and advertising worlds, too, the series had its admirers and supporters, praised by many. Today the series, or parts of it, can sometimes be found in museums and art auction houses. But even in its day, the John Hancock series brought positive reviews. Here’s one commentary by Ben Stahl of the McCann-Erickson New York advertising house that appeared in a 1949 McCann-Erickson advertisement on the importance of art in advertising, offered under the title, “Does It Belong.”
“Next time somebody asks you, “Does fine art have a place in advertising?” — show them the John Hancock Life Insurance campaign. Rarely in the history of advertising has a campaign more consistently held to the fine arts level. Rarely has one achieved more favorable recognition for the advertiser. These messages have been hung in schoolrooms, factories, and offices. Reprint requests have run into hundreds of thousands. Statesmen have commended them; citizens have been stirred by them. They have won awards. And they purchased readership at well below average cost for the insurance field. We see a moral in all this. It proves, we think, that everything which has the power to move people has a place in advertising’s kit of tools. The art of the cartoon belongs; so does the art of the museum; and so does every form of artistic expression in between. The craft of the art director lies in being able to pick, from his broad workbench of persuasion, the right tool for the job every time.”
Stay tuned to this website for more stories on the John Hancock advertising series, the history of magazine publishing, and other stories about publishing and popular culture. For additional story selections in Sports or Advertising, please visit those category pages or go to the Home Page or the Archive for other story choices. Thanks for visiting — and please consider supporting this website. Thank you – Jack Doyle
A John Hancock Life Insurance Co. ad on the art of Frederic Remington appeared in “Life” magazine Sept. 21, 1959.
During the 1940s and 1950s, the John Hancock Life Insurance Company of Boston, Massachusetts, ran a series of low-keyed print advertisements that touted historic figures from the nation’s past. These ads typically ran in full-page spreads in large-size weekly magazines of that era, such as Life magazine and The Saturday Evening Post. The ads were not primarily focused on touting or promoting the company’s life insurance policies, but simply laid out a short story about some significant person, place, or occurrence of national interest. Some of the ads did mention the company’s offerings, but often at the end of the ad or in an unobtrusive way.
The Hancock company ran scores of such ads, sometimes venerating notable scientists, inventors, politicians, business leaders, military men, or historic events. In other similar ads, the company paid homage to unsung heros, or those who did the daily labors or provided key services, such as the Maine lobster men, an un- known “back bench” Congressman, or the family doctor. To be sure, the Hancock Co. was basking in a positive light for telling these tales, especially those of the more popular figures. Still, all in all, these were classy pieces of advertising; often done with a handsome original color illustration using known and unknown artists. They appeared only once or a few times at most in the magazines of the day. Consequently, original copies of these ads today are regarded as collector’s items, often showing up at auction houses or on E-bay.
The John Hancock ad above, for example, tells the story of Frederic Remington, the famous artist of the American West. This ad appeared, for example, in the September 21, 1959 issue of Life magazine, its cover shown later below. The box below includes the full text of John Hancock’s Frederic Remington ad. Following that is a little more history on Frederic Remington, a short profile of the John Hancock company, and some reaction to the company’s “historical figures” advertising campaign.
“He gave us the wild Old West for Keeps…” John Hancock Ad
“There are plenty of people who’ll tell you the Old West is deader than a wooden Indian. But they’re forgetting about a red-faced rock of a man named Frederic Remington.
Fred showed up in the West one day looking for fame and fortune. And wherever he looked, the West spread riches before his eyes. Her untamed land. Her rowdy people. Her dust and gunsmoke and sweat. Fred liked what he saw…. …Looked like pretty soon, there wouldn’t be any West. Fred figured he’d better do something quick. So he started right there…
Then he happened to look over his shoulder. Thunderation! There was the railroad coming after him. And there were men, in mail-order clothes, putting up fences, so they wouldn’t need cowboys anymore. Looked like pretty soon, there wouldn’t be any West.
Life, Sept 21, 1959.
Fred figured he’d better do something quick. So he started right there. Cowpokes, rustlers, pioneers badmen…anybody Fred could get near enough to, without getting shot full of lead or scalped, he’d paint a picture of.
He’d spread a pack of Comanches across a canvass, so mean-looking and so real you’d want to turn and run for it. Then he’d take a horse and transfer him to paper, still bucking and kicking fit to kill.
Fred didn’t miss an inch. Through states that hadn’t even been named yet he went, getting it all down, before it was too late.
The pictures hang in museums now, but the story they tell about the wide open, rip-roaring man’s kind of place belongs to all of us. That’s the way Fred wanted it.”
John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Boston, Massachusetts
[across bottom of the ad page, in lower point italic, ran the Hancock pitch]
Ask Your John Hancock Agent about our Signature Series – the most advanced life insurance contracts for every need.
Frederic Remington’s “The Great Beast Came Crashing to The Ground,” shows hunter shooting a buffalo.
Frederic Remington (1861-1909) was an American painter, illustrator, sculptor, and writer whose art focused on the old American West, and specifically late 19th century American cowboys, American Indians, and the U.S. Cavalry. He was born in Canton, New York in October 1861. Brought up during the time of the Civil War and its aftermath — his father served a Colonel iduring the war — Remington’s boyhood was spent in the great outdoors, horseback riding, boating, fishing, and hunting. During his school days he could often be found sketching and doodling, a favorite subject being soldiers in military uniform. Remington attended art school at Yale University, but found football and boxing more interesting there than the formal art training. His first published illustration — for the Yale Courant — was a “bandaged football player.” Remington left Yale in 1879 to help with his ailing father who died of tuberculosis a year later.
Frederic Remington’s 1892 watercolor shows buffalo hunter spitting shot balls into a rifle rather than dismounting to use a ramrod.
At age nineteen, Remington made his first trip into the old West of the 1880s where he saw the vast prairies, the buffalo herds, unfenced cattle country, and some the last major confrontations between the U.S. Cavalry and native Americans. In subsequent years, he made many trips to the West and Great Plains. He worked as cowboy, ranch hand, lumberjack, hunted grizzly bears in New Mexico, and became a gold miner in Apache country in Arizona. He also tried other ventures, including sheep ranching in Kansas and part owner of a Kansas City saloon. Other government and business ventures lasted only a few months in some cases. But along with his travels and experiences, he continued to draw. He sent illustrations back East to newspapers and magazines, among them, Outing Magazine, Harper’s Weekly and Scribners. Reming- ton’s work hit the market at a good time, as tales of the West were very popular in Eastern cities. Publishers used everything he sent.
Frederic Remington’s “The Smoke Signal,” 1905, oil on canvas. Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, TX.
Remington’s first full-page magazine cover under his own name appeared in Harper’s Weekly in January 1886. He was 25. With financial backing from an uncle, he was able to pursue his art career and support his wife. Commissions came as well. In 1886, he was sent to Arizona by Harper’s Weekly to cover the government’s war against Geronimo. A trip to Canada in 1887, produced illustrations of the Blackfoot, the Crow Nation, and the Canadian Mounties. In 1888, two of his paintings were used on U. S. Postal stamps. He also supplied illustrations for a book by Teddy Roosevelt that was first serialized in Century Magazine. More than 70 of his illustrations were used in Frances Parkman’s novel, Oregon Trail. Remington’s first one-man art show came in 1890 with twenty-one paintings and was very well received. About that time, becoming more of an established artist, he and his wife moved to New Rochelle, New York where he had a large studio.
Frederic Remington's "The Bronco Buster," 1895, now a famous piece of art.
Through the 1890s, Remington took frequent trips around the U.S., Mexico, and abroad to gather ideas for articles and illustrations, but his military and cowboy subjects always sold the best.
In 1895, he became enamored of sculpting, and without formal training immersed himself in the process. Remington had been fascinated by the motion of horses and used one of the early roll-film box cameras to take numerous photos of horses, among other subjects, to study them. He painted and sculpted the animals often, some at full gallop, usually placing them with human figures. In his sculpting, he produced a clay piece he called “the broncho buster,” with rider holding on to the wild horse as it reared up on its hind legs — not an easy subject for a beginning sculptor, in any case. Within several months of this undertaking, he had a plaster cast made, then bronze copies, which were later sold at Tiffany’s, earning him a decent return. However, some critics disparaged his work, calling it “illustrated sculpture.” History was kinder, as Rem- ington’s “Bronco Buster” would become a famous piece of Western “cowboy” sculpture.
A Frederic Remington cover for the Saturday Evening Post, 1901.
During the Spanish American War in 1898, Remington was sent to Cuba as an artist-correspondent to provide illustrations for William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal. He witnessed the assault on San Juan Hill by American forces, including those led by Roosevelt. Remington also made other travels abroad to North Africa, Mexico, Russia, Germany and England.
By 1901, Collier’s magazine was buying Remington’s illustrations on a steady basis and his work also appeared in other magazines, such as the Saturday Evening Post, a sample of which appears at right. He also published a couple of novels in the early 1900s and had one made into a stage play. Around 1904, however, he decided he would quit writing and illustration to focus on sculpture and painting. In 1905, he received a commission for “The Cowboy” sculpture from the Fairmont Park Art Association, in Philadelphia. That work stands today in East Fairmont Park.
Frederic Remington’s “The Cowboy,” a large 1908 statue that stands today in Philadelphia, PA’s Fairmont Park.
The financial panic of 1907 caused a slow down in the sales of Remington’s works, and he and his wife later moved to Ridgefield, Connecticut, where he died suddenly in December 1909 from a ruptured appendix. He was only 48 years-old at the time and still in the prime of his career. During his short lifetime, Remington produced some 3,000 paintings, not all of which survived, as he burned some when vowing to quit illustration. He also created about 25 bronze sculptures, the most famous being “The Bronco Buster,” and the largest, “The Cowboy” in Philadelphia. Today, Remington stands out as one of the most successful Western illustrators from the “Golden Age” of illustration in the late 1880s-early 1900s period. He is also often cited at the inventor of “cowboy” sculpture.
John Hancock, Inc.
The John Hancock company logo as seen in 2010.
The John Hancock Insurance Co., the sponsor of the 1959 Frederic Remington ad which began this piece, is itself something of a historic firm, with origins dating to Boston, Massachusetts in the 1860s. The Hancock name derives from the famous American patriot and first signer of the Declaration of Independence, noted for his large “John Hancock” on that document — a term since used generically to describe anyone’s signature. The Boston-based John Hancock Co. operated as its own company for many years, though growing and moving through a series of changes. By 1976, John Hancock was one of the largest corporations in America, occupying that year the gleaming 62-story John Hancock Tower in Boston designed by I.M. Pei. By the late 1970s, the company was collecting more than $2 billion a year from its policyholders. In 1978, Hancock was the nation’s fifth largest life insurance company. However, by 1990 they had slipped to ninth place, about to be passed by Northwestern Mutual. In 2004, the Hancock company was acquired for $10 billion by Canada’s largest insurance company, Manulife Financial. Today, John Hancock continues to sell insurance and other services under its logo as a Manulife subsidiary.
John Hancock’s advertising and image-making, meanwhile, has its own interesting history. In the 1860s, an early president of the company installed 1,000 tin signs at railroad depots and grocery stores touting the company’s business. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, John Hancock agents went door-to-door throughout America retailing their policies, collecting premiums and passing out booklets on American history. And during 1940s-through-1950s period, its advertising “stories” — such as the one on Frederic Remington — could be found in mainstream magazines of those years.
Hancock’s Ad Series
Baseball great Babe Ruth was another of the famous figures featured in the John Hancock ad series.
By all accounts, the John Hancock advertising series that featured historic figures was a big hit in America. In the art and advertising worlds, too, the series had its admirers and supporters, praised by many. Today the series, or parts of it, can sometimes be found in museums and art auction houses. But even in its day, the John Hancock series brought positive reviews. Here’s one commentary by Ben Stahl of the McCann-Erickson New York advertising house that appeared in a 1949 McCann-Erickson advertisement on the importance of art in advertising, offered under the title, “Does It Belong.”
“Next time somebody asks you, “Does fine art have a place in advertising?” — show them the John Hancock Life Insurance campaign. Rarely in the history of advertising has a campaign more consistently held to the fine arts level. Rarely has one achieved more favorable recognition for the advertiser. These messages have been hung in schoolrooms, factories, and offices. Reprint requests have run into hundreds of thousands. Statesmen have commended them; citizens have been stirred by them. They have won awards. And they purchased readership at well below average cost for the insurance field. We see a moral in all this. It proves, we think, that everything which has the power to move people has a place in advertising’s kit of tools. The art of the cartoon belongs; so does the art of the museum; and so does every form of artistic expression in between. The craft of the art director lies in being able to pick, from his broad workbench of persuasion, the right tool for the job every time.”
Stay tuned to this website for more stories on the John Hancock advertising series, the history of magazine publishing, and other stories about popular culture. For additional story selections at this website, please go to the Home Page for thumbnail descriptions or the Archive for further choices. Thanks for visiting. – Jack Doyle