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Old McDonald ... and Dick and Jane
This is one of my favorite images from the million and a half items held by the NYPL’s Picture Collection. Of course, I haven’t seen them all, and if you ask my co-workers they’ll tell you that I usually work with pictures about ships, airplanes, battles and weird animals like bats, insects and snakes. But this image really stirs me. Every few months I take it from its folder (labeled FAMILY LIFE – 1950s) and revisit it to remind me of the evocative power of art from another time. This picture stands for all the reasons we save it and other pictures for the public to use and enjoy.
It’s an illustration from an elementary school level reading book, and it shows a family getting ready to leave after a visit to relatives on a farm. It’s dated 1951, but still has a strong late-40’s feel, especially in the car with its small-windowed, round-fendered “roadster” look so unlike the plumper, chrome-adorned autos we associate with the Eisenhower era and which turned into the big-finned “land yachts” of the Kennedy years. Look how the artist has captured the behavior of the animals: the dog pulls back from the baby’s outthrust hand, while the cat leans into the ear-scratching given by the little girl. A chicken comes running to see what all the fuss is about. Father is opening the trunk of the car. He has his jacket and hat ready to go with those suit pants because, even though he may have gone around with his tie off and top button of his shirt undone, he’s going back the city now, and men have to dress for this. The young boy wears a straw hat as a memento, but his Mom has a hat and high heels. Grandpa (in overalls) and Grandma (in her apron) are bringing a farewell gift of fresh vegetables and eggs to take back to the suburbs.
Yes, it’s idealized, and even a little corny (no pun intended!), but it speaks to me in so many ways. I love the trim neatness of the farm buildings against the blue sky. I feel the undertones of modest prosperity and the strength of family ties. I’m reminded that there’s a whole country beyond the borders of New York City, with real people whose work feeds us all, and whom we often dismiss from our lofty urban perch. It all makes me try to imagine the classrooms where this book would have been used. What did the kids there do after school? Where did their parents work, and what did they watch on TV? It’s almost too clean and perfect, and all the faces are white.
It’s very much a product of its era, and I know this. But it still suggests how America wanted to see itself at the time it was made. To me, it’s as evocative of its era as anything by a Greek black-figure vase painter, Breugel or David Hockney. It’s an America I just missed seeing, and perhaps that’s why it appeals to me so strongly.