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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.


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I would love to use this

I would love to use this image for a short primary source analysis exercise with a group of educators at an upcoming conference. Do you know what copyright restrictions might apply? I enjoyed your observations about the image. As an "Iowa farm girl" who grew up in the 1950s, I could answer many of your questions!

Thanks for showing us this

Thanks for showing us this great picture, as well as the word picture evoking another time and place so appealingly. An erstwhile child of the suburbs, I delight in an occasional mental foray into the America I never knew, but often yearned (and yearn?) to.

I enjoyed your commentary as

I enjoyed your commentary as much as the picture itself.

This source information for

This source information for the picture is transcribed from our catalog card for it, typed when it was new and freshly-clipped in 1951: "The New Basic readers: curriculum foundation series." New York: Scott, Foresman: copyright 1951. Paper-bound. 44 cents per copy. Scott, Foresman still exists as a division of Pearson School Publishers, and they'd be the ones to contact for permission to use the picture in your conference presentation. Good luck, and thanks for reading my entry! --JJV--

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