American Beauties Drawings from the Golden Age of Illustration

The Marketing of the American Beauty

Seated woman

Edward Penfield (1866–1925). Young woman sitting beside table holding umbrella, 1910-1925. Watercolor, gouache, and ink over graphite on paper. Advertisement for Hart, Schaffner, & Marx clothes. Prints & Photographs Division (17)

The unprecedented success of the “Gibson Girl” in the 1890s unleashed a visual barrage of American beauties which lasted throughout the Golden Age of American Illustration and continues to this very day. The different types of women presented in this exhibition demonstrate not only a nationally evolving ideal of beauty, but also a concentrated effort on the part of publishers, advertisers, and the artists themselves to develop an easily identifiable, aesthetically pleasing product. It is no wonder the marketers increasingly turned to the allure of the American female; in the early part of the twentieth century women were thought to control 80 percent or more of the consumer dollars expended in the United States. Accordingly, advertisers turned to images of feminine mystique to which consumers could aspire (and hopefully emulate) through the purchase of goods and services. Men were also charmed by these images, however, and magazine publishers used the attraction of pretty faces on their covers to boost impulse buying for their all-important newsstand sales.

But the ideal of beauty that was being sold in the ads and on these covers was quite narrowly focused. It is not by coincidence that most of the works in this exhibition, from the Gibson Girl to Fabry's Cinema Arts cover of Katherine Hepburn portray women of the upper or upper-middle class. Women of color or of the working classes did not have the disposable income to be targeted, and so are rarely, if ever, seen in these illustrations. Advertisers instead used various tableaux of wealth and modernity, which the middle-class consumer could then enter through purchase of a given product. Visual repetition also played a part in these scenarios: the trappings of the “Holeproof Hosiery Girl“ (whom Coles Phillips helped to create) and the aloof style of McClelland Barclay's “Fisher Body Girl“ could be recognized at a single glance. In the advertisement shown on the previous page (lower), the consumer is invited to share the risqué modernity of Edward Penfield's beauty, shown wearing a man's overcoat at what appears to be the breakfast table, with the familiar Hart, Schaffner, & Marx emblem on the wall behind her.

Couple in swimwear

John Held, Jr. (1889–1958). The Girl Who Gave Him the Cold Shoulder, ca. 1925. Gouache on illustration board. Cover of Life . Prints & Photographs Division (16)

Magazine publishers were also quick to see how the American beauty could enhance their packaging. But beyond the aesthetic attraction of the pretty faces, art editors used these images to establish an instantly recognizable product that would attract a particular demographic to a given magazine. The sophisticated dress and elongated lines of the women portrayed on Vanity Fair covers directly appealed to the modern taste of that magazine's urban, upper-class patrons, while the exotic appeal of the “Benda Girl” proved a better fit with the middle-class masses who read Hearst's International. Repetition served its purpose in covers as it did in ads—in what became the predecessor to today's “Cosmo girl,” William Randolph Hearst used Harrison Fisher's drawings on virtually every cover of his Cosmopolitan magazine from 1912 until the artist's death in 1934. Likewise, a mere glance at a John Held flapper alerted the readers of the 1920s that they were probably looking at an issue of either Life or Judge magazine. As advertisers and art editors turned to various styles of female imagery to define their look, the “Pretty Girl” artists themselves also carved out stylistic niches that would guarantee them a steady stream of commissions and royalties. Following the remarkable success of Charles Dana Gibson's stylishly rendered “Gibson Girl,” marketed in magazines, books, prints, wallpaper, and even silverware, a number of illustrators began to turn their talents to the portrayal of American beauty. Each of these artists developed a highly recognizable style suitable for a variety of merchandise. Fisher created his colorfully drawn upper-class women to be used on not only a myriad of magazine covers, but art prints and postcards as well. Wladyslaw Benda's almond-eyed “Benda Girl,” with her soft gauzy look of layered charcoal, watercolor and pastels, was seen in covers, advertisements, and story illustrations. John Held disseminated his flappers more widely any model since the Gibson Girl; they were printed in books, magazines, and ads, and used on cocktail glasses, card games, puzzles and more.

All of these illustrators (and many more) became famous by creating a recognizable brand that served them well for many years. But fashion is nothing if not fickle; the concept of beauty soon evolved, and these images became outdated. Thus we see the pen-and-ink drawings of the confident Gibson Girl being replaced by Fisher's brightly colored “American Girls” or Phillips's fadeaways. These in turn give way to Held's stick-figure flappers, which then fall out of favor by the 1930s. But although the ideal of beauty has proven fleeting, the allure of a pretty face is timeless, and marketers will continue to sell feminine beauty as long as the American public is buying.

Richard Kelly, founder of the Kelly Collection of American Illustration, has worked extensively with the collections of graphic art in the Library's Prints and Photographs Division.