Seeing artistry in Alfred Bloomingdale’s cartoon collection
The four years I’ve worked in the National Numismatic Collection, I’ve admired a set of quirky cartoons that adorned the hallway outside of my office. I was thrilled when the American Enterprise team wanted to use the cartoons in the exhibition to explain the growth of bank cards and credit in the postwar period, but I asked them to look beyond the captions and see not just the history of credit, but also the incredible artistry in the cartoons.
The cartoons in question came to the museum in 1975, when Alfred Bloomingdale (grandson and heir to Lyman G Bloomingdale, co-founder of Bloomingdale’s department store) donated his collection of fifty-eight original cartoons to the National Numismatic Collection (NNC). Between the 1950s and 1970s, these cartoons delighted a multitude of readers when reproduced in The New Yorker, Playboy, and syndicated newspapers around the country. In the 1960s, Bloomingdale was an entrepreneur for the newest form of currency, the credit card. He started the company “Dine and Sign” for convenience; one small piece of plastic eliminated the need for him and his friends to carry large sums of money while out on the town. Apparently there was a market for partiers because by 1967, “Dine and Sign” was acquired by Diner’s Club and eventually Bloomingdale became president and chairman of that company.
Although the names of these cartoonists are not the artists we recognize from history books, their characters and cartoon strips are so ingrained in popular culture that many of us will recognize their work. Among the more famous cartoonists in our collection are Mel Lazarus, recognized for his know-it-all students and their prim teacher in the cartoon, “Miss Peach,” Bil Keane and the whimsical antics of family life in “Family Circus,” Dic Browne and “Hi and Lois” (a spinoff from “Beetle Bailey”), George Lichty and his sometimes political strip “Grin and Bear it,” and Jack Cole and his painterly cartoons of busty ladies seen in “Playboy Magazine” (risqué for his day). People say they read Playboy for the articles, but really they read it for the cartoons.
When I look at these drawings, it is the sure hand of the artists that truly impresses me. The proficiency the artists show comes from constant practice. The artists drew the same characters in different storylines over and over again; some created at least a cartoon a day for years in their work with syndicated newspapers. The medium was black indelible ink and a brush or pen. Ink is an unforgiving medium; blobs, blotches, and drips cannot be erased, so the artists could not fix major problems (although they made some changes with a bottle of correction fluid). Since these cartoons were made for reproduction, the artists could cover minimal mistakes, and although we can see evidence of a problem in the original work it would not reproduce in the papers, journals, or magazine.Keep looking; the skilled artists who made these drawings grappled with changes in credit and debt in American social life with limited words, a spare pallet, and solid drawing skills. The cartoons illustrated prevalent American ideas, fears, excitement and disbelief pertaining to credit and its usage in the mid 20th century. The artists foresaw a “future” where average Americans no longer did their commerce with paper bills and coins and even the most mundane shopping of goods and services could be purchased with a slide of a plastic card.