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Seeing artistry in Alfred Bloomingdale’s cartoon collection

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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.

Each artist found a unique form of expression with simple tools. In this “Grin and Bear It” cartoon by George Lichty, a character says “Foreigners draining away our gold is bad enough, Adele… but if they start gobbling up our credit cards we’re in real trouble!” Lichty’s ink and brush show expressive quick strokes. The lines of the plump women in their furs undulate with the motion of the brush while the stippled grey in the ground (cleverly produced with a dry brush over the texture of the paper) produced a grey tone from the black ink. The visual speed of the drawing emphasizes the skill and care used.

 

 

Speed of hand is also present in this drawing, created for the Wall Street Journal. “People are getting suspicious of cash. We’re gonna switch to credit cards.” The expressive element in this drawing does not come from the thick and thin line as before. In this cartoon the line is relatively even; it may have been done with a ruling pen. The visual charm in this drawing comes from patterns of lines: the grain in the wood, the checkers in the sports coat, the diamond in the waste paper basket, and of course the “faces” on the bills that read like money without offering a clue about the denomination.

 

In the next drawing, a customer proclaims that “In a democracy, a man has a right to ask for credit no matter how many times he’s been refused credit.” Notice the handwritten caption, the flamboyant washes, the forced perspective that gives the illusion that the bar to has great depth, and the scribble of lines coming together in a very painterly style. The artist used washes to define the business man, the bartender, the bar, and the bar stool.

 

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.

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    Robyn EinhornRobyn Einhorn is the collections manager for the National Numismatic Collection at the Smithsonian, National Museum of American History. Robyn holds a MFA from the University of Washington, Seattle and a MA from Parsons School of Design, New York City.View all posts by Robyn Einhorn