When my son and daughter were growing up, I read them bedtime stories from a wide variety of children’s books, some newly issued, others that were classics still available decades after their first issue. A game I played with myself while reading was to try to guess the year of original publication (or at least the decade) by the style of illustrations, the layout and content. Color schemes were often a giveaway: older books were in 2-color. Illustration style was another clue; books from different periods had decidedly different looks.
The same is true for illustrations in American history. Having had to do picture research for several survey textbooks, I’ve found it interesting to note changing styles and conventions. In today’s full-color texts, making good use of color is always a plus. Paradoxically, the search for color becomes harder as you march into the early twentieth century. Photographs more frequently replace color paintings, but the photos are in black and white…and largely continue that way until newspapers and magazines began printing in color (and therefore demanding color from their news photographers).
Of course, the Great Depression seems tailor-made for black and white. The haunting photo of “Migrant Mother” by Dorothea Lange nicely echoes the bleak times. One of my favorites along the same line is a shot taken by Arthur Rothstein, working for the Farm Security Administration, of a jalopy crossing the Texas panhandle as a dust storm comes barreling along behind it. (Library of Congress)
But toward the end of the Depression, Kodachrome color slides began to enter the scene; and quite a few such transparencies are displayed from the Library of Congress in Bound for Glory: America in Color, 1939-1943 (2004). They are also available on the Web in the LC’s Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collections. Browsing the transparencies, after seeing so much in black and white, is a bit like watching The Wizard of Oz--which first appeared in 1939 too. As you move from dusty Kansas to colorful Oz, it’s like entering a whole different world!
On the main street of Cascade, Idaho.
Russell Lee, July 1941
Faro and Doris Caudill, homesteaders, Pie Town, New Mexico.
Russell Lee, October 1940
Boy near Cincinnati, Ohio. John Vachon, 1939-1943
James West Davidson
Occasional thoughts on history, teaching, paddling and the outdoors