The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Rediscovering Elizabeth’s Smile
“Cartoonographs—facts in pictures—combine the appeal of comic strips with the news and reliability of official statistics” reads an advertisement in the Smithsonian Institution Archives collections. This mid-1920s artifact is a reminder that graphic communications are nothing new. In addition to Why the Weather? and Test Yourself (which advised on how to evaluate new acquaintances), the nonprofit news organization Science Service had been syndicating The Outline of Business, a chart of current business and economic conditions, when they decided to create a product with more panache, better suited to the tempo of the Jazz Age. The idea of using humor to convey technical information came from Science Service director E.E. Slosson. Every chart, the chemist said, should illustrate a “relation between discrete facts or striking changes in public tastes or movements of population,” while the accompanying cartoons should be “lively and interesting without impairing their scientific accuracy.” So Cartoonographs, a “hybridization of the cartoon and the statistical graph,” were born. Using drawings to “tell the story,” Cartoonographs would inform readers about current social and economic trends. Until a fulltime cartoonist was hired in January 1925, local Washington, D.C., artists drew the charts, including 21-year-old Elizabeth Sabin Goodwin, then an award-winning student at the Corcoran School of Art. In “Finding Elizabeth,” Tammy Peters describes how the Smithsonian, aided by the online Flickr community, helped to identify Elizabeth’s photograph. Now, by comparing certain distinctive features, such as lettering styles, with drawings shared with the Smithsonian by Elizabeth’s granddaughter, I have positively identified thirty-eight unsigned “Cartoonographs” in the Smithsonian collections as having been drawn by Elizabeth Sabin Goodwin. Elizabeth brought more than exceptional lettering skills to the task. Her drawings of male figures were undoubtedly influenced by John Held, Jr., whose debonair, angular, slick-haired figures were dancing their way through 1920s book and magazine illustrations. Her female figures, however, were less frivolous than the cartoon stereotype of a flapper—more stylish, professional, and self-confident, more like the women on the Science Service staff, including Emma Reh, with whom Elizabeth shared an office in 1924. In a few deft lines, Elizabeth demonstrated mature, almost droll insight into life’s everyday and ordinary dilemmas. Her characters exuded emotion: indecisive about what to order for dinner, chagrinned at the boredom of shoe shopping. Her radio listeners appear lost in dreams provoked by music. Her lanky Uncle Sam figures seem wearied by their responsibilities. There’s joie de vivre and attention to detail—a farm wife wears a gingham apron and a shoemaker, a leather one. And she’s able to convey action as trains and automobiles and Presidential candidates (a Republican, Democrat, and Progressive) race across the page. The Cartoonograph series lasted only a few years. Other Science Service syndicated graphic communications proved more durable. Isn’t It Odd? and Nature’s Notebook, for which Elizabeth also provided illustrations, survived into the Depression, and she continued to draw for the organization at least though 1932. The 1924 Cartoonographs remind us of the timelessness of life’s problems—rising commodity prices, political campaign spending, immigration and trade policy, jobs for war veterans, interest rates, the impact of new communications technologies, and the connection between oil and automobiles. These newly identified cartoons also shine light on a talented young artist with a special “eye” for humor, for Elizabeth could even make a dinosaur smile (see the creature in the middle of the top row). And in several drawings, a distinctive black cat stands on the sidelines, its tail arching toward a question mark, watching the action, contemplating the absurdity of humans, and making us smile over eighty-five years later.
Historian Marcel Chotkowski LaFollette is author of Science on the Air: Popularizers and Personalities on Radio and Early Television (University of Chicago Press) and a Research Associate in the Smithsonian Institution Archives.