April 9, 2010
No, it's not a new cult I've founded (but if I ever do, I've just named it and I have a catchy slogan!). Since last August, when I went to an amazing auction, I've been cutting up, and subsequently reading, old Life magazines.
When I heard about the auction, which was all items from a farmhouse that was nearly pristine and full of stuff that hadn't been touched since the Thirties, I knew I had to make it there. I even took a couple hours off of work so I could get there on time (it was in Kewaskum, about 30 miles from Fondy). I didn't realize that it would last about 5 hours, but I stayed because there was a HUGE lot of Lifes and I wanted them. What I didn't know at the time was that they were going to sell them all at once.
You've probably already surmised that I did indeed win the auction bid and for my persistence and patience received about 60 magazines (some Collier's, Looks and Saturday Evening Posts as well) for less than a dollar apiece. Poor Brian - I came home with a carload of old magazines, and I could just see his wheels turning; mainly, "Where on earth are we going to store these?!?" (P.S. MOST are in my studio, but there is some spillover in an inconspicuous place in our basement). I got to work right away, sorting the wheat from the chaff, so to speak (there were some that I simply couldn't cut up).
A funny thing happened while I was perusing these magazines for images, however - I began reading them cover to cover. And the more I read, the more I wish we could get back to that time.
Please don't misunderstand me - there are plenty of reasons why this pre-Civil Rights era is downright awful - it's still amazing to me how people could get away with the blanket generalizations that were uttered in these magazines - but there is also an optimism that is gone, as well as a more balanced approach to politics. There is also very little cynicism in these pages, which is wonderfully refreshing. I realize that I myself am making a blanket statement here, but it just seems like people were more excited about the little things back then, like grand openings at supermarkets or parades - things many in my generation have deemed "lame". And maybe they were lame, but at least people showed enthusiasm.
Here's another thing - we can never talk about 'being poor' ever again. The Golden Years of "Life" - which I think were between 1939 and 1963 (my opinion) - show photos of folks that were truly down-and-out. We're talking "bib overalls-I only bathe on Saturday night-my floor is made of dirt" poor. But in many cases, they don't look unhappy. Maybe it's because they didn't have a TV telling them that they were unhappy, and they'd better go out and buy things to make them happier. Again, I'm generalizing, but it certainly seems like people were satisfied with far less than what we have now. They also seem to scream from the pages, "Stop trying to be HAPPY all the time! It doesn't work that way!". A lesson I think we could all learn.
I've learned more history from these magazines in the last 7 months than I did in my entire school career, including college. I will never regret cutting up these magazines, because some of my best artwork (again, my opinion) is because of these Lifes. But it certainly is a snapshot of a week in history and if you've got many of them in a row, you can begin to get a glimpse of how the U.S. was feeling at any given time (another generalization, but you know what I mean).
Maybe, instead of textbooks for 20th Century U.S. History, we should have our kids read these old magazines. It's all there in black and white (literally), while it was happening - no rewrites, no personal opinion, no theories - just the facts (and fun ads!). Only by studying the past can we work toward the future.