April 9, 2010


I've immersed myself in Life.

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.


  1. ooh, you're lucky!! We don't have auctions like that in AZ. I miss them a lot-- they're an interesting glimpse (a bit sad and forlorn, sometimes, too) into someone's life,seeing the pieces of their life sitting out on the lawn and spread out on the hayracks, waiting for someone else to come along who will treasure their items.

    As for your commentary on history and popular culture, I totally agree with you! We (as a society, and myself included) give way too much thought to what "they" (and who are they, anyway?) say we need to have, be like, and do in order to be happy.
    Learning about history your way would be so much more interesting than memorizing dry facts about names and dates, which is how I learned it.

  2. You'll have to come up to Wisconsin, Jennifer! There are auctions around here ALL the time, especially in the summer! At this particular auction, an Allis-Chalmers (farm equipment) catalog went for....$1100. Yep. Eleven HUNDRED dollars. INSANE!

    I learned history exactly like you did. I'm good with dates, which is the only reason I didn't flunk my classes, because they were super BORING. Not that kids need to be entertained to learn, but why not make it as interesting as possible?!

  3. Auction victory! Yay! When I lived in small-town NC, our entertainment on a Saturday night to was to drive to the auction house in the next town. Sometimes we'd buy junk, and sometimes we'd just buy popcorn and watch other people buy junk.

    Some random thoughts - history taught in grade school & high school IS boring (unless you get an exceptional teacher) - they're trying to drill the timeline into your head so you can pass whatever exam and you don't really get to the good stuff (social & cultural history ;o) until you get to upper level college courses (and not always then if you have a dull prof).

    Both my parents grew up during the Depression/WW2, and they say that compared to how we live today, yes, they were poor, but since most of their family/neighbors lived the same way, they didn't consider themselves poor.

    Finally (really ;o), I'm using Life ads too, and think it's hilarious how everyone has the same open-mouthed teeth-flashing smile :D

  4. My dad was born in '20, so he grew up during the Depression too. He remembers being quite poor, so I think that's why, even though we didn't have much money growing up, we had fantastic Christmases. :D
    I wish I could say I had even ONE good history teacher/prof but alas, I cannot make that claim. I would bet that an empassioned teacher would make a world of difference! The older I get, the more interested I become in our history, especially the 20th Century.
    And anyone reading this - if you haven't checked out Carolyn's ATCs yet, you simply MUST! They're just perfect, Carolyn! :D

  5. Hi Mel! I never knew you had a blog?!?! I'll be watching! Love the personal touch you have here.

    You know I have to stop in to revel in your find here. 60 at under a dollar is a great price! I recently found about 15 or 20 issues of 40's-50's LIFEs at a small used bookstore in some small town in pennyslvania. 3 dollars each. I walked out with 20 or 30 or so. I still have yet to read them all but from what i gather, i take your point of view. Enthusiasm and innocence most certainly come to mind. Another obvious thing I love about these magazines are the scale. Some pages I open and am floored by what looks to be a small hand painted sign, that could be easily framed, sitting in front of me. The type, the illustrations, the scripts, the photography, the simple and brilliant use of a now archaic printing technology. Its all so moving. I just wonder if your hands get as dirty as mine do from flipping the pages. It's hard to cut them.