Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Holidays at Home (1895)--Or, time for a timeline

Checking back over my records, I see that I've been looking into 19th century children's books and magazines for all of seven months, tops.  I've been investigating these things so intensely, it seems like much longer.  So I can excuse myself for not having put together a timeline for (what should I call these?) comic-like children's art and features that predate 1900.  For want of a more graceful label.

After all, data has to be mined before it can be categorized.  The first order of historical investigation is to discover what's out there, to conduct the broadest search available before slapping on the labels and hauling out the theories.  Of course, things tend to be done the other way around, don't they?

For instance, in the field of rock and roll history, the religion that r&r started with (pick one) Bill Haley and/or Elvis Presley predated any serious investigation into the history of that form.  Lazy journalists had already trapped r&r history inside a simple-minded, inflexible narrative even before actual archivists and historians (well, archivists are historians, come to think of it) had had time to announce their discovery of hundreds, possibly thousands, of pre-Bill and pre-Elvis r&r recordings.  Real historical research takes time--concocting a feel-good myth for your middlebrow white listener-ship and/or readership is a nanosecond's effort (and burns just as few calories).

Rock and roll is one of the most meticulously documented popular music forms ever, yet TV and the press treat it like an event shrouded in mystery, its roots lost to the echoes of time.  And it's no use asking people to listen to, say, rock-sounding recordings of the 1940s by Buddy Johnson or Johnny Otis, because know what they'll say?  "Sure, it sounds like rock and roll, but it's not there yet."  Not where yet?  Alas, any data that exists outside of an established narrative, no matter how ridiculously narrow or uninformed the narrative, is data to be brushed off.  And so it is.

As we speak, some highly inflexible comic-history narratives are being nailed into place--narratives that restrict the evolution of pre-Yellow Kid comics (and comic books) to the graphic satire of big-name 18th- and 19th-century illustrators, with little consideration given the general readership of the time.  I mean, who cares what everyday, ordinary folks of the 1800s might have regarded as cartoons or comics?  Apparently, you and I missed the memo that comics and cartoons are high art forms to be appreciated by, say, no more than 2.5 percent of the population (and only those who can recite the proper password) .  Cartoons and comics, pop culture?  You must be mad.

The 1895 W.B. Conkey children's publication Holidays at Home (the source of the scans featured below), was likely culled from earlier magazine illustrations and features, and, like other compilations I've sampled at this blog, it demonstrates that comic-like details were commonplace in popular publications of the late 1800s (in this case, of course, a publication for small children).  To my eyes, the mergings of text and art that we see in some of these examples are the logical antecedent to the text/image arrangements of "modern" comic strips and books.  Now to create a timeline so I can place each example in its correct folder.  To do that, I need to identify all the categories present--e.g., picture stories, with or without captions; short narrative poems surrounded by cartoon-like panels (or borderless images); short stories with one or more pages of clustered, cartoon-like illustrations; and so on.  I'll know I'm doing things right if I don't end up with a mammoth folder marked "Other" or "Misc."  For now, I offer these without formal labels--just the simple observation that these look amazingly like newspaper cartoons and comics, if not pages from comic books to come.

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