Jessie Willcox Smith (1863-1935)|Back to School Again, c. 1928|Cover illustration for Good Housekeeping (October 1928)|watercolor and charcoal on paper|Delaware Art Museum, Louisa du Pont Copeland Memorial Fund, 1971-7

With the celebration of Labor Day this past Monday, summer officially ended. That last holiday of the summer season also marks the return to school for those children who have not already returned to their desks and studies, as we can see in Jessie Willcox Smith’s cover illustration for the October 1928 issue of Good Housekeeping. Indeed this sort of image would have been universally understood all over the United States because by 1918 every state required all American children to at least complete elementary school.

Smith stumbled into art illustration after finding the job of kindergarten teacher did not suit her. Subsequently she studied at The School of Design for Women in Philadelphia (now Moore College of Art and Design) and then moved on to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Her first published illustration was in the May 1888 issue of St. Nicholas magazine. She was then hired to work on the advertising staff of the Ladies’ Home Journal. In 1894 Smith chose to continue her studies specializing in illustration with Howard Pyle at the Drexel Institute in Philadelphia.

Smith’s experience with little children served her well in her illustrations. In Back to School Again, Smith skillfully rendered the wistful daydreams of a child trapped behind a school desk while the world, exemplified by the map behind her head, rolls on outside the classroom. The glowering child leans her head on her hands, her elbows rest on an open book. Under the book to her left side is a personal sized chalk board. The desk itself is cover with green baize, a coarse woolen or cotton fabric napped to imitate felt, and used to help deaden the noise in a ‘live’ space.*  On the desk in front of the student is a pencil box for storing pens, pencils, and erasers belonging to the student and a bottle of ink with a pen leaning in the open top. The map of North American behind the student shows the southern tier–from North Carolina on the upper right to Mexico at the far left. Except for Texas and Mexico, the other states are unnamed in the original illustration for the cover. It is interesting to note that in the printed cover that the name Texas is faded out and replaced with the magazine issue’s date. The unidentified upper region of the in the original is overlaid with the magazine’s masthead, date, and price. Notice how the publisher also added a star in a circle in the center of the G of Good Housekeeping. It is not exactly accurate, but appears to have been meant to indicate Santa Fe, the state capitol of New Mexico.

Perhaps I’m reading too much into this illustration, but I would like to think that Jessie Willcox Smith was also making a reference to a popular little poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) in this image.

There was a little girl,
Who had a little curl,
Right in the middle of her forehead.
When she was good,
She was very good indeed,
But when she was bad she was horrid.

Longfellow might have written this out of his own experiences as an ordinary  schoolmaster in Maine from 1829 through 1833. According to Longfellow’s son Ernest, “It was while walking up and down with his second daughter, then a baby in his arms, that my father composed and sang to her the well-known lines.” **

Good Housekeeping magazine was founded in 1885 in Holyoke, Massachusetts and by 1911, when it was bought by the Hearst Corporation, it had a circulation of 300,000 readers. From December 1917 through March 1933 Jessie Willcox Smith created the monthly covers for the magazine.

*Baize has also been used on gaming (billiard, pool, and casino games) tables. At one time it would have also been tacked to the door separating the main house from the servant’s work rooms and living spaces in an effort to deaden the noise between the two sides of a house.

**Ernest Wadsworth Longfellow, Random Memories (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1922): 15. E. W. L. was an artist.

September 9, 2010

By Joyce K. Schiller, Curator, Rockwell Center for American Visual Studies
Norman Rockwell Museum