Diana Denny wrote on this illustration in her Saturday Evening Post (August 29, 2009) piece,* focusing on the concerned school librarian trying to figure out what the mischievous boy is up to. But there is so much more to see in Richard Sargent’s illustration.
The librarian sits behind her desk naturally surrounded by books. On top of the book shelf behind her is a model of a coach. Its function is to serve as a bit of a historical focus in addition to being interesting decoration. Notice how the book shelves are full but not overcrowded. If they were full then there would have been books on top of the shelves. In the 1950s new schools and libraries were being built or expanded all over the nation to accommodate the expanding population of the baby boom. Libraries still used card catalogs to provide access to their collections, so the blond wood card catalog shown in Sargent’s painting is true to the period and place. Sitting on top of the card catalog is the ubiquitous office plant known as a ‘mother-in-law’s tongue.’ The librarian holds a yellow no. 2 pencil in her right hand with its eraser touching her cheek as she ponders the boy in front of her. Librarians were usually pretty insistent that everyone in the library use pencils so that books didn’t get damaged.
The boy is probably between the ages of 7 and 10. In the 1950s children were not taught to write in ink until they were in the 2nd grade. He’s not too young since the book he is hiding behind is printed with fairly small print, not the large font face used for younger children. I love that the page he has opened shows an illustration of the “I claim this land in the name of . . . .” type. He is clearly suppose to be working on a report of some sort, but his paper and pen are ignored while he plays with the frog.
Not only is the boy’s writing implement a pen, but it isn’t even a fountain pen, something that was commonplace in mid-20th century American culture after the introduction of mass produced models in the 1880s. The pen on the table is a dip pen, one that needs a reservoir of ink to dip into; hence the open bottle of ink next to the boy’s papers and the pen. On the table beside the ink bottle are ink drops, proof that open bottles of ink are inherently dangerous. Notice that the boy’s left thumb is stained with blue ink and the pen’s body is spotted with the mess he’s made. The conclusion then is that he is left handed. The only wrong note in this picture is that left-handed people do not write with their paper angled to the left, but to the right so that they do not mess what they’ve just written as their hand curls around the pen it holds against the surface.
September 24, 2009
By Joyce K. Schiller, Curator, Rockwell Center for American Visual Studies at the Norman Rockwell Museum