While there are days when we might not welcome the rain, in spring we need and expect precipitation–as the saying goes, ‘April showers bring May flowers.’ Because this saying and others like it are ingrained in our culture, illustrators have often used these adages as inspirations from which to hang illustrations. A typical example is this Jessie Willcox Smith cover illustration for the April 1922 issue of Good Housekeeping magazine.
Like almost all of Willcox Smith’s other (200+) Good Housekeeping cover illustrations, this one is focused on a little girl tucked under a large green umbrella as she walks in the rain. She wears a navy blue raincoat and at its hem we can see a bit of her yellow dress and white petticoat billowing out as she walks along. In her hair a bright yellow ribbon peeks out under the umbrella. Her shoes are brown Mary Janes and her navy socks have yellow horizontal stripes near the top.
Not surprising, most Americans will recognize the similarity of this illustration to the advertising image of the Morton Salt Girl created early in the 20th century by the Morton Salt Company to advertise the 1911 addition of an additive to their salt which kept the moisture lever lower allowing for a freer flowing product.* To make their point of providing freely running salt, their advertising agency, N. W. Ayer & Co., created a group of proposed ads and some alternatives to run in consecutive issues of Good Housekeeping.
Magazine ad for Morton’s Salt, 1919
Even though the girl on Willcox Smith’s cover holds the umbrella with both her hands, since she holds nothing else, almost everything else about the posing of the figure is similar to the Morton Salt girl’s pose and demeanor. Also known as the umbrella girl, the Morton Salt girl is always shown wearing a yellow dress (when she is shown in color), Mary Jane shoes, and ankle socks. Both the umbrella Girl and Willcox Smith’s cover image show the child’s clothing being blown forward by the force of the wind and driving rain. The early versions of the Morton Salt Umbrella girl (before WWII) also show her with a lighter colored bow in her hair as does the cover illustration for Good Housekeeping.
I think this is not an issue of which came first (the chicken or the egg), but rather the popular children’s illustrator Jessie Willcox Smith absorbing and regurgitating an image and influence out of contemporary popular culture. So that when she decided to illustrate April showers for the 1922 Good Housekeeping cover, she instinctively referenced the Morton Salt umbrella girl.
* See, https://www.mortonsalt.com/our-history/history-of-the-umbrella-girl “History of the Umbrella Girl”
September 20, 2012
By Joyce K. Schiller, Curator, Rockwell Center for American Visual Studies, Norman Rockwell Museum