Drawing Race in 1930’s Collier’s

In the 1930’s Collier’s magazine represented a popular, progressive viewpoint on American culture. The magazine published articles by Winston Churchill on the significance of the U.S. constitution in the 20th century, as well as profiles skeptical of the rise of the Nazi party in Germany under Hitler. In the early 1900s, the magazine had played a key role in “muckraking” social reformist journalism. Upton Sinclair, for example, published articles on Chicago meatpacking in the pages of Collier’s to promote his novel The Jungle to a mass-market audience.

The magazine’s representations of race through illustration are a view into the greater racial landscape of the country at the time, with Art Direction headed by William Chessman. However, while certain elements of the magazine were progressive in their outlook on worker’s rights and foreign policy, their depictions of race toed the line between old racial stereotypes and an assimilationist vision of the future. In short, non-whites, especially foreigners who are not part of the dominant white society, are celebrated and depicted lovingly for their cultural heritage and beauty. Those who attempt to join white society, or who have white society thrust upon them by imperial powers, are either assimilated through the removal of their racial markers and culture or are placed in subservient, less-civilized positions. There is no equitable option for non-whites.

It is important to note that the editorial staff and audience for the magazine was majority white, as was the population of the country. The images in the magazine cater to and are made by white people, so images of non-whites are almost exclusively created by people outside the depicted racial group. White characters are the overwhelming norm. They are often urban, educated, and beautiful.

Ronald McLeod, cover for
Collier’s, June 20, 1936.

Take the June 30, 1936 edition of Collier’s, where a young white woman receives her college diploma in the cover illustration.  “Look at this progressive young woman receiving her education!” it seems to scream.

Ewing Galloway, photographs for “Too Easy to Live” by Jim Marshall, Collier’s, June 20, 1936.

Yet, in the same issue, non-white women are portrayed as lesser-than. A photo spread for the article “Too Easy to Live” by Jim Marshall (Collier’s “Oriental” editor) is unabashedly imperialist. The article follows American economic development in the Philippines. The islands had been taken by the United States in 1898 from Spain, and remained under direct US control until 1946. A photograph shows a young Filipino woman reading an issue of Collier’s. “American magazines wean the Filipinos from native customs,” the caption reads. Perhaps this is simply the caption-writer’s fantasy. Are the attractive young white people portrayed on the pages of Collier’s meant to impress white culture and values upon the Filipinos? The rest of the spread alternates photos of the Philippine countryside with a photograph of a shopping street in America. The message is clear. American culture, industry, and society represent progress, and the native culture is in the way. Visual culture plays a key role in assimilating Filipinos into American society.

Martha Sawyers, illustration for “Taboo in Samoa” by John Russell, Collier’s, October 26, 1940.

The illustration for a fictional piece in the October 26, 1940 edition centers on the Pacific Islands as well, but in a less explicitly Imperialist way. “Taboo in Samoa” tells the story of two Samoan opium smugglers, and the accompanying illustration by Martha Sawyers depicts them in the act of smuggling. Despite engaging in an act which damaged the imperial power in Samoa, the two are painted with care. Sawyers has an eye for drama, and the scene gives the characters sympathy and respect, unlike the earlier depictions of the Filipino woman reading Collier’s. In fact, it was precisely because of her eye for sympathetic depictions of Asian culture that Sawyers saw so much work in the subject, according to Ernest Watson in Forty Illustrators and How They Work (1). She traveled throughout Asia to create more “authentic” images, a problematic goal given the subjective nature of authenticity. While laudable for its sympathetic imagery, her work still celebrates cultural difference from a distinctly white perspective.

Graham Kaye, illustration for “The Long Haul” by Jim Marshall, Collier’s, October 3, 1936.

Another view on cultural sympathy appears in illustrations for the October 3, 1936 article “The Long Haul,” about trade around the world. The illustrations by Graham Kaye express romantic visions of faraway lands, such as Manila, the Dutch East Indies, and Shanghai. The people are lovingly drawn and depicted gracefully in four-color prints. The line work evokes a sketched travelogue, and seems to celebrate the cultural differences that make the global economy run. Like “Samoa,” non-whites are celebrated as different because they don’t seek power in white society, and the characters adhere to cultural markers of the places from which they come.

George De Zayas, illustration for “The Top of the World” by Richard Connell, Collier’s, March 7, 1936.

Aspects of racial assimilation are present in a March 7, 1936 illustration by George De Zayas. De Zayas, a Mexican artist, shows a stylish young man passing by several stylish, young women who swoon over him. Of all the illustrators presented here, De Zaya’s visual language is the most progressive and modernist. He uses expressive shape to delineate form, rather than rendering like many other artists in the magazines pages. The short story it accompanies reveals that the man has had a brief bout of fame due to a film he has starred in. There is no mention of race in the article, but the illustration bears some markers of non-whiteness, from the darker skin color to the man’s pencil-thin mustache and angular suit (which calls to mind the Jazz age) and the black hair of the women. Some of these markers may be unintentional, due to the limited color printing rather than intentions of the artist. The man portrayed appears to be a non-white character who may be able to pass as white. Assimilation into white culture is part of his image, and racial lines are blurred.

William Meade Prince, illustration for “Medicine Man”
by Roark Bradford, Collier’s, August 8, 1936.

In the vein of older sensibilities about race, the August 8, 1936 edition includes a story called “Medicine Man” that centers on the titular character, a black healer on a southern plantation. The black and white illustration by William Meade Pierce evokes images of the “Old South,” a vision of the antebellum South that became a cultural touchstone in the late 19th and early 20th century. While the illustration and story are notable for depicting a world inhabited by mostly black characters, it also makes heavy use of dialect to evoke black sharecroppers (subservience to white institutions). In the illustration, two older black women look on amazed as the medicine man feeds tonic to a younger woman. She cranes her neck like an animal to receive the drink, while an ailing mule stands behind them. While Pierce’s image doesn’t resort to caricature, it firmly places black people in subservient and less civilized roles.

Warren Baumgartner, Collier’s, April 4, 1936.

An illustration by Warren Baumgartner from April 4, 1936 brings black people closer to white society, but still limits them to subservient roles. On a train ride, a group of white men crowds around a white woman in need of help. A black porter is also there, though he is physically separated from the rest by the gutter of the magazine. Baumgartner’s illustration enforces the racial role of the black man as servant, but the magazine’s design (though likely unintentional) subconsciously tells that viewer that non-whites should be kept separate from whites. The black man is not privy to the action directly. The image of the black porter, too, is a well-trodden type, appearing in ads throughout Collier’s and other popular magazines of the time.

Taken together, these images delineate Collier’s’ (and progressive America moreover) vision of racial progress and equality in the pre-World War II era. Chosen visual language seems to play a role in suggesting attitudes as well. Work by Pierce and Baumgartner is more classically illustrated, with highly rendered figures and multiple tones to suggest space and light. They also coincide with older ideas about race. Progressive (though often assimilationist) views on race are accompanied by more modernist ways of making, including De Zaya’s shape-based, Jazz-inflected work and Graham Kaye’s sunny travelogue-esque images. It is not just content that determines the subtext of these images, but the very way they are made and printed. The illustrator’s own sympathies and views slip into the piece through elements of staging, line use, color, and shape. This makes Collier’s visions of race broader and suggests and ebb and flow of progressive tendencies in the time period, as old and new clash in the decades before the Civil Rights movement would reshape America.


1 – Dowd, DB. “Martha Sawyers.” D.B. Dowd / Drawing the Social Landscape / Writings on Visual Culture. N.p., 22 May 2016. Web. 30 Apr. 2017.



All images are from the Walt Reed Illustration Archive at the Dowd Modern Graphic History Library.

This post is part of a series published by students in D. B. Dowd’s Spring 2017 course Special Topics in Visual Culture: The Illustrated Periodical.

About the author

Senior studying Communication Design with a focus in Illustration.