Happy Birthday John Held Jr.

Illustrator and cartoonist John Held, Jr. (1889 – 1958) would have been 125 years old this week.


The Girl Who Went For A Ride In A Balloon, Life, January 14, 1926

Held’s artwork helped to define the Roaring Twenties era of the short-haired, bead-twirling, fun-loving flapper.  His flapper illustrations have become the archetype that others look to when capturing that era.


from How To Improve The Kiss In 12 Lessons, publication and date unknown

Held was born in Salt Lake City and studied art from his father and from Brigham Young’s grandson, sculptor Mahonri M. Young.  Held sold his first drawing to Life at age 15.  In 1912, he relocated to New York to break into the magazine market.  In 1918, he was recruited by U.S. Naval Intelligence to secretly sketch the coast line of Central America and scout for military operation sites while officially studying Mayan art on an archaeology expedition.

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War Babies, Judge, November 25, 1922

After the war, Held returned to magazine illustration where he showed his expertise at humorous cartoon drawing as well as 19th-century woodcut-style illustrations. He was a regular contributor to Life, Judge, New Yorker, and Vanity Fair, drawing covers, as well as writing and illustrating double-page humor pieces.

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The Fellow Who Thought He’d Try His First High-Dive When No One Was Looking, Life, date unknown

Held is best known for his iconic flappers, who danced, drank, smoked cigarettes and often were paired with an awkward-looking guy. His flappers appeared in New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Liberty, and Cosmopolitan, but most notably on the covers of Life.

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She Missed The Boat, Life, April 28, 1927

After World War I, Life was losing circulation, having lost 500,000 readers between 1920 – 1922.  The magazine was now owned by Charles Dana Gibson, the illustrator behind the Gibson Girl. Gibson sought to bring “new life” to Life.  Gibson also knew that his Gibson Girl drawings were no longer the fashion, so new styles of illustration were needed.  John Held, Jr. was one of the artists brought in to help Life remain current and fashionable during the 1920s.

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The All Year Round Girl, Life, December 17, 1925

Held’s cartoon-style flappers (as well as his co-eds) were exaggerations: unrealistically tall and skinny and clothed in extremely short skirts.  Held’s illustration style shows how elements of modern art were being incorporated into magazine and advertising illustration.  Held’s flappers and co-eds had minimal details and always had accentuated diagonal lines.  When compared to Gibson Girls, these figures felt very stylized and two-dimensional.

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woodcut-style Life Savers advertisement, Hearst’s International-Cosmopolitan, April 1933

During the Depression-era 1930s, there was less demand for flapper artwork. Held illustrated more for advertising clients, including Tintex, which promoted an inexpensive way to restore or change color to old clothes during cost-conscious times.

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Tintex advertisement, Modern Screen Magazine, 1930s

During the 1930s, Held also wrote and illustrated books, including a book of dog stories.  One of his dog stories of a pampered Scottish terrier named MacDunald appeared in Cosmopolitan.

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from MacDunald, Cosmopolitan, June 1930

The market for Held’s illustrations ended with the start of World War II. He focused on different art styles, including watercolors and sculpture.  In addition, he was Harvard’s artist-in-residence in 1940 and University of Georgia’s artist-in-residence in 1941.  Held died in 1958 from throat cancer, leaving a legacy of iconic images representing a lost era.


The John Held, Jr. images shown here are from Modern Graphic History Library’s Walt Reed Illustration Archive.

Information for this article came from the following:

  • John Held, Jr. Wikipedia, date unknown.
  • Kitch, Caroline. The Girl On The Magazine Cover. University of North Carolina Press, 2001.
  • Reed, Walt. The Illustrator in America, 1986-2000.  The Society of Illustrators, 2001.
  • Vadeboncoeur, Jim. Illustrators: John Held, Jr, 1998.

About the author

Andrea Degener is the Visual Materials Processing Archivist in the department of Special Collections at Washington University Libraries.