Modernist Design and the Children’s Magazine

By the middle of the twentieth century, the notion of American periodical publications aimed at a younger readership was already well established. Early versions of children’s magazines appeared in the States as early as the late 1700s, and by the time Humpty Dumpty was launched by Parent’s Magazine in 1952, the young middle-to-upperclass American reading public was a prime target for magazine publishers (see Children’s Periodicals). Humpty Dumpty began with an idea by George Hecht, the president of Parent’s Magazine Enterprises, to create a magazine aimed specifically at preschoolers with the purpose of providing interesting material for children who were just beginning to read (Kelly). On each cover the magazine promised, “stories to be read to children, stories for beginning readers, and things to do: cutouts, games, puzzles, and pictures to color.” Other titles in circulation at this time like Children’s Play Mate and Jack and Jill offered similar things to slightly older children. These three images show the table of contents from issues of Humpty Dumpty, Children’s Play Mate, and Jack and Jill (figure a). Clearly similar in content, all three publications featured a variety of stories, poems, games, puzzles, and crafts (figures b and c).

Figure a.
Table of contents from mid-century children’s periodicals: Humpty Dumpty (October 1964), Children’s Play Mate (October 1951), and Jack and Jill (October 1955).

Figure b.
Spread from a Children’s Play Mate published in January 1950, featuring an internal full-color illustration by Angela Price, printed on heavier stock than then rest of the publication (you can see how it has held up better over the years than its opposing page). The right-hand page offers a suggestion for a craft that could be made from the illustrated page of the magazine. Each Play Mate magazine had a few of these nicer pages with recommended craft activities — most often paper dolls in this era.

Figure c.
This puzzle page from a Jack and Jill, published in August 1950, is illustrated by Stella May Da Costa and features a rebus game which is common in children’s magazines to this day.
 Da Costa illustrated many such pages for Jack and Jill and employed a colorful, graphic visual language which is not unlike the images which appear in Humpty Dumpty.

Where Humpty Dumpty stands out in this crowd is in its print quality and illustration. Just looking at the table of contents images above, it is clear that the other two magazines were produced with higher quality paper stock and have lasted well despite their age, whereas the Humpty Dumpty page, printed ten years after the others, is yellowed and brittle. This is because the Humpty Dumpty magazine is a pulp — printed inexpensively on cheap, pulpy paper, often marketed to a lower socioeconomic reading class. Issues published in this magazine’s early years cost thirty-five cents, increasing to fifty or sixty-five cents by the late sixties. While this did run on the high end of the price rage for children’s magazines of this era — mid-century Jack and Jill magazines with full color pages ran between twenty-five and thirty-five cents — Humpty Dumpty magazines boasted nearly double the page count of Jack and Jill. These thick booklets, easily topping a hundred pages an issue, are necessary to accommodate the bigger type setting of content for young readers and presence of illustrations on nearly every page. In order to remain affordable as a publication, Humpty Dumpty placed a heavy restriction on the form of these images — two-color printing. Illustrations had to be black and one other hue which varied — red, orange, green, teal, blue, or pink — throughout the issue.

Far from weakening the illustrative value of the magazine, the limited printing process forced Humpty Dumpty’s illustrators to adopt strong, modernist graphic approaches with designed shapes and hard edges. These stylistic elements are directly related to the rise of the avant-garde and its influence on fine art. In his essay, “Towards a Newer Laocoon,” art critic Clement Greenberg discusses this movement the visual changes taking place in the realm of painting:

“The history of avant-garde painting is that of a progressive surrender to the resistance of its medium; which resistance consists chiefly in the flat picture plane’s denial of efforts to ‘hole through’ it for realistic perspectival space…Painting abandons chiaroscuro and shaded modeling. Brush strokes are often defined for their own sake…Primary colors, the ‘instinctive,’ easy colors, replace tones and tonality. Line, which is one of the most abstract elements in painting since it is never found in nature as the definition of contour, returns to oil painting as the third color between two other color areas . Under the influence of the square shape of the canvas, forms tend to become geometrical­ and simplified, because simplification is also a part of the instinctive accommodation to the medium . But most important of all, the picture plane itself grows shallower and shallower, flattening out and pressing together the fictive planes of depth until they meet as one upon the real and material plane which is the actual surface of the canvas; where they lie side by side or interlocked or transparently imposed upon each other.”

Clement Greenberg

These elements of avant-garde painting — documented by Greenberg in 1940 — can be seen in the design and illustration work of the following decades. Up until the mid-1900s, children’s illustrations had been dominated by softer, more rendered forms like in this image by Angela Price for Children’s Play Mate (figure d). In stark contrast, designer Milton Glaser created a set of illustrations for a story in Humpty Dumpty using only black and one accent color, no figural shading, and highly characterized faces (figure e). These two images nicely display the visual character of their respective magazines, and while not every children’s periodical in the 1950s was as traditionally illustrated as Play Mate, images like those in the late 1950s Humpty Dumpty were certainly unique in the field of children’s illustration.

Figure d.
A black and white story illustration from the August 1950 issue of Children’s Play Mate drawn by Angela Price.

Figure e.
Two-color spot illustration by Milton Glaser for a story in the September 1959 issue of Humpty Dumpty. The loose ink lines and swirly flourishes around solid, graphic shapes are characteristic of Glaser’s work in the magazine.

The influence of avant-garde painting and the aesthetic of modernism dominated the illustrations of this children’s periodical. Images like this one by Chuck Mikolaycak clearly incorporate the limitations of the printing process into the image design (figure f). He uses only the color of the ink and the color of the page in flat, simplified shapes to describe the setting of his scene. The background field of teal creates the night sky and is erased in places to distinguish the bridge, the front light, and the glowing windows. Black lines are used only to provide details on the trees and train cars.

Figure f.
Illustration spread by Chuck Mikolaycak for the February 1963 issue of Humpty Dumpty.

This kind of limited color illustration is reminiscent of the modernist designs produced a decade earlier in the 1940s. Like Mikolaycak’s illustration, this public service announcement, created by former Bauhaus designer Herbert Bayer, employs a similar relationship of colored shape and black line, using cut out white spaces for emphasis and lighting (figure g). Similarly, Humpty Dumpty illustrations by painter Lionel Kalish are primarily built from simple, solid shapes that contrast with the field of color behind them, which is a technique also used by modernist designer Paul Rand in his book cover for the Museum of Modern Art (figures h and i).

Figure g.
Page deigned by Herbert Bayer for the Container Corporation of America in 1941. Bayer worked for the CCA throughout the 1940s. His most famous piece for the company was the World Geo-Graphic Atlas which the Geographical Review called “handsomest and best atlas ever published in America.” (Douglas)

Figure h.
Illustration by Lionel Kalish for the March 1960 issue of Humpty Dumpty.

Figure i.
Cover designed by Paul Rand in 1949. Rand was a member of a group of designers and artists known as the New York School and made a name for himself through his design work, Direction magazine covers, and corporate branding. (Douglas)

Though clearly visually inspired by the work of contemporary modernist designers and avant-garde painting, the images published in the issues of Humpty Dumpty are not as commonly displayed or discussed in conversations about mid-century modernism. This is understandable, Humpty Dumpty was not a magazine of particularly wide readership, the subscription numbers sitting just above the one million mark throughout the fifties and sixties (Kelly.) It was also not intended for any audience other than four to six year olds and their parents, so its artistic value is not widely known. It was not even intended to be saved or preserved for the future — in fact just the opposite, as children were encouraged to bend, fold, cut out, and color over about half of the content of each issue. (These publications were often encountered in doctors’ and dentists’ offices, and still are today–Ed.)

The periodical issues throughout this era are full of beautiful and striking illustrations which certainly deserve a place in our discussions of mid-century design, yet they are difficult to neatly categorize as either modernist prints or children’s illustration. Do those of us who revere these images do so as somehow transcending from their published form? Do others who ignore them do so because of it? In his article “What Do Pictures Really Want?” W. J. T. Mitchell suggests that images might just want to be accepted on their own terms. “What pictures what from us,” he writes, “what we have failed to give them, is an idea of visuality adequate to their ontology” (Mitchell). In approaching the images in this publication, then, the question may simply become what is their visual identity. Are they cheap decorations on pages to be delighted in and scribbled on by tiny hands? Are they beautiful and intelligent pieces of design to be valued and studied seriously? Or can they be both, remaining indifferent to the questions we ask of art?

Research sources

Bogart, Michele Helene. Artists, Advertising, and the Borders of Art. Chicago: U Of Chicago, 1999. Print.

“Books, Paul Rand, American Modernist (1914-1996).” N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Apr. 2017.

Browne, Pat, and Ray Broadus. Browne. The Guide to United States Popular Culture. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State U Popular, 2001. Print.

Children’s Periodicals.” Children’s Literature Review. . 28 Mar. 2017

Douglas, Ava. History of Graphic Design. N.p., n.d. Web. 11 Apr. 2017.

Greenberg, Clement. “Towards a Newer Laocoon.” Towards a Newer Laocoon. N.p.: U of Chicago, n.d. 23-38. Print.

“Herbert Bayer.” Graphic Design Archive. RIT Libraries, 01 Jan. 1990. Web. 11 Apr. 2017.

Kelly, R. Gordon. Children’s Periodicals of the United States. Westport, Conn. U.a.: Greenwood Pr., 1984. Print.

Mitchell, W. J. T. “What Do Pictures “Really” Want?” October 77 (1996): 71. Print.

Richardson, Selma K. Magazines for Children: A Guide for Parents, Teachers, and Librarians. Chicago: American Library Association, 1991. Print.

Image sources

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

Christine is a senior in the communication design program at the Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis.