Riddles of an Illustration

I have long pondered this 1948 Saturday Evening Post cover by onetime leading American illustrator Stevan Dohanos. For those unfamiliar, the Post was America’s largest weekly and for decades it was the publishing home of Norman Rockwell (covers) and dozens of other American realist and representational illustrators. Many of the covers were elaborate gags or vignettes of American life. This is certainly a snippet of life in the Connecticut suburbs. But there is something more, well, sinister, going on. Let’s examine the clues.

 

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Oct. 2, 1948. The U.S. has returned to a normal footing three years after World War II. Patriotism is no longer the prevailing theme for national magazines. Dohanos chose to capture a common mishap on a typical rainy day. But is there a hidden meaning in this tableau? A commentary on American life, perhaps.

There are indeed many codes found in this image. The middle-class suburb represents the return to status quo after a period of turmoil. Is Dohanos trying to show normalcy? Perhaps. But it does so by showing the victims of what might be a nasty and deliberate assault on American propriety.

 

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Clearly, these people, off to do their daily routines, are not happy about being splashed so recklessly.

 

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Dohanos’ sense of irony is not subtle. But was he suggesting that the driver was looking for business by staining the victims’ clothes, or was he simply unaware of the puddle that caused such wanton distress? The answer is not clear.

Obviously, even with the rain obscuring his vision, the driver had to be aware of the bus stop. A case can be made that he was making a sociopolitical statement: The working man against the suburban elite? Or not?

 

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The sign “Bus Stop” may not be the best designed, but the reality of the situation is definitive. Either the driver was not paying attention or he knew exactly what he was doing. This was either criminal mischief or callous disregard.

What I don’t understand is why the victims were not further away from the curb since they obviously could see the puddle and were able to anticipate the splash even from the bus.

 

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It does not take a physicist to see that a vehicle driving through water at even an average speed would cause this reaction. Only the older woman seems to have her wits. She smartly stood at a far enough distance from the possibility of calamity.

The most injured party was not the mother, who was too close to the curb, but the young Betty Lou, whose surprise is palpable. Her trauma may stay with her for a long time. We’ll never know.

 

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As this blow-up proves, the youngster was led astray by her mother, who we can assume had her mind more about shopping downtown than the safety of her daughter.

So there are hidden meanings in this cover. The disparity between the wealthy and working class. The lack of common sense judgement on the part of both parties. And the overwhelming evidence that even in this quiet suburban America in the postwar era, there were unspoken tensions bubbling under the wet pavement, waiting to explode.


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