As another year winds down many of us may be thinking not only of endings, but also of new beginnings. New Year’s imagery usually includes Father Time as an old man being reborn on January 1st as a newborn baby, but we have many visual motifs to represent both time and endings. Some of the imagery is happy, such as riding off into the sunset at the end of a film, while others are more somber, such as a wilting flower.
High school and college yearbook editors in the 1920s and 30s chose a variety of images to signify “the end” whether it was the end of the volume, the end of the school year, the end of their labor, or all three. Sometimes these illustrations were purchased as part of package from the publisher while sometimes they were drawn by the students themselves, but they mostly follow pretty recognizable themes.
Many relied on those common visual representations of “the end” – a sunset, a bedtime theme, a train caboose, a theater curtain, and numerous just-extinguished candles.
Others tended towards cute or humorous images, especially of rear “ends” either human or animal. A trend that we’ve seen continue into more modern yearbooks as well. Humans never tire of a good pun.
Earlier yearbooks had shown tired editorial teams, exhausted by the work of putting together the yearbook the reader has just finished perusing, so one might appreciated all the hard work that went into the volume.
But by the twenties, sometimes this point was pressed even further. Instead of a picture of the editorial teams, their gravestones are shown, perhaps to imply that they worked themselves to death to provide their classmates with a superior yearbook. Death, of course, is the most potent symbol of the end available to humans.
Given that, it’s not too surprising that death is used quite often in these farewell pages, most often in a comedic/slapstick way akin to a Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner cartoon.
But what is surprising are ones, more numerous than one would think, that cross the line from humorous into morbid, at least by modern standards. Viewer discretion is advised while viewing these next few images which include more realistic illustrations of death.
Why did publishers and editors choose such grisly images to end their volumes? Some of these gruesome images are part of mass-produced packages, such as the cartoon man in the car, which seems to be a part of the famous cartoonist John Held Jr.’s illustration package done for a company called Vivicolor.
Others are drawn by students, such as the image of a man and woman hanging. While the image seems to be based on a mass-produced version, the version included in the Cape Charles High School yearbook was drawn by the yearbook’s art editor, a senior girl named Grace Robertson. While the original version (which can be spotted in the 1929 yearbook of Boyce Agricultural High School) has only a man, Grace added a woman.
What is dying in these visual representations? Childhood? Innocence? Did the recent end of World War I and the Depression-Era struggles lend themselves to a more morbid humor that does not translate today?
Whatever they were meant to signify, it is hard to imagine that such images would be used in the same way today. As such, it is a good reminder that although those who lived in the past were humans, same as us, they were living in different circumstances and historical contexts. The memes present online today will probably be indecipherable to people a hundred years from now.
But here at the UncommonWealth blog we have always preferred our memes to have cute kittens.