The Weird, Wacky, and Wonderful Posters of W. W. Denslow, Part 2

Today I'm back again with part two of this series of posters by W. W. Denslow. As discussed in part one, Denslow may be best known today as the illustrator of L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, but even before then he was already famous for his work in newspapers, posters, and other such design work.

I'm writing these articles to explore his prior work as a poster designer by presenting some posters I found in an online collection a couple days ago. So here is part two of The Weird, Wacky, and Wonderful Posters of W. W. Denslow.

1.) The Chicago Chronicle, Democratic, Daily and Sunday (circa. 1890s): What I've been able to observe from these posters is that the further back you go, the more likely you are to see Denslow sign with his last name as opposed to his seahorse monogram, so one can logically infer that he didn't use his seahorse signature until later in the decade. (Of course, by 1900, when he illustrated The Wonderful Wizard, he was only ever signing with his seahorse, and this is the signature most of us recognize today.) Yet, here, he does both. He uses his seahorse along with his full last name, which he would later shorten to "Den".

Stylistically, this is not something one might recognize right away as being Denslow's work, since many of his posters appeared to be heavily influenced by other graphic artists such as Will Bradley. But, even without any identifying signature, I would venture to say that the cat is a dead giveaway. In some of his more mainstream work, such as his illustrations for Baum's other children's books, he had a tendency to draw his cats with a broad and devilish grin. (Personally, I used to like it, but now it gives me the creeps. Those eyes look like they're staring right into my soul... Please tell me I'm not the only one...)

2.) The Chicago Times Herald; Consolidated March 4th, 1895: Although, as observed in Part 1, Denslow had a strange tendency to vacillate stylistically in the 1890s, it can't be denied here that this is what he is best known for. Bold lines, bright colors, whimsical characters, and fresh decorative elements. You can't get much more Denlow-like than this, folks! Need I say more?

3.) Rosemary and Rue by Amber (1896): I had a brief look through this book on Project Gutenberg, and (if I may be frank) it looks like a book of rants by a cantankerous old woman with an axe to grind.

Here are a couple examples: one is an anecdote about walking past a couple of young women, one of whom says to the other "I really don't care to marry him; he is such a darned fool! but he will give me everything I want, and I suppose I shall." And the author's response is "If I had caught a yellow-bird swearing, or seen the first robin appear in Joliet stripes, the revulsion from pleasure to disgust could not have been more sudden. Is this all the lesson the world has taught you, my pretty maiden? To soil your lips with slang and sell yourself for fine clothes and the chance of unlimited display!"

Another is when the author is arguing with a little boy she lives with about the importance of clean hands. Then he announces that the other kids he goes to school with use cushions to keep their hands clean when playing marbles, adding "Gee whiz, but I'm glad I ain't such a fool!"

Then (here we go again...) she begins her rant: "What on earth is going to become of us if this awful wave of effeminacy which has struck the race does not soon subside? Earmuffs and galoshes, heated street cars in April and double windows up to rose time have done their best to make molly coddles out of men, but when we are starting a generation of boys to play marbles with cushions to rest their hands on the sex had better abolish hats and trousers and take to hoods and shoulder shawls. Give me a boy and not a pocket edition of an old woman."

So, my point is, this book may be a little bit of serious mindedness, and maybe a little touch of humor, but on the whole, so absurd that one can't help but laugh despite themselves. So, in this poster, Denslow tries his best to keep an artistically straight face while dealing with such ridiculous subject matter. Straight-faced Denslow would use somber colors, such as the dark, muted brown that we see throughout. Yet, the caricaturish way he makes the woman's head too big for her body, while not being quite big enough for brains, seems to hint at an overly bombastic and opinionated person who unfortunately lacks the intelligence to know when to give it up. At least, this is how I might interpret this poster.

4.) Father Goose; His Book (1899): Denslow's playful style is right at home in the works of L. Frank Baum, which makes his falling out with Baum over the rights to the 1903 Oz extravaganza a shame. (In fact, I've often wondered what the rest of the Oz series might be like if Denslow had illustrated it instead of John R. Neill. But that's a topic for another time.) Anyway, in this poster he uses the bright colors, bold lines, and expression that characterizes his best known work, just as in number 2 above. This is Denslow at his very best!

5.) Elbert Hubbard and His Work by Albert Lane of "The Erudite" (1901): By this time, Denslow's signature had evolved into what we know it as today, and his bold, graphic style appears to have been firmly cemented. You can generally tell, when comparing it against his earlier work, that, although he is willing to portray his good friend and colleague in a more dignified fashion than caricature or playfulness would allow, he was also, by this time, uncompromising in his style as far as color and line technique. Add to that the enormous success of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, which was published a year prior, and you can tell he made it! And with that kind of success, there is no more compromise...

6.) The Haughty Sisters Shopping (1895): Advertising Christmas shopping is something we've been doing for easily over 100 years, and this 1895 calendar poster is just one of countless examples. It almost appears to be a satire on the commercialization of Christmas, where, on the one hand, Jesus preached modesty (among many other things,) and yet, on the other hand, people violate this by shopping for all kinds of extravagances for gifts--which, ironically, will be given out on His birthday.

Nonetheless, this is still a charming design, very typical of Denslow, and while he is definitely still in that state of stylistic flux, we can definitely see the elements that make up his style as we know it best. (As a side note, this is also an early example of his use of repetition for comic effect. I discuss this in more detail in my post about the Top 10 Illustrations from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.)

7.) Phoebe Tilson (1898): When I posted this on Instagram in 2018, I had no idea it was by Denslow until some time later when I noticed the seahorse monogram in the lower right hand corner. I guess I should have recognized it, but the thing that makes it less obvious is the lettering, which is not at all typical of Denslow. At any rate, the bold lines, especially in the dress, are (or at least should be) a dead giveaway to those familiar with his style, since they look very much like the clothing in his other illustrations.

Everyone makes mistakes sometimes...

8.) April 1896 Calendar Poster: Just as with number 6 above, this is another calendar poster for the same company. The Easter theme is very obvious, but aside from that, it really does look like something out of his more typical repertoire. Although this was a few years before he met Baum and began working with him, his use of line and color here is definitely prescient of his later work. He still had a ways to go in developing his style, but by now he has almost got the hang of it.

So what are your thoughts? Are there any Denslow posters you liked best? What about other poster artists you like better? What do you like best about Denslow's work in general? Please hit me up in the comments, and we will continue our chat.

Have a wonderful day.

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