Monday, December 7, 2015

Children's Christmas Illustrations by a Pioneer Comic Artist: Ethel Hays

Someone was a teacher, I thought, as I picked up the tattered, much-stapled wodge of paper at last Saturday's estate sale. 

A number of carefully-typed pages with handwritten notes; this was the script for a young children's Christmas presentation.  

At the top of the first page, written in pencil, are the words:

No. 1
Act out story using as many children as possible
Dec. 8 - 15 and 22 1948
Teacher take part of Donkey

(Like so many others before and since, Teacher used artistic license:
there is no donkey in the Scripture accounts of the birth of Jesus.
But it made a good introduction to the story.)

I looked up the dates; December 8, 15 and 22 were Wednesdays.

On the lower side of the first page, in red pencil:

All sing very softly "Away in a Manger" 

then into 2nd episode next page

On the back of one of the pages is written

Property of Florence Webster
 Written Dec. 1947

The small stack of typed pages with handwritten notes had been stapled many times to a thin paper 1941 edition of The Night Before Christmas.  The teacher read the story at the end of the Christmas program.

I peered at the illustrations and saw the name of the artist: Ethel Hays.

I'd never heard of her. Ethel Hays (1892-1989), it turns out, was not just an illustrator of children's books. She was first known as a pioneering comic strip artist in the 1920s and 30s. Her best-known character was Flapper Fanny, drawn in an Art Deco style and chronicling the era when women bobbed their hair, got jobs outside the home and played active sports.

Hays' comic strips were syndicated and printed in newspapers across the country. She also drew full-page illustrations, such as these I found online:

Eventually Hays started her own family and turned from newspaper comics and illustrations to children's books and paper dolls. 

The website says:

In the late 1930s, Hays began taking assignments from various publishers to illustrate children’s story books, coloring books and paper doll cut-out books. Perhaps with children of her own, this work had more appeal for her then her old flapper subjects. Hays’ juvenile illustration work has endured and spawned a whole culture of devoted fans. Whereas many comic-strip fans don’t recognize the name Ethel Hays, she is an icon for paper-doll collectors. Hays produced dozens of children’s books, some uncredited, well into the 1950s. 

Some of her most popular illustrations were of Raggedy Ann and Andy for the Saalfield Publishing Company of Akron, Ohio.

The artwork for The Night Before Christmas shows the hand of someone who knew her craft, and knew how important it is to allow a child to look at the pages and follow the story.  It's not hard to imagine the teacher holding the book so her students can see the illustrations and reading (probably upside down) as she goes.

The children could follow this story easily. And Hays' attention to detail is impressive.

You get the sense that the reindeer-powered sleigh is swooping around the neighborhood, looking for the best place to land. 

And of course the reindeer are smiling.

What is everyone getting for Christmas? We know before the children in the story do. 

A doll, a drum, a plane, a dollhouse, a teddy bear....

Oh, good, a model horse too.

Look at Hays' final illustration for this classic story.  

Did you notice Hays' sleight-of-hand? The fireplace stones are mostly pastel colors.

Ethel Hays eventually retired from her career in illustration, but she continued to create art for her own enjoyment. She died in 1989 at age 97.

Here's the great Cartoonician article on Ethel Hays:

Here's a Google Books page on the history of Raggedy Ann, showing Ethel Hays' connection:

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