Forgotten art, forgotten artists: Dick Sargent, and Cub Scouts in a phone booth

Years between 1900 and 1970-something, when computers, television and digital media started to bite into artists’ work, make up a golden age of magazine illustration.

Much of that art is essentially lost now.  It appeared in magazines no longer published, and therefore having no champion for digitizing the art and prose; and it appeared in magazines that libraries, now cramped for space, are tossing away after getting access to digitized text, or through microfiche — or not at all.

Many of the images are compelling, like this one from Dick Sargent (1911-1978):

Cub Scouts in phonebooth, Dick Sargent, via American Gallery

Cub Scouts crammed in a phonebooth, Dick Sargent image preserved by American Gallery

The image is archaic, technically antique, in so many ways.

  • Do any phonebooths remain in America, especially of this outdoor type?  The booths had already begun to fade in the late 1970s, comically chronicled in Superman movies where Clark Kent could not find a phone booth in which to change from his reporter’s disguise into Superman’s body suit and cape.  Rapid spread of cell phones, now digital communications, and the disappearance of T-1 lines to tap into for pay phones, all contribute to make this image seriously dated (could students put a date on it by tracking down clues in the image?).
  • Paper maps?  Not even a hold-alone GPS, but a paper road map (probably a freebie from a “service station).
  • Cub Scouts abandoned the blue beanie at least 20 years ago, probably more like 30.
  • One Scout leader?  Since at least the early 1990s, Scouting has a “two-deep leadership” rule, to prevent child molestation, under the Scouts’ tough Youth Protection rules.  At no time should one leader only be with one Scout or a group of Scouts.  Such a hike today would require a much larger phone booth, just to accommodate additional leaders.
  • The axe was out of place when the painting was made; it’s a tool for older Boy Scouts.  Today, axes trend to rarity even with Boy Scouts.  Wood fires depleted the woods near popular camping sites and Boy Scout camps.  Drought conditions create local fire bans in many Scout camps nationwide in most of the past two decades — a Scout needs to know how to fire up a WhisperLite or Jetboil stove, or even a Coleman propane or white gas stove (have I told you the story of Sheldon Coleman and the Alaskan Native with the 30-year-old Coleman stove?).  None of that requires a hand-axe.
  • No women leaders?  When the painting was made — early 1950s? — the only male in a direct leadership position in a Cub Scout Pack would be the Cubmaster, who is largely the ceremonial ring-leader for the once-a-month pack meeting.  Women would have been Den Mothers, meeting weekly with a Den of boys.  This is artistic license, of course — but a modern painting would look really odd without women in leadership roles, especially on an outing, and wholly apart from the two-deep leadership rule.
  • It’s Cub Scouting, but there’s a clear cross-message with the Boy Scout Motto, Be Prepared.  This group is not prepared for rain at all — nor much prepared for hiking.  See any water bottles?  In the 1950s, Scouts would have carried canteens instead — but even Cub Scouts could be counted on to carry a cool, military-looking canteen.

I’m guessing this was an illustration for a magazine.  For various reasons I think it was not a Boy Scout publication, like Boys’ Life or Scouting.  Sargent’s work appeared in publications like Saturday Evening Post.  It would be fascinating to know the publication, and whether there was an occasion for the painting.  Scouting and this form of realistic painting from the 20th century really go hand in hand.  One of America’s favorite painters, Norman Rockwell, got his first job at 19 as art director for Boy Scouts of America, including Boys’ Life.  He went on to a long and very productive career, including hundreds of magazine covers for many publications, including Saturday Evening Post.  Rockwell was followed by Joseph Csatari.

American Gallery specializes in rescuing collections of work from American painters and other visual artists.  Teachers and students looking for period art from the 20th century might do well to check out that site, and do a few searches.  History, education and the internet could use a few more sites like that.


4 Responses to Forgotten art, forgotten artists: Dick Sargent, and Cub Scouts in a phone booth

  1. Ed Darrell says:

    Great finds, Mr Higginbotham! Thanks.

    I don’t remember the last time any Scouting-themed cover on any national magazine carried a positive, or not negative, tone. I’m biased, but I think that’s a fault in magazine editors’ choices, and not in Scouting.


  2. Ed Darrell says:

    Nice photo of the phone booth!

    Phone booth in Colorado, photo by Judy L. Crook, June 2012

    I suspect no amount of change in the pocket would get a call out of that booth, though.

    Yeah, way back when there were just yellow blouses for Den Mothers. Then, when it became “Den Leader,” men got khaki and women could choose blue or yellow. Then khaki was added for women. Then the blue and yellow went away.

    The big change was opening other leader slots for women. Scouting improved a lot after that.


  3. Jude says:

    I watched the first episode of The Greatest American Hero, mostly out of nostalgia for the theme song. It was made in 1981, and Robert Culp’s character walks straight into the high school and meets up with William Katt’s character–no one questioned him, and no security stopped him. Later, Katt finds a knife on one of his students and confiscates it, but there are no penalties beyond that. Even 30 years ago, we were far more innocent. As for phone booths, this summer I spotted a lonely-looking one on a Colorado back road: My mother was a Den Mother in the early 1960s; in my generation, I was an assistant leader & day camp nature leader, but for some reason, I got stuck with a yellow shirt instead of khaki. Only women are given the choice (not that I was given a choice–it was a hand-me-down). Here’s a Cub Scout from those days: He should now be a freshman in college.


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