Fishing for a Connection
by Peter Paeth
In January ’09, I had bought a reprint of a 1926 Harley advertisement featuring a farmer in bib overalls on a motorcycle. The illustration had the “feel” of my father’s work, and when I scanned and compared it with his verified work from two mid-‘20s books (he had illustrated J.L. Nichol’s The Business Guide and Safe Counsel), the similarities were compelling.
The farmscapes, the clouds, the trees,…even the horizontally hatched skies were identical. Either the farmer on the Harley was my father’s pen-and-ink or it had been drawn by someone who employed an uncannily similar repertoire and style. Later that month, on the Naperville Heritage Site of the Illinois Digital Archives, I found my father’s listing in the 1925 Dupage County Directory as an artist for the Sullivan Press (a.k.a The Callender-Sullivan Press) of Chicago. His illustrated covers of their magazine, The Sporting Goods Journal, saved in his collection dated this employment from 1923 to 1925
Since the Press also published Motorcycling including the Bicycling World, it seemed reasonable to assume that this connection might have brought him free lance opportunities in the cycling world, just as The Sporting Goods Journal had probably led the South Bend Bait Company to him.
A Google book search revealed that the entire 1919 volume of Callender-Sullivan Press’s Motorcycling and Bicycling magazine(retitled Motorcycling including the Bicycling World in 1923) had been digitized for full view. There I learned that W.D. Callender(company president) and T.J. Sullivan(the magazine’s editor)-- the press’s founders-- were members of the Motorcycle & Allied Trades Association. Sullivan was even a race official(Slide 3) and can be seen in some incredible archival newsreel footage on YouTube as the starter of the legendary Marion 200, Labor Day 1919, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I1YDV2fGcOk –
Louis Paeth worked as an artist for the Callender-Sullivan Press from 1923 to 1925. They published the trade magazines Motorcycling (including The Bicycling World) and The Sporting Goods Journal
Present that day with such mythic figures as Walter and Arthur Davidson and William Harley, Sullivan and Callender were prominent members of the motorcycling fraternity that popularized, sponsored and attended such races. I remember thinking, “that’s the connection between Harley-Davidson and my father,” and thus I began examining whatever Harley-Davidson ads I could find. Archival issues of Popular Mechanics had also been digitized by Google books, and I soon discovered that Harley had placed a full page ad in virtually all of the magazine’s monthly editions of the ‘20s and ‘30s.
Many of the ads featured there were designed with the outdoorsman in mind, emphasizing the motorcycle’s off-road sporting capabilities. “Where the Big Ones Rise,” “On the Fly,” “All Outdoors is Waiting for You,” and “The Sportsmen’s Friend,” for example, were some of the titles used in their Spring 1928 campaign.(Slide 4) The company, at least in part, was reacting to the sensation that Henry Ford’s Model A had created at its unveiling in December of 1927. (So captivated was the American car- buying public, that in the May 2nd , 1928 edition of The New York Times, Edsel Ford announced back orders to be in excess of 800,000 cars.)
As had been the case with the Model’s A predecessor, the Model T, Harley-Davidson was again forced to compete with a very low-priced, four-cylinder car. Hence, Harley’s campaign chose to target the sportsman, promising him the ability “ to ride to those hidden trout streams that never see a highway or railroad.” This was only poetic justice since legend had it that William Harley and Arthur Davidson’s love of fishing had been the genesis of the first Harley-Davidson motor bike. That first bike, so the story goes, was designed to enable them to get up the trails leading to their beloved Wisconsin fishing holes faster. Pictorial evidence of the company creators’ love of fishing abounds on the internet.
So it was, one early February day in 2009, as I waded through the back catalog (1924-1932) of Popular Mechanics, that I was coming to understand Harley-Davidson’s connection with fishing, and the business model that connection had inspired. But I was not prepared for what happened next. There, in the January 1926 edition of Popular Mechanics, from those yesteryear pages, riding atop a Harley motorcycle, my father’s face smiled out at me. Could it be? Was this a revelation or a mirage? Then I remembered: it had happened before. When first starting to reexamine my father’s art collection in 2006, I had come upon a poultry brochure that featured a young farmer taking his baby chicks to the brooding house, who was instantly recognizable as my father(Slide 8). Three weeks later, confirmation of his authorship of the brochure had appeared, when in yet another storage box, I happened upon the original gouache paintings of the chickens used to sell Smith Standard Incubators.
That young farmer had brought me first knowledge of my father’s use of the widespread illustrator’s practice of employing self- images for characters. As another early 20th century Chicago illustrator H.C. McBarron put it, “it was cheaper” than hiring a model. From a September, 1991 Chicago television interview that his grandson submitted to YouTube, the eminent old painter expanded, “I found that I was familiar with myself”.- http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bgfjXdC5__w- McBarron had become a noted American military artist whose signature ruse was to depict himself in the middle of historic battles. (No less a figure than Where’s Waldo creator Martin Handford credits McBarron as a primary influence.) McBarron and Paeth had attended Chicago’s Art Institute at the same time(1921), but there was probably another artistic affiliation as well, for in my father’s art collection there remains an original signed painting by McBarron from 1930(also Slide 9). In any case, McBarron’s motives in featuring himself in his own work were evidently shared by my father. Commercial self-portraits were cost-effective, uncomplicated and sometimes, as in the grinning Harley rider, just plain fun. Now to some this may sound like any other son’s whopper of a fish tale about his dad, maybe so, yet I remain convinced that my father was both the poultry farmer and the Harley rider. And I know for a fact that in later years, he was still employing this device in his work.
So that day in March of 2009, I had a significant time investment and quite a bit of emotional momentum when I called to try to arrange access to the Harley-Davidson archives and was turned away at the gate. Realizing then that I was left to my own resources and knowing that I had to invest still more time to make my case, I returned to the database of my father’s validated artwork. There, over the last two years, I’ve made many, many more side-by-side comparisons, two of which I now wish to share with you.
In conclusion, I believe the Harley portraits, as well as the pen+ink backgrounds juxtaposed to the photos in the 1928 motorcycle ads are the work of my father. They would mark an evolution consistent with the outdoor art genre he had been employed in since leaving the Art Institute of Chicago’s Art School in 1921. As yet no conclusive documentation has emerged linking Louis A. Paeth with Harley-Davidson; so it is the search for this corroboration that motivates my continued efforts to gain access to the Harley-Davidson archives.
-- Peter Paeth