Wednesday, April 14, 2010

SUNBONNETS AND OVERALLS

This exceptionally charming book dates from 1914 and is the work of Etta Craven Hogate and Eulalie Osgood Grover, with music by Isadora Martinez and wondrous little illustrations by Bertha Corbett Melcher (who created the characters). It's a combination "dramatic reader" and operetta for perhaps first- or second-graders and comes from a series of works by Hogate and Melcher about the Sunbonnet Babies and Overalls Boys. The lessons in the reader, for example, are adapted from The Sunbonnet Babies' Primer, The Overalls Boys, and The Sunbonnet Babies in Holland. Hogate and Melcher collaborated for many years on this series, taking the Sunbonnet Babies and the Overalls Boys to Switzerland, Italy, and other parts of the world as geography studies for second-graders. Inspired by Kate Greenway's drawings of little girls, the Sunbonnet Babies and Overalls Boys took the appearance to a cleaner, more graphic dimension, with a simpler line and a simple colour palatte.

The look of the characters was almost a mainstay for three decades and continues on even now, albeit in adaptations. Still, it's always little girls with their heads and faces completely hidden by enormous sunbonnets. Melcher painted thousands of these little images, releasing some as postcards during the height of the Sunbonnet craze in the mid 1900s. Sunbonnet figures seemed to be everywhere - on postcards, calendars, even on fine china. It was only natural that illustrators like Dorothy Dixon and Bernhardt Wall would jump on the bandwagon (in later years, Wall would claim he was first) and produce knockoffs, including Wall's 1906 postcards and his 1907 books Bennie and Jennie and The Sunbonnet Twins, images from which became part of quilters' standard catalogue until well into the 1930s.

The characters never completely left the American psyche — even as late as the 1960s, the little girls were still around, this time reborn as Holly Hobbie. By the time that character had passed on, craftspeople were re-discovering the original characters and putting them back into use, even as late as 2005.

What distinguishes the original series of books is that it's the first "early reader" to have continuing characters throughout the text, as well as to be the first to use full colour printing and a larger, easier-to-read font size.

The playlets themselves are, as one might expect, very simple works -- a girl is crying because her dolly carriage is broken, and a boy fixes it for her; or an invitation to go to the store in Dad's wagon is threatened by the loss of a sunbonnet. What I found interesting about the text, tho, is that the range of required vocabulary seems a great deal wider and demands more than, say Dick and Jane's exploits.

The music adapts simple folk tunes of the times, but Hogate's choreographic requirements are, in spots, pretty darn pushy if she expects them to be performed by first graders: a great deal of precision marching and walking and strolling and skipping that would keep the stage in constant motion. And considering that the girls' faces are always to be kept hidden (since that's part of the Sunbonnet Baby look), I have little doubt that there were plenty of performance accidents.

Still, it's fascinating to see the genesis of such an iconic image.

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