The Gibson Girl: America’s Sweetheart

 

In the late 1800s, artists influenced people as much as movies and television do today.  Similar to looking at celebrities for fashion clues, our ancestors found their inspiration in the pen and ink drawings of Charles Dana Gibson.

 

In her book America’s Great Illustrators, Susan E. Meyer describes the Gibson girl: “She was taller than other women currently seen in the pages of magazines…infinitely more spirited and independent, yet altogether feminine.  She appeared in a stiff shirtwaist, her soft hair piled into a chignon, topped by a plumed hat.  Her flowing skirt was hiked up in back with just a hint of a bustle.  She was poised and patrician.  Though always well bred, there often lurked a flash of mischief in her eyes.”

 

Readers loved that mischievous characteristic.  The Gibson girl exemplified the American spirit of resourcefulness, adventurousness and liberation from European traditions.

 

Charles Dana Gibson was born in Massachusetts in 1867, descended from hard-working New Englanders.  His father had been a civil war officer and an amateur artist.  Gibson’s father taught him to make silhouettes, and he got so good at it that when he was twelve, his parents sacrificed to send him to art school in Manhattan.  Frederick Remington was a fellow student.  Gibson studied for only two years until the financial strain was too much for his family and he decided to work to pay them back.

 

He tried to sell pen and ink drawings to all the New York publishers with no success, until 1866 when he finally sold a small drawing of a dog chained to an doghouse, baying at the moon to Life Magazine for four dollars.  The editor encouraged his work and kept him employed for the next thirty years.

 

After that first sale, Gibson’s income increased steadily, earning him a studio, where he studied English and American magazines for new techniques.  He traveled to England and Paris to study and met his idol, artist George du Maurier, famous for drawings of society women.  Upon his return to American, Gibson’s drawings took on a new vitality.  By 1890, Gibson worked for all the major New York publications: The Century, Harper’s Monthly, Weekly and Bazaar, plus a weekly drawing for Life.

 

He created “The Gibson Girl” and became a superstar of his time.  While being spunky, sentimental, down-to-earth and aristocratic all at the same time, she became the icon of the American girl to the entire world.  The drawings captured timeless themes such a love, money, self-deception and social climbing.  One series published in 1899 showed her from infancy to old age.  Gibson showed mood through light and shadow, and used witty captions to make his drawings like short stories.  In one such series called “Mr. Pipp’s Education” about a henpecked husband and his family traveling through Europe, Gibson created the visual equivalent of a novel.

 

Gibson, who saw himself as a social commentator, earned the admiration of the entire country.  He was New York’s most eligible bachelor until marrying a Virginia society belle in 1895.

 

The impact of Gibson’s work on merchandising can be compared to Sponge Bob or Lord of the Rings in today’s market.  There were table-album books, china plates, ashtrays, tablecloths, pillows, spoons, screens, fans and umbrella stands, all bearing the image of the woman Gibson created.  Many young women who had posed for him claimed to have been his inspiration.

 

To keep his girl company, he created The Gibson Man – a handsome, courteous, romantic fellow, always subtly in awe of his female counterpart.  The notion one got from his drawings was that Gibson felt women were the superior gender, deserving of admiration.

 

Magazines vied for exclusive rights to his work and the negotiations even made headlines, but he always kept his connection to Life, eventually becoming its editor.

 

Soon flapper drawings took the place of the Gibson girl in the public’s affection, and with more time on his hands, Gibson devoted himself to oil painting.  He painted family and scenes near his home in Maine.  By the time he died in 1944 he’d already seen the revival of America’s love for Victorian themes and beauty, especially in the many nostalgic 1890s movies Hollywood produced in the 40s. 

 

Charles Dana Gibson’s work expressed sensitivity and mystery that still lives on when we see the reproductions of the iconic woman he created and whom America fell in love.  I’ve had Gibson Girl note cards, and there was even a US postage stamp.  She’s a face we recognize as well as a creation that represents female beauty and grace.  The Gibson Girl lives on today. 

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24 thoughts on “The Gibson Girl: America’s Sweetheart”

  1. Lovely images, Cheryl. I’m always struck by the Gibson girls’ hair. Shiny, thick, and how do they keep it piled on their head like that? LOL.

  2. I’ve had trouble getting in today and wonder if others are having problems.

    Thanks, Pam! It was “big hair” wasn’t it? I’d imagine the style took a lot of “rats”, the hair that women saved out of their hairbrushes to elevate those lofty styles.

  3. I was signed out for some reason this morning.
    Before I talk about Cheryl’s post, I just wondered if any of you remember my goat blog, called Close Encounters of the Furred Kind?

    Well, anyway, June is Goat Trauma Awareness Month.
    It’s high time PTGS was recognized. (Post Traumatic Goat Syndrome.

    http://www.goat-trauma.org/news/awareness.shtml

    In order to promote widespread knowledge of the dangers of goat trauma, The Childhood Goat Trauma Foundation has designated June as Goat Trauma Awareness Month. Throughout the month, the CGTF will sponsor programs across the country to teach people of all ages about the dangers of goat traumas.

  4. I love this, Cheryl. What beautiful pictures.
    I kept hoping he made enough money to help out his poor self-sacrificing parents.

    As someone who has put (and continues to put) four daughters through college, I am ALWAYS rooting for that. 🙂

  5. I love these pictures Cheryl and all the info you brought with them, show’s how people’s work lives on.
    Mary i remember your Goat blog i think it’s the only one on here i’ve seen since i’ve been coming. i remember i made a comment of my experience with the goat and electric fence!

  6. that one Gibson girl, in color with the mirror is really reminiscent of Norman Rockwell. I wonder if Gibson influenced him.

    I’d heard of Gibson girls before but I guess if I thought of it at all, I considered it a … oh, a fashion style you know … more than a person or a type of painting.
    I guess that’s what’s known as becoming a household name.

    I pause to consider what might pop into someone’s mind if my name became a household name.

    Wow, how Connealy of you.
    She really pulled a Connealy with that one.
    I’d Connealy up that bronc if I was you.
    Hand me a Connealy, I’ll try and staunch the bleeding.

    Well, the mind just St.Johns at that one.

  7. That was a cool blog Cheryl!! I really enjoyed reading it!

    and Mary….LOL @ “Well, the mind just St.Johns at that one” LOL…that was so funny

  8. Beautiful post! The “Gibson” girl is certainly someone I think of subconsciously when I write my western heroines. Not necessarily their exact looks, but their demeanor and grace and style. I had no idea that the artist “invented” the girl. Life is truly stranger than fiction.
    Facinating post today. I really enjoyed it!!

  9. I first heard of Gibson Girls when I was little and used to go to Farrell’s ice cream parlours. I love and adore the drawings. There is just something about a Gibson from her wonderful hairto her slim waist.

  10. Cheryl, loved the history behind the Gibson Girl. I’ve seen those images for ages and never knew who was responsible or where they came from. It’s exciting to learn new things.

    The Gibson Girl was quite a beauty, even with her tall hair. When you answered a comment up above and talked about “rats” it made me remember when women used to use rats when the French twist was popular and a few other hairstyles in the 60’s I think it was. My mother had one (she bought it) and used it to make a chignon on the back of her head. Odd that I hadn’t thought of rats in years.

    Interesting, fun post! 🙂

  11. (I just tried to submit and it didn’t let me so am trying again.) Beautiful pix and wonderful info, Cheryl. I have always known what Gibson Girls looked like, but I never knew why they were called that or any of their history. I didn’t realize they got their name from an actual guy. I do remember trying that poufy hair thing with the bun on myself as a kid.

    Didn’t work. But it sure looked better than when I tried to cut my own bangs LOL.

    Thanks for another great post. I always get edified when I visit the Junction.

  12. Hi Cheryl, What a great post! I didn’t know about the Gibson Girl until now. What a wonderful part of American history.
    Thanks again for your post. I enjoy learning something new every day from P&P.

  13. Great post!

    I writej novels set in 1890s/1900s New York and sketches of the Gibson Girl (and those of Gibson’s contemporaries, Harrison Fisher and James Montgomery Flagg) are very helpful when I’m trying to find a picture of my heroine and other female characters–plus, one Gibson sketch inspired an entire story.

  14. well….I have tried to respond to your blog Cheryl and I am guessing my reply(replies) are in SPAMland…

  15. I’ve always been impressed by the sweet calmness
    of the Gibson Girl’s expression and sweet face!

    Pat Cochran

  16. Cheryl, you added tremendously to my knowledge of Gibson girls. FUN post, including clicking on book covers to see your resources. If you wish to google Lillian Russell, I think she has a similar style due to time period. She was from my hometown, Clinton, IA & our showboat theatre is named in her honor.

    Mary C, ROFL at your comments.

  17. Cheryl, In the middle 70’s the look of the Gibson girl took over my life and I had my hair done in just that style for a banquet I was attending. Everyone loved it…except the one that mattered most, hubby was not impressed, but I had a ball. My dress was even similar to the clothing of the era. Wish I knew if anyone had a picture.

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