If you asked me to name ten favorite things in my house right now, you know, the kind of things you'd grab and run with in case of fire or flood—but not including family members, pets or photos because those go without saying—this little piece of framed art would be right up near the top of the list. (I haven't thought about it long enough to know what the other nine things would be. Maybe I'll have a good look around and let you know in another post!)
I stumbled upon "The Town of Don't You Worry" while shopping with my mom at my favorite flea market (hers too, probably—the Long Beach Antique Market) when my daughter was very young. She was there too, being pushed or pulled around in some kind of contraption. What I remember most is standing and staring and reading the verse over and over and being completely enchanted by it. I wanted to buy it so badly, but was incredibly "new house poor" and had already busted my budget that day. So my mom, like any good mom would, figured she could call the purchase an early or extra birthday or Mother's Day or just-because-it's-Sunday gift. And the little town print came home to live with me. (Thanks, Mom!) Now, I am not the kind of person anyone would call sappy or sentimental, but this verse, written by I.J. Bartlett and immortalized on this circa 1922 print along with simple graphics and a beautiful typeface, really does something for me. Click on the photo above to enlarge it for easier reading. If it makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside, it will probably do the same for you.
While this town in the "Valley of Contentment" on the banks of the "River Smile" isn't a real place, I believe most definitely that the feelings evoked by this poem can be a very real state of mind. As I was redecorating a bit last week, I remembered that I had put "the town" away some time ago. What I couldn't remember though was exactly where I had put it and I panicked a bit. It took a few days of poking into drawers and closets before I finally found it. Whew! The "Cheer Up" and "Be Happy" flowers are safe! And out in the open once again to brighten and inspire my days. My poem is living on the antique secretary now, beside a photo of my daughter and a little wooden bird picked up many years ago on a trip to a nearby mountain town. I pass by this vignette innumerable times each day and it always makes me smile. These three favorite things would be very easy to scoop up on my way out the door in a rush!
These charming little artworks are called "motto prints" or "picture poems". In an article published on antiqueweek.com, C. Dianne Zweig writes about their origins:
"These beautifully lithographed small art prints can be considered not only works of art but perhaps “mini works of the heart “ as they combine the emotional expressions of the poet with the creativity of the illustrator. Mother was a favorite subject for these works. . . While some folks jest that Mother’s Day motto poems are overly sweet and even perhaps a bit corny for their personal tastes, there are many collectors who view these collectibles quite differently. As interest in Art Nouveau and Art Deco style is on the rise, so is the interest in these beautifully illustrated poems. . . Motto sayings were printed by machine, mass produced and usually framed under glass allowing them to stay preserved for future generations. They grew in popularity in the late 1800s as publishers discovered better color and lithography printing processes. Louis Prang, a German immigrant and gifted graphic arts craftsman brought his lithography skills to America in the mid 1800s and revolutionized the greetings card and motto print industry. In fact, Prang who settled near Boston, is considered the originator of the mass market Christmas holiday card line in America and the “father” of greetings in general. Modernization of printing techniques carried over to the motto industry. Being able to reproduce paintings, illustrations and photographic images with careful color consideration was an important contribution to the publishing industry. Now reprints of quality work could be offered to the average person at affordable prices. The 5 & 10 store was a favorite place to buy these motto sayings. Publishers in association with a variety of frame companies produced not only sentimental sayings but they could also be used as wall décor".
I've purchased a few motto prints to give as gifts over the years, but I only own two others myself. The print above was a wedding gift from my parents. (again, click on the photo for a better view) It normally lives in our master bedroom, but is tucked away right now as the decor in that room is changing and kind of a mess right now. I love the way the silver metallic ink sparkles in between the earthy greens and golds. The sentiment is lovely too. In the lower left corner is the name "Lyman Powell". Whether this person is the writer or the artist I cannot say—many of the authors of these mottoes were not acknowledged. This one is not dated either but it's so similar in appearance to the other two, I would guess it is also from the 1920's.
My third motto print below is tiny, just under 5"x6", but it's the most colorful by far. I found it at the best antiques co-op in Bakersfield, California located inside the old Woolworth's Department Store building. (They still serve diner-style food and handmade milkshakes at the original luncheonette counter! If you're ever in that neck of the woods, it's definitely worth a visit.) The line-drawn and inked art reminds me of ancient illuminated manuscripts. A peacock drapes its long tail down the left side and into the bottom margin. Certain words are capitalized with letters printed in colored blocks. Gold ink around the border and within the illustration is metallic, as is the frame though it has taken on a purple hue I think might be oxidation. Teeny tiny print at the bottom reads "Copyright 1923". The author is identified only as "H.L.B.". Whoever he or she was, H.L.B. had a very clear understanding of what the world really needs to make it a kinder, more tranquil place.
On the back of the print, a tag board card is glued quite securely. Notice how the corners are slightly rounded—makes me wonder where exactly this little card came from. The inscription, written in the hand of someone who learned cursive writing way back when the quality of your handwriting was something to take great pride in, reads: "To Anita From Her Friend Mrs. Letitia Ross. July 26 1937. Age 91 yrs." If Mrs. Ross was 91 years old in 1937, that means she was born in 1846. She could be my great-great-grandmother. My head spins a little when I think of it. This small piece of art, insignificant to most, has been around since 1923 and is in near-perfect condition. I will always take very good care of it and do what I can to see that it gets passed along to someone who admires it as much as I do. I think Anita and Mrs. Ross would appreciate that.
I searched the Internets for other examples to show you and there are plenty. Two of the prettiest mother mottoes I've ever seen are copyrighted images so you'll have to go here and here to take a look. If you're familiar with the work of artist Mary Engelbreit, you might know that she admits to being heavily influenced by art from the first half of the 20th century. The style of the drawings on these two mottoes brought Ms Engelbreit's colorful, whimsical work immediately to mind.
Here are three more I thought were nice. Two are mother prints that appear to be from different decades. The third is a very cute motto titled "Folks I Like" meant as as gift for a good friend. I like the charming but almost curmudgeonly verse: "Some folks I like, some folks I don't. Some folks I could, but simply won't. But when I do, I like them much and you come under the head of such!" Do you think the recipient of this gift felt lucky to be liked by a grouch?
In the tranquil "Town of Don't You Worry", I'm sure it would seem a wonderful thing to be liked by anyone, grouchy or not. And any gift, no matter the size or how sappy the sentiment, would be welcome with open and grateful arms.