Last week Rich Malley posted about the Billings and Spencer Company complex in Hartford. He illustrated his post with an amazing watercolor done in 1898 by Hiram P. Arms, a Hartford-based illustrator. When I first saw the painting, which is quite large, I was intrigued by all of the little vignettes Arms included, as Rich pointed out, to suggest the residential nature of the neighborhood in which the complex stood. I thought it would be fun to explore a few of those small scenes this week.
The complex, which still stands, is located near the corner of Capitol Avenue and Broad Street; an area likely as bustling today as it would have been at the turn of the twentieth century. Arms gives a sense of this downtown hub by including vignettes of everything from walking pedestrians to cargo carts. One thing that I immediately took notice of, as I am apt to do, is how Arms depicted people as he was used to seeing them. The ladies wear shirtwaists and skirts, the gentlemen in suits or shirt and trousers depending on what activity demands attention.
Arms even includes the popular fashion details of the times, such as the small, feathered hats and leg-of-mutton sleeves worn by women. These details do not go unnoticed as you examine even more of the vignettes depicted. Arms shows a popular activity of the time as he shows not less than five examples of bicycles in his illustration. From the single female rider in her red shirtwaist, to the couple taking a leisure ride on a tandem bicycle.
Arms includes still more evidence of his time by including a small depiction of a newspaper boy running towards a potential customer. The newspaper’s headline, “WAR,” gives a small clue into when exactly Arms created the illustration in 1898. Whether referring to the short Spanish-American War, or the longer Philippine-American War, the headline still tells us that the illustration was likely done after the mid-April declaration of the first war entered into by the Americans in 1898.
It is always amazing how much information can be gleamed from contemporary illustrations of every-day life. Small clues tell us about what the artist saw around him and how he was experiencing the world. An undated artwork of contemporary life can be dated using these small clues from clothing, to newspaper headlines. So, next time you visit a museum, take notice of the details…see if you can figure out what the tiny clues are trying to tell you.