Putti, Putti

    Not long ago we discussed postcard babies, who had two main roles to play, demonstrating Jerome K. Jerome’s definition of a baby as an object with a loud noise at one end and no sense of responsibility at the other.  Children, however, played a multitude of roles, depending on the artist’s notions  Children might be aged anywhere from the ages of two to twelve (people between twelve and twenty do not appear much) and could speak in anything from baby talk to learned philosophical syllables

   They were often just an excuse to tell jokes about grown-ups by reducing their size.  They could handle Mae West’s dialogue.

    Or reflect on the workaday world

    Or imply a fine old burlesque gag,

    Or simply state a universal truth

    You could argue that these are not children at all, but childlike beings standing in for adults.  But there is one sort of postcard children I think we can agree are not children in the least, but some race of small creatures who LOOK like children, but aren’t.  They live their lives without any adult interference and, usually, without clothes, too.

    The most common character in this role is Cupid, seen frequently on Valentines and romantic postcards, standing by and egging on the principles.  Technically, these were the first species of small naked childlike characters (often with what is known as the Convenient Scarf, a bit of cloth that always seems to get blown by the wind into just the right position for propriety.)

    See, in truth, Cupid, the fellow with the arrows, appears in mythology most often as a grown man )his romance with Psyche is the basis of later stories in the Beauty and the Beast mode.)  Some folks call these childlike creatures cherubs, especially if seen without a bow and arrow, but the stories of cherubim also make them full-grown adult angels.  The technical term is putto (plural putti).  Knowing this will make no difference in your life whatsoever, unless you’re one of those people who likes to butt in and say “That’s not really a Cupid.  It’s….”  If you’re that sort of person I will add the knowledge that Jerome K. Jerome pronounced his name Jerrum.  You’re welcome.

    One of the most successful races of small naked childlike characters can be seen at the top of this column.  That is a fairly modern (1976) repurposing of an image from seventy years earlier.  These are the Kewpies.  The Kewpies had a reasonably good run as spokesputti for Jell-O but had a wildly popular career in other media, available as dolls, figurines, pillows, and greeting cards, and pirated shamelessly by other artists.  Rose O’Neill, the mother of this species, did so well that, this being an era before shaped swimming pools, she had the furnace in her house constructed in the shape of a Kewpie.

    Society took to the kewpie and never gave them up, though I have run into some very young commentators who find it creepy to see naked childlike creatures involved in construction, military exercises, and other adult occupations.  I suppose it’s just as well they never ran into this artist.

    Everyone wanted to invent the next Kewpie, and several artists became famous for their cute, nude putti.  This artist did have a run of postcards, and though I have not yet learned his name, I think she caught the trick at once, combining adult concerns with unconcerned cuteness. AND in the most definite success, inspired imitators.

    Other artists specialized in cute children, but only occasionally indulged in putti.  This example comes from the work of Charles Twelvetrees, whose career included thousands of cute children on magazine covers, greeting cards, and, of course, postcards.

    Of course, I hear you saying, this was over a hundred years ago.  Except for the immortal kewpies, these putti disappeared from our culture as we matured through the First World War and the alarms of 1919 and 1920.

   Well, you’re wrong, actually.  It’s just that during the Depression they all had to go out and get jobs.  (This card dates to about 1941.)

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