Gibson Girls

One of the advantages of having a website to support Fresh Lipstick was that I could show more pictures than was possible in the cost-restricted environment of paper. I particularly wanted to show more of the Gibson Girl, partly because she has become one of my favorite popular culture characters and partly because other venues often fail to give her fair representation. Other sites on the web dedicated to the Gibson Girl usually show pictures removed from the original cartoons and, therefore, take away both the humor and the bite that characterized the Gibson ethos. So the full cartoons have been reproduced here, organized according to some key topics for understanding the voice of Gibson.

First let me reiterate for those who have not yet read the book that the Gibson Man is nearly as important a character in this cartoon world as is the Gibson Girl. The relationship between these two is typically modern—and therefore very different from the norm of the times. Their courtship is mediated not by parents or socialites or ministers, but by mythic characters like Santa Claus and Cupid. When we see Santa Claus presenting the Gibson Girl as a “gift” [see above] we can observe the reference to a traditional way of thinking about marriage—in which women are “given away”—but also the emergent ethic of romance, in which the relationship between the two lovers is separate from (and above) the traditional concerns of money and ancestral ties that parents and others would bring to the arrangements. Thus, the appearance of Santa Claus here is a signal of that transcendent order where affection is more important than advantage.

Note also, here and in the other pictures, that the Gibson Girl and the Gibson Man are roughly the same size. They are not only equally tall, the Girl is regally-proportioned (“Amazonian,” if you will) and so appears to weigh very nearly as much as her lover. This comparability in size is a significant statement about their implied relationship and, especially, the strength of the Girl. Previous ideals, such as the Steel-Engraving Lady, would have insisted upon a tiny size for the woman in comparison to the man, one sign among many others that she is “weaker” than he. Conversely, the large size of the Gibson Man is one of the signals that he is strong enough for her; the smaller (e. g., lesser or weaker) man is not considered a plausible match [see above, “Embarrassing”]. As I remarked in the book, the creation of a male lover who is suitably strong, masculine, and generally worthy of the Gibson Girl “New Woman” is one of the things that makes Gibson’s voice explicitly feminist.

The absorption these two lovers demonstrate in their regard for each other is comical today—and would have been funny in Gibson’s time, too [“The Greatest Game In The World – His Move”]. However, this oblivious-to-all-else focus would also have been another sign of the new, “modern” courtship. Though it was certainly acceptable, even desirable, for the betrothed to have affection for each other prior to the modern period, such feelings were an “extra”—good fortune if they occurred, but by no means considered necessary. The emphasis on feelings, therefore, is itself a progressive notion. Further, there are many instances, such as this one, in which it is not at all clear that the two lovers are engaged, betrothed, or married. Indeed, the overall world of Gibson makes it pretty clear that they may not eventually marry—because the demands of the older order may interfere.

The very fact that the passions between two unmarried people are being glamorized and romanticized in this way (and in a “respectable” venue such as Life), is further demonstration of the break with traditional mores..The next illustration shows the Gibson pair “playing footsie” at the dinner table [see above, “Wireless Telegraphy”]. It’s a cute picture by today’s standards, but would have been mildly shocking in its own time. Though Gibson’s cartoons are never overtly sexual (as are those of his contemporary, Aubrey Beardsley), there is frequently a subtext of sexual passion between the two lovers. As I have explained in detail in Fresh Lipstick’s chapter on the 1920s, the notion that there should be sexual passion between “respectable” women and “respectable” men was still quite a radical idea at this time. The outward denial of sexual passion in “respectable” relationships was a powerful deterrent for expression of sensuality, even though we now know that many married women secretly enjoyed and looked forward to sex with their husbands.


Given this contradiction between the passion of the Gibson pair and the prudery of their times, it is especially interesting that so many of the cartoons show them in unchaperoned situations. As we know from texts like Henry James’ Daisy Miller, for a young woman to go about with men unchaperoned was a sure sign of promiscuity in an era only just passing from Gibson’s scene. Here, we have his hero and heroine—the toast of American culture by 1900—engaged in a fairly breathless “:clinch,” while sitting on a fence rather obviously removed from the eyes of society [see above, “Who Cares?”]. The next picture, where the two “make out” while sitting in the water of a rising tide, could be this generation’s From Here to Eternity. [above, “The Turning Of The Tide”] Very sexy. More than mildly shocking to the older generation. The fact that we can actually see the Girl’s thighs in this picture would have given Mrs. Grundy a heart attack.

Nevertheless, we must make no mistake about the emotions here: the Gibson duo love each other. This is not merely a sexual dalliance. Thus, we frequently see cartoons where the force of their love causes agony upon separation or conflict [*7rosegibson.jpg*].
The mutual affection between the Gibson Man and Gibson Girl gives a special piquancy to their moments of conflict (as is so often the case in real life). [“Their First Quarrel”] And they do fight—frequently—which is yet another point of contrast between the romances of the Gibson Girl and the structured marriages of the Steel-Engraving Lady. The True Woman would never have crossed her man. The Gibson Girl sometimes gets a perverse pleasure from getting a rise out of hers.

above, illustration 9

Gibson, in a voice often reminiscent of Mark Twain, makes it clear from cartoon to cartoon that European men are no match for the American Girl. Such men, in his view, are neither strong enough nor respectful enough to engage these Amazons [above: “Warning To Noblemen”]. The Gibson Girl, who clearly had a smart mind as well as a pretty face, was also easily bored, so the lesser man could not hold her attention or affection [see above, Illustration 9].

The observation that American women were “hard to control” compared to European females appears often in the discourse of the Gilded Age; those who supported the new order were proud of the feisty attitude of the American Girl. Gibson was only one of those who spoke on behalf the New American Woman, though his Girls were probably the most famous exemplars.

above: “The Weaker Sex”

above: “The Expert”

Gibson’s estimation of the strength of American women was evident in a particular series on the “Weaker Sex.” In this series, the males are consistently depicted at the mercy of the females, who are quite clearly in control [“The Weaker Sex”]. Indeed, though the Girl does sometimes fall in love, it is the bachelors in Gibson’s world who are more vulnerable to romantic infatuation. The women, in his depictions, are actually pretty resistant to the euphoria of sudden love. Occasionally, the relative detachment of the Girl, as opposed to the often-besotted males, appears as heartlessness [above: “The Expert”]. Viewed in isolation, this cartoon might cause offense today. However, I would urge readers to consider how much more common it is now to portray women as romance-crazed pursuers of men—I question which is the stronger image for women. And, in my opinion, there is no way to be cognizant of the full Gibson oeuvre and not understand him to be supportive of women and admiring of their strength.

above: Illustration 32


above: Illustration 35


above: “Advice To Snobs”


Probably because of the social status of most readers of Life, High Society is often the environmental backdrop for the Gibson Girl. The artist’s contempt for this strata infuses the tone of each cartoon—and the Girl is often the foil for his expose of its foibles. The Gibson Girl, as I mentioned, is smart, educated, and therefore easily bored by the dull pomposity of society life (particularly its conversations) [Illustration 32, Illustration 35]. However, neither the Girl nor the Man are snobs—instead, those around them, full of self-importance, stand in contrast to the democratic decency that the Gibson Pair are intended to exemplify [above: “Advice To Snobs”].

The conflict between democratic (and “American”) values and traditional (that is, “European”) values provides the fuel for Gibson’s long string of cartoons against the continuing practice of marrying for money or titles rather than for love. As I have explained extensively in the book, the rise of the romantic ethic in marriage came to an important crossroads at the turn of the 20th century when new industrialist fortunes were swapped for old Revolutionary social status—and the two went to Europe in pursuit of aristocratic titles. This phenomenon is commented upon extensively in the popular discourse, so Gibson, again, was only one of the more famous people to be publically wringing his hands over the situation.

above: “The Ambitious Mother And The Obliging Clergyman”

above: “Everything In The World That Money Can Buy”

above: “Her Face And Her Fortune”

above: “His Cure”

above: “Financial Predicament”

above: “Two Blind Women”

There is really surprising insight in the cartoon showing the Gibson Girl at the marriage altar—cuffed and tied by a rope to her ambitious mother [above: “The Ambitious Mother And The Obliging Clergyman”]. Feminists have long recognized the use of marriage as a way of trading young women for wealth, but it is amazing to me to see a 19th century male artist give such clear articulation to this issue. He further draws the outcome of marrying one of these strong American Girls under such controlling circumstances as an unambiguously unhappy one for all parties [above: “Everything In The World That Money Can Buy”]. Importantly, however, Gibson is just as critical of men who married for money—which, in his era, was just as likely to occur as the reverse [“Her Face and Her Fortune”, “His Cure”]. The European nobility engaged in this matrimonial showdown get the least sympathetic treatment of all—noblemen are always silly, small, superficial, manipulative, insincere, ugly, and just generally unworthy of anyone’s esteem [above: “Financial Predicament”]. It’s important to understand that, in these cartoons about the conflicts between love and money, the potential “true” lovers are the Gibson Girl and Gibson Man—and so they are always the pretty ones in the picture. The visual shorthand for the “wrong match”—whether male or female—is that they are not as attractive as the “right” one. Thus, the “blind” Gibson Girl is the one marrying the lesser (thus less attractive) man, instead of her more natural match, the handsomer, larger, more sincere Gibson Man [above: “Two Blind Women”].

above: “Studies In Expression”

above: “The Seed Of Ambition”

As I have described in Fresh Lipstick, Gibson drew Gibson Girls in many walks of life and, actually, his models were seldom society girls. Thus, we can see many sections of Gilded Age culture in his cartoons and many potential role models for American women. The dismay that the successful showgirl or actress causes her more conservative farm family is a frequent subject for the cartoons [above: “Studies In Expression”]. However, the cartoon titled “The Seed of Ambition” documents the larger phenomenon, in which American Girls, despite the disapproval of their families, continued to admire and emulate actresses, who were the most independent women in the culture of the times [above: “The Seed Of Ambition”].


above: “Why She Didn’t Get The Place”

above: “The Weaker Sex”

above: “The Widow”

above: “After Fifteen Years”

above: Nun

above: Babies


The cartoons where the Gibson Girl is a servant are particularly interesting to me. Both of those I have chosen to show here potentially imply an unpleasant narrative in which the servant may become the victim of unwanted advances from the men of the house in which she is employed [above: “Why She Didn’t Get The Place”, “The Weaker Sex”]. There is no doubt that such situations occurred, indeed I believe they were common. However, it is important to remember that Gibson’s is the romantic ethic—and that way of thinking is what paved the path toward cross-class marriages as described in the chapter on the 1920s. Having studied so many of the Gibson drawings, I feel I can say that the Gibson Man is nothing if not a gentleman. Thus, the stare between the privileged son and the new maid in this cartoon imply the “love-at-first-sight” moment so typical of Gibson, rather than a more seedy, less happy next step.The age of the Gibson Girl and her role as a mother are addressed briefly in Fresh Lipstick. So, I wanted to show here a couple of frames from a book entitled The Widow, in which Gibson’s heroine appears to be older than usual, perhaps in her thirties [above: The Widow]. (The next illustration provides a still older Girl, whose erstwhile lover seems to regret his long-ago loss. [above: “After Fifteen Years”]) Despite her comparatively advanced age, the widow’s story is one in which she is doggedly pursued by a whole group of insistent suitors. She ultimately takes refuge in becoming a nun, thus giving us an example of the Girl in an unusual role [above: ‘Nun’]. Similarly, the narrative of Mr. Pipp results in another unusual last frame for Gibson. In this narrative, the father of two huge Girls reluctantly marries them off—in the last image, they have become mothers [above: ‘Babies’]. The story is ironic and ambivalent, so the last frame is hard to read from a vantage of 100 years. In all the Gibson drawings I have viewed, however, this is only one of two in which the Girl is a mother. So mother and nun are about equal in their probability as roles for the Gibson Girl.

The most surprising—and puzzling—roles for the Gibson Girl appeared as cartoons in Life and have not often been reproduced since. Both appear to be commentaries on issues related to new roles for women. In one, the Girl is a priest. I read this as a positive statement for women as spiritual leaders. I base my reading on two things: one is the facial expression of the Girl in this image, which seems to imply compassion and spiritual superiority to me, and the other is Gibson’s consistently negative position viz the conservative stances taken by the Church. In another cartoon, we see a group of Gibson Girls on a battlefield. They are clearly soldiers and several are dead. This is a sad cartoon, so it would be hard to infer any support for a particular stance in it. I would guess that, as for many people even today, Gibson’s support for the New Woman would have stopped short of combat.

above: “Going To Work”

above: “Studies In Expression”

above: “On the Streets of New York”

It is important to remember, in viewing any Gibson cartoon, that he was primarily a social satirist, not a sentimentalizer. So, I have provided a few drawings here that demonstrate his wide range of capabilities in the arena of social criticism. The first, a barb at those employing children in factories needs little explanation or commentary [above: “Going To Work”]. The second, more in the humorous vein typical of Gibson, anticipates the subversive comedies of the early silver screen, in which the pretenses of the upper classes were often mocked [above” Studies In Expression”]. I find it particularly interesting that Gibson must have been able to move easily from ballroom to kitchen if he was privy to scenes like this one. I think it’s further testimony to the kind of person he must have been that he was trusted to observe such moments. The last drawing, “On the Streets of New York,” is one of several in which the despair and destitution of the less fortunate is drawn unflinchingly, without sentimentality but with much compassion [above: “On The Streets Of New York”]. Gibson nearly always drew from life. His ability to capture suffering was obviously as strong as his ability to capture laughter and love.

In the last sections, I have simply tried to provide more examples of image categories I have discussed in Fresh Lipstick. Activities associated with the New Woman (e. g. feminism) abound in Gibson’s work. So we very often see the Gibson Girl engaged in particular sports—golf, swimming, bicycling—that were signs of the new order. We also see her in the new costumes (bloomers, swimwear, tailored suits) that were symptomatic of a new philosophy about women [above: “Picturesque America”]. Finally, though driving a car was not seen as a sport, exactly, it was not the everyday activity it is today. Instead, it was something people went out and did—like hiking and biking—with deliberation as well as special clothing and equipment. For many years yet to come, driving would be considered somewhat inappropriate for “ladies.” So the Gibson Girl’s automotive daring here would be comparable to her penchant for golf [36gibsonauto.jpg]. As with the other illustrations, the Girl’s size (especially as compared to men besides the Gibson Man) and her desire to shed her chaperones, is significant [above: “The Overworked American Father”, “Is A Caddy Always Necessary?”].

above: “Design For Wallpaper”

It is difficult, if not impossible, to demonstrate the reasons that the drawings of Gibson’s Girl would have evoked varied ethnic interpretations. They all look “white” to us now [above: ‘Faces’, “Design For Wallpaper”] However, in that era, people still considered Irish and Jewish a different “race” and were sensitive to features perceived to be distinctive of that “race.” Thus, we can only note the variations in hair color, face shape, noses, and eyes here and, together with what is still readable in the record of the times, know that these drawings were seen as representative of many different ethnicities and class subgroups.