My love of vintage illustration, retro signage and early 20th century textbooks is decades long, starting back in high school when I discovered a treasure trove of old bus posters from the fifties, warning people to cover their mouth when they cough. Who thought we’d be making the SAME DARN POSTERS FIFTY YEARS LATER because human beings still refuse to cover their fleshy germ cannons? These posters coupled with my love of old school Archie Comics and Bil Keane illustrated Erma Bombeck books made me nostalgic for a time I never lived in, romanticizing it to the point of believing that the kids of Riverdale really were an accurate portrayal of 60’s teens, hanging out at the maltshop, discussing how best to please their parents while still achieving a 4.0 GPA.
As my tastes and grasp of reality grew and developed, I became a crafter, a collector, a nostalgimaniac and I began seeking out retro magazines, books and advertisements that so wonderfully illustrated the simplicity of life in the fifties, when whole chapters of health books were devoted to acne rather than how to properly dispose of the foil you smoked your crystal on last night.*
And so now I have a whole bookshelf…a RETRO BOOK SHELF if you will, packed with lessons on health and social interaction, how to be a teenager, how to be a woman with poise, how long it takes to form a good bowel movement (WITH ILLUSTRATIONS FEATURING POOP AS A SORT OF NONDESCRIPT PENCIL SMUDGE IN THE COLON) and my favorite: how to keep in lockstep with God’s rulebook.
I offer THE NEW BALTIMORE CATECHISM, published in 1964 and since revised a couple of times, hopefully to amend the idea that disliking broccoli is a sin.
I understand as a Christian woman, that we are to honor our father and mother, and I’ll even buy that this illustration plays into the ol’ Body Is A Temple stuff, but really? REALLY? Was life so idyllic for children back then that simply eating mushy lima beans was a SACRIFICE? This was a sin so rampant and troubling that it called for a graphic in the catechism? I just can’t work up the empathy. I mean, no offense Gene but Christ sacrificed his LIFE. Maybe you can clam up and shovel down a few more peas without the Defcon 1 Scowl.
But there ARE other sins, some too ghastly to imagine. Sins like…TELEVISION:
Here’s where I pull up alongside the Catechism and say yes, this kid needs a ruler upside the face. TOO HARD TO PRAY? First of all, if we’re going to get right down to it, the Lord quite literally taught us all the words to a pretty standard, all encompassing prayer that is acceptable for all occasions. But the shadowy underbelly of this picture could be this young man’s conscience. Is it too hard to pray because you kicked a prostitute in the face on the way to school and you can’t bear to own up to it in the face of God, much less your parents who warned you previously about kicking and the grounding that would come with it? Could this child be thinking about t.v. simply as a means to block out the horrors of his own sociopathic behavior? Or is Hulaballoo THAT engrossing?
At some point the book just lays it on the line, letting us know that basically everything a curious youth attempts to do is a one way ticket to Hell
Like, for example, the first panel in which we see a young boy asking another young boy to…uh…go…shoot hoops? What’s the problem here…OH, never mind, I didn’t see the heavy shame cloud reading BAD COMPANIONS. But what IS “bad”? I mean, I consider people who wear too much perfume to be bad companions, or people who say “warsh” or “aigs”, but I’m not sure it condemns them to the lake of fire. In my opinion, the last panel is the real “retro spotlight”. Young Tommy has found his father’s cigarettes. He wants to try one but smoking is wrong…oh I’m sorry, HE’S TOO YOUNG. It’s a sin to give yourself emphysema at age 11, say three Our Fathers and wait until your 15 to start on the Swisher Sweets.
I hope you’ve all learned something here today, how to be a better Eddie Smith, a better Catholic, a better child of the 60s. Stay tuned to RETROBOOKSHELF for more reviews of the texts of school years past.
*it’s possible I’m exaggerating the loss of innocence of today’s youth.