Back before Google Maps gave us satellite images of every corner of America, there was Mead Schaeffer.
Schaeffer (1898–1980), whose cover illustrations appeared from 1942 to 1953, was one of the most highly regarded cover artists for The Saturday Evening Post. During World War II, he became famous for his war covers, but as the war ended, he needed to find a new theme. Soldiers were returning home to small villages and hamlets across the country, and the nation’s focus was returning once again to domestic life. Schaeffer’s wife, Elizabeth, who also served as his business manager and photographer, suggested that he paint a series of “regional covers” focusing on daily life in post-war America.
The Post jumped at the idea, and soon the Schaeffers were on the road, looking for scenes to feature on the cover of the magazine. His first cover in the series, published in November 1944, was a rural barn dance.
This was followed in February by a winter scene of Vermont citizens making maple syrup.
Next, he painted a sailor returning to his family ranch in Lone Pine, California.
And in quick succession, he depicted a Maine lobsterman, a chuckwagon cook in Texas, moss pickers in Louisiana, and shrimpers in Mississippi.
The Post called these covers “our family album of American regions.” Illustration expert Fred Taraba wrote in Masters of American Illustration that this series was designed to give viewers “a sense of the overall grandeur and diversity of the U.S.”
The regional covers became so popular that they created unexpected complications for Schaeffer: Communities began competing for his attention. When Schaeffer and his wife flew to Oklahoma City to paint workers on an oil rig, they were intercepted at the airport by a police motorcade, which gave them a tour of the city to show off possible sites for paintings. Local officials then escorted the couple to a plush hotel, where the mayor informed him the city would pay for all his expenses and transportation. The mayor next tried to set up a series of public appearances, but Schaeffer fended them off and spent a week painting on a grimy oil rig.
When he arrived in North Dakota to paint the Little Muddy River, Schaeffer was ushered into the capitol to meet the governor, who wanted to make sure his state would be well represented on the cover of the Post.
Wherever he went, he seemed to be offered gratuities by local businesses and politicians. In San Francisco, for example, his hotel paid all his expenses and entertained him every night in the hope that he would put their hotel on the cover. (“But,” said Schaffer, “I didn’t do it.”)
Schaeffer’s regional covers introduced a national audience to parts of the country they’d never seen before. TV only offered grainy black-and-white images, and there was no internet in those days, but Schaeffer’s sharp, realistic paintings gave the nation images to preserve in their memories. Most of all, delighted readers who lived in the region selected for the cover would go over every detail and write to the Post commenting on accuracy or making suggestions. They rarely found mistakes, thanks to Schaeffer’s passion for “getting it right.”
The Post was one of America’s most popular “general appeal” magazines, designed to be read by the country as a whole. And its weekly efforts to identify the largest common core of the country might have helped homogenize the nation. In later years, there was some concern that even the Post was becoming more eastern and elitist in its focus. That’s one reason why the magazine welcomed Schaeffer’s regional series. It was perceived as way of rejuvenating the Post’s nationwide outlook. Communities from all around America felt legitimized and important when they appeared in Schaeffer’s paintings on the cover of the Post.
Learn more about artist Mead Schaeffer.
See more of David Apatoff’s art columns.