The influence of Norman Rockwell’s imagery as a reflection of American values in the first half of the twentieth century.


  • Students will develop critical thinking skills by analyzing Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post imagery as it relates to American values in his time period.
  • Students will critique imagery from contemporary periodicals.
  • Students will reflect on the impact and significance of mass media as a vehicle for promoting cultural values through written essays or multimedia presentations.


  • Postcard versions of Saturday Evening Post covers.
  • Multiple copies (from successive months) of magazines popular among students: Seventeen, Rolling Stone, The Source, Spin, Cosmopolitan, etc.
  • “The Saturday Evening Post” essay by Anne Knutson from Norman Rockwell: Pictures of the American People (Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1999) (attached)
  • Access to computers with multimedia software. (optional)


  • Two 45-minute class periods.


A similar activity could focus on the influential power of film. Using Frank Capra’s work, such as You Can’t Take it with You (1938), It’s a Wonderful Life(1946), Why We Fight, etc., identify ways that film from this period reflected values similar to those found in Norman Rockwell’s Saturday Evening Post covers. How was Capra shaping a similar vision of America? A contemporary comparison could again be drawn with films that represent American families today. It would be especially interesting to focus on ways in which power relationships and traditional roles within the American family have (or have not) changed in the interval. Citizen Kane (1941), directed by Orson Welles, would also serve as an interesting reference point for considering the influence of media.

The activity described here could serve as a gateway to investigations of historical periods when a common image of “America” became a tool of intolerance. At certain times, the image of what was “American” has been used to identify, alienate, and (in extreme cases) oppress those who did not fit the commonplace standard of “normalcy.” “Know Nothing” Party xenophobia and Ku Klux Klan racism, as well as McCarthyism and Japanese internment, are a few possible entry points into historical studies of the risks inherent with such a common, unifying vision. Similarly, a study of “unifying” imagery as a means of propaganda could be an interesting extension, be it Nazi film footage or Allied recruitment posters. Again, Frank Capra’s Why We Fight and Rockwell’s Four Freedoms are essential.


  1. Opinions Begin by reading Anne Knutson’s essay “The Saturday Evening Post” to assemble information about the readership of The Saturday Evening Post, the extent of its popularity and circulation, and the motives of publisher George Horace Lorimer. Assemble important information to share with the class. (If the text is not too difficult for your students, have them read it themselves and discuss as a group). Begin discussion by asking:
    1. How do you think public opinions are formed?
    2. Who has influence over the formation of these opinions? Discuss the significance of media as a source of opinion and creator of cultural values. Share the information concerning Lorimer’s desire to “”create America’ in the pages of the Post, delivering it to audiences week after week as “a model against which they could shape their lives.'” Discuss the potential advantages and risks inherent in this attitude.
  2. Analysis Break students into small groups and assign each a Saturday Evening Post cover to analyze. The object of these discussions is to determine what sort of “America” Rockwell helped to create as the Post’s illustrator. Possible discussion questions include:
    1. What are some important objects that you notice in the painting? What kind of values or emotions do they appeal to?
    2. Is there anything significant about the way the subjects of the paintings are portrayed Are there any exaggerations or stereotypes at work? Do the subjects appear to fit a specific kind of social or gender role??
    3. What sorts of social structures or power relationships are represented? How are they portrayed?
    4. What segment of society is represented in the piece? Why do you think this specific group(s) was highlighted?
    5. Is the painting trying to instruct or persuade the audience in any way? How is this accomplished? Where is emphasis placed in the composition? What is the audience supposed to notice?
    6. If The Saturday Evening Post was trying to appeal to a common set of “American” values, what were they? What do these covers reflect about the time period in which they were published?
    7. How do these values differ from our attitudes concerning the same subjects today? How have our opinions about the society and lifestyle represented in Rockwell’s imagery changed?
    8. Would you want to live in an “America” like one presented on these covers? Why or why not? (This could serve as an interesting journal reflection assignment.)
  3. Magazine Critiques Once the students have compiled their responses to the Post covers, give each group a series of contemporary magazines (one publication, successive copies per group). Pose the challenge question: If magazine covers reflect the values and attitudes of the public they appeal to, what are the values for young people in America today? Working in small groups, have them use the questions above to critique the imagery of popular magazines. Once they have finished their analysis, have them complete the following assignment in essay form or in a multimedia presentation format:Compare three common elements, themes, or ideas represented on the Saturday Evening Post and (your magazine) covers. Your response must in some way address two of the following questions:
    • How do differences in the representation of these elements show shifts in attitudes from Rockwell’s time to the present?
    • What values does each image promote?
    • Do you view these changes as a positive or negative evolution? Why?
    • Which “America” do you think is better? Why?


Anne Knutson

“When The Saturday Evening Post arrived, I would sit on the stair landing, and with the north light coming through the door there was enough illumination to study every detail of Norman Rock- well’s covers. Sitting with the Post in my hands provided one of my most favorite childhood memories.”1
-Ellen Baise, Norman Rockwell Museum guide

For virtually three-quarters of the century, Norman Rockwell captured the attention of millions of Americans with his 322 Saturday Evening Post covers and countless other illustrations and advertisements. While he is one of the most recognized American artists of the twentieth century, scholars have yet to examine his achievement. Consider that for over seventy years, every week at approximately the same time, millions of households across the country received The Saturday Evening Post. The magazine would be read in living rooms, kitchens, bathrooms, and bedrooms, and was touched, ripped, dog-eared, stained, carefully collected, or heedlessly thrown away by a great many Americans. The magazine’s casual and shifting viewing context within the home and beyond it-to doctors’ offices, barbershops, and dentists’ waiting rooms-profoundly influences our understanding of Rockwell’s Post covers. Their familiarity contributes to the problem that the Norman Rockwell Museum guides have with visitors touching paintings in the galleries. The way most people were introduced to Rockwell images-close up, handheld-makes them think that the conventional rules for looking at fine art do not apply.

Indeed, Rockwell’s paintings were not meant to be experienced within the formal and controlled environment of a museum. On a frequent and regular basis, millions of Americans brought Rockwell’s art into their homes-viewing his Post covers while seated in their favorite chairs, surrounded by personal belongings in the company of their families. This particular reception of Rockwell’s art affected the way the images were interpreted by encouraging audiences to impose their own narratives on the pieces. The images themselves also encourage this. Because they are frequently vague about time and place, the pictures easily adapt themselves to the attitudes, beliefs, and situations of individual viewers. Subscribers could look at a Post cover and feel that they were looking at themselves or their neighbors-the naughty child, the doctor, the babysitter, the dentist, the grandfather, the mom and dad. It wasn’t until later in Rockwell’s career-the 1950s and 1960s-that he began to paint magazine covers of the famous, of “them.” For the bulk of his career, Rockwell’s magazine covers were about “us.”

The intimate contexts in which people saw Rockwell’s covers, together with the commercial circumstances that guided his creative process, contributed enormously to the popular appeal of the artist’s Post covers. Thus it is important to explore how the institutional imperatives of The Saturday Evening Post both shaped and were shaped by Rockwell’s aesthetic. The Post’s innovation was in reaching a mass audience previously ignored by established highbrow magazines such as Harper’s and Atlantic Monthly. It was one of the first magazines to create a national market of readers unified by their similar patterns of consumption. Indeed, the Curtis Publishing Company, which owned the Post, was one of the first advertisement-driven media corporations. Because the advertising space, not the subscription price of the magazine, paid expenses and determined profits, one of the preeminent goals of the Post was to find and cultivate a broad audience possessing disposable income. The Post editors repeatedly used formulas that cut across class and gender lines, such as the ever-popular Horatio Alger story, in which both men and women, regardless of class, achieved financial success through hard work and determination. In doing so, the Post helped to define a huge new market-the emerging middle class-and identified that market’s needs for its advertisers, who then tailored their advertisements to fit both the magazine’s goals and its readers’ needs.2

These formulas for fiction, articles, editorials, advertisements, and illustrations were established by the first permanent editor of the Post, George Horace Lorimer. The most powerful and deeply involved of all the Post editors, Lorimer took charge of the magazine in 1898 and played a central role in establishing its mass-market dominance through 1936. And because of Lorimer’s early efforts, the Post continued to influence American cultural life until the magazine ceased publication in 1969. Under Lorimer’s tenure,the Post enjoyed a public influence unrivaled by movies, radio, or other magazines. In 1908, The Saturday Evening Post had a weekly circulation of one million and a readership of some ten million; by 1929, those numbers had doubled. The unparalleled dominance of the Post gave it an unusually powerful opportunity to shape the beliefs and attitudes of Americans.3 Indeed, it was one of the first periodicals to create a truly mass market in the United States. Not even the mass-media giants of our own time enjoy a comparable dominance.4

Jan Cohn, who has meticulously chronicled the early history of the Post, wrote that Lorimer saw the United States as an “unformed, unassimilated nation that lacked a unifying consciousness of Americanism.” Accordingly, he set out to “create America” in the pages of the Post, delivering it to audiences week after week as “a model against which they could shape their lives.” Lorimer realized his goal of using the Post to unify readers when they simultaneously received and “came to know, to share in, and to talk to one another about the stories, the articles, the illustrations. . . . To read the Post was to become American, to participate in the American experience.”5 And in 1916, when Rockwell began selling paintings to the Post, his covers became the visual expression of Lorimer’s ideas.

For over a quarter of a century, The Saturday Evening Post was unequalled in crafting and mediating a set of attitudes and beliefs that “explained and defined Americanism.”6 The magazine was a major source of political, social, and economic information about the United States and the world. The articles, fiction, illustrations, and advertisements functioned as how-to guides for living in twentieth-century America: they taught readers how to make sense of the vast and rapid changes in their new century; they explained how modern consumers should live and work in a society reshaped by technological advances and mass communication.7

Throughout the changes of the twentieth century, the magazine kept its readers current. It gave them the latest information on fashion and recommended which washing machine or television set to buy. It educated housewives on the best ways to care for their homes and families, and it provided business advice to men, promoting in particular the ideal of the self-made man. In soothing, clarifying prose, Post writers explained complicated new inventions. For example, in “Look Ma! There Goes Our House,” the reader finds an accessible account of the new technology that allowed engineers to move houses.8 Post writers also educated their readers about international and domestic politics, impassioned them through vivid coverage of sports events, and indulged their fantasies through serialized stories about romance, adventure, and history. The 1954 story “The Cradle Robber,” for instance, takes the reader to rustic Maine in the summertime, where a handsome widower falls in love with the beautiful nanny he hired to take care of his two children.9 Like Rockwell’s cover images, this type of fiction spirited readers away from the hectic exigencies of twentieth-century life into the carefree days of another realm.

The Post celebrated traditional, old-fashioned values such as hard work, thrift, and common sense; it argued that these virtues were crucial to success in a twentieth-century consumer society-all the while deflecting the contradictions between thrift and consumption, and between hard work and the new, laborsaving devices they advertised. All in all, the Post removed the jarring and frightening new aspects of the events, products, and rituals of the twentieth century and presented them in comforting and familiar ways. This is one of the many strategies the Post adopted to create its own American ideology, and the paradigm strongly shaped and influenced Rockwell’s imagery.

Lorimer, who approved every article, short story, editorial, and illustration before it went to press, had a great deal of control over Rockwell’s Post images. Rockwell’s own description of his meetings with Lorimer reveals how the editor’s ambitions and goals for the Post determined which images would become covers:

He never fidgeted over a decision or told me to leave the cover so that he could decide later whether or not to accept it. The first glance, its first impact was his criterion. “If it doesn’t strike me immediately,” he used to say, “I don’t want it. And neither does the public. They won’t spend an hour figuring it out. It’s got to hit them.” He rarely asked me to make minor changes-a red cap instead of a green, more smile on a kid. The cover was either good or bad.10

In his autobiography, Rockwell described how he caught on to Lorimer’s decision-making process and figured out how to “rig” these meetings so that he could control which sketches Lorimer would pick.11

His Post covers, then, resulted from a continual process of negotiation between artist and editor. Moreover, it can be argued that Lorimer’s vision of a unifying Americanism shaped not only Rockwell’s choice of subject matter, but also his style. In the 1920s, propelled by a need for change, Rockwell went to Europe, where he experimented with modernist styles of painting. When he returned to the United States, he took one of these paintings to Lorimer, who rejected it, deflating Rockwell and dampening his enthusiasm for further modernist experiments.12 While Rockwell’s cover images were chosen by Lorimer, the success of Rockwell’s work-his covers sold more magazines than those of other artists-may very well have reinforced Lorimer’s determination to continue his ideological course.13 Rockwell’s cover images not only epitomized the magazine’s ideology, but also sometimes took good- humored jabs at the very forms of modern mass communication celebrated in the magazine.

The twentieth century saw the invention of brand-new technologies that produced such things as automobiles, televisions, and space travel. The century also saw dramatic changes in the way wars were fought and presidential elections staged. Furthermore, there were tremendous upheavals in the arts and in race relations. Rockwell took these subjects and the impact they had on ordinary Americans as the focus of much of his art. Like the stories in the Post, Rockwell’s pictures wed the familiar and traditional to the unfamiliar and contemporary, creating reassuring visual narratives about change. Many of these images were meant to suggest that cherished values are not necessarily destined to disappear with the onslaught of new influences. Rather, those values can help guide us through the newness and keep us grounded in the familiar.

For example, The Law Student (Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People, page 146), the February 19, 1927, Post cover celebrating Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, features a young man in a grocer’s storeroom hunched over a cracker barrel, the surface of which is scratched and scraped with use; he is reading law books by the light of a kerosene lamp, much as Lincoln might have done. Posted above the figure are familiar photos of Lincoln by Mathew Brady.14 The edges of the photos and other bills and cards tacked on the wall are torn, bent, and yellowing with age. The whole scene, with its fading brown and beige color scheme, has an old-fashioned look with no obvious markers of twentieth-century life. The Post was reminding its 1927 audience that the qualities  Lincoln represented-industry, thrift, determination, honesty-are timeless; indeed they were the important attributes that would help American youth succeed in the twentieth century. Reinforcing this visual homily, many of the themes of the short stories and articles in that issue explored the idea of hard work bringing success to anyone of any class or gender.15

Lincoln, the Horatio Alger model of rags-to-riches achievement, was the archetype of the small-town man who, without the benefit of formal education and through sheer determination and industriousness, created his own fame.16 The picture’s indeterminate time and setting reinforce the implicit message of the Horatio Alger myth-that anyone can prosper if they are industrious, honest, and thrifty. Moreover, the cards and pictures pinned above the student’s head recall the late-nineteenth-century American artist John F. Peto’s office-board and card-rack still-lifes, which frequently included pictures of Lincoln.17 Rockwell’s allusion to Peto strengthens the picture’s celebration of the past and tradition.18 The Post used many anniversaries of famous Americans-Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin-as focal points to bring its audience together in a national community. The frequency with which the Post relied on these figures from the past suggests a mass-media strategy to forge a widely popular version of American history that could stand as a buffer against the widespread immigration, devastating wars, and vast economic and political shifts of the times. Like the articles, fiction, and editorials of the Post, Rockwell’s images used the past to represent hope, reassurance, and belief at a time of dizzying change and an uncertain future.

Rockwell’s New Television Antenna (Norman Rockwell: Pictures for the American People, page 14