It wasn’t until the 1800s that technology had advanced enough to allow artistic images to be published and distributed at a relatively low cost. By the turn of the century, an even more important breakthrough occurred when magazine and calendar publishers realized that the best way to sell their products was to put a portrait of a pretty girl on them. The best of these images, particularly when they depicted a woman from head-to-toe, would be saved by male customers and “pinned up” on a wall.
Most successful illustrators in the early 20th century like Norman Rockwell and J.C. Leyendecker, who specialized in romantic or patriotic images of American life, drew a comely young woman for the cover of “Life” or “The Saturday Evening Post” every once and a while. However, from the 1920s to the 1970s, certain artists—including Alberto Vargas, George Petty, Gil Elvgren, Earl Moran, Rolf Armstrong, and Zoë Mozert—made their careers painting “pin-up” girls exclusively. This Golden Age of the pin-up art lasted until color photography took its place.
Billions of images of attractive women have been rendered in print over the years, so collectors of “pin-ups” distinguish the objects of their aesthetic affection from “glamour art” or “pretty girl art.” A “pin-up” image is defined as a full-length picture of a woman wearing a form-fitting outfit—either lingerie or more public apparel like a swimsuit or a skimpy dress. A pin-girl made be partially or fully naked, but the latter is rare.
A “glamour art” image, which could be full-length or just head and shoulders, is the sort you’re more likely to see in a fashion magazine geared toward women. The woman is wearing some sort of elegant evening gown or expensive dress that is less revealing than a pin-up outfit would be. “Pretty girl art” is a category of glamour art done by mainstream illustrators for ads and magazines like “Cosmopolitan” and “The Saturday Evening Post.” However, even mainstream magazines ran pin-up art on their covers on occasion, like “Time’s” reproduction of George Petty’s pin-up of Rita Hayworth for its November 10, 1941 issue.
The image that kicked off the craze for “pinning up” was technically a work of glamour art; in 1887, “Life” published Charles Dana Gibson’s pen-and-ink drawing of the ideal American woman, who became known as the “Gibson Girl.” Presented as a young, “modern” upper-class woman, she embodied beauty, femininity, confidence, independence, and social skills that men found charming and women wanted to possess.
The Gibson Girl was reproduced on postcards, porcelain plates, candy boxes, souvenir spoons, hand fans, and calendars. She inspired fashions, songs, and even a Broadway musical. Starting in 1900, Gibson created hundreds of such drawings for “Collier’s,” which ran in the center gatefold of the magazine, making the Gibson Girl the first “centerfold.” The centerfold, a two-page pullout lithograph located at the center of the magazine, was usually either held in place with center staples or glued to the left-hand side of the previous page.
Gibson also introduced the first “male pin-up,” the Gibson Man, who was revered for his chiseled features, his dapper style, and his honorable character. He usually appeared in i...
The Gibson Girl had a number of successors, idealized women meant to represent the epitome of American grace and beauty, but none were quite as popular as her. Howard Chandler Christy introduced his Christy Girl in “Life” in 1895, while Harrison Fisher created the well-poised and clear-eyed Fisher Girl in “Cosmopolitan” in 1912.
Other early “pretty girl” illustrators include Coles Phillips (who came up with the “fade away” design technique), James Montgomery Flagg (the creator of the famous Uncle Sam “I Want You” poster), Dean Cornwell, William Reusswig, and Bradshaw Crandell. Many of these artists were members of the Dutch Treat Club, a New York social society for creatives, and they often created provocative artwork of naked or scantily clad women for the club’s yearbook.
The pin-up trend was soon adopted by calendar-makers, the biggest being Brown & Bigelow, formed in 1896. The company’s first “pretty girl” calendar was a 1904 single sheet featuring a reproduction of a painting by Italian artist Angelo Asti featuring a long-haired Art Nouveau vixen. This one image sold more than 1.5 million calendars for that year.
By 1909, pretty-girl illustrations dominated the calendar industry, and over the years, calendars became the primary means for proliferating pin-up images. Single-sheet calendars ranged from 2 by 3 inches to 20 by 30 inches, the largest of which were called “hangers.” The spiral 12-page page appointment calendar featuring a dozen different pin-up images also grew in popularity by the end of the pin-up art era in the 1970s.
World War I altered the American calendar industry forever. Soldiers had gone to France in 1917 and discovered the provocative magazines there, particularly “La Vie Parisienne” featuring the fully nude French and Italian flappers and burlesque dancers in titillating poses, painted by Raphael Kirchner and the like. The young men came back with these racy postcards and prints, and American calendar companies responded by offering more risqué images, as the flapper fad took off in the United States. Onstage in 1923, Florenz Ziegfeld introduced more brazen nudity into his popular chorus-girl revue, the Ziegfeld Follies, the posters for which were painted by a young Peruvian American artist named Alberto Vargas.
In addition to racy calendars, magazines devoted to nearly nude sexy ladies started to hit the newsstands in the 1920s. These “girlie magazines” featured a full-color painted pin-up girl on the cover, and contained seductive black-and-white photographs of Hollywood stars, showgirls, runway models, and Mack Sennett’s Bathing Beauties. Popular Art-Deco era titles included “Film Fun," "Movie Humor,” “High Heel,” “Silk Stocking Stories,” and “Gay Book.”
In the '40s and '50s, however, Robert Harrison’s publishing house produced the most popular of such magazines, including, “Beauty Parade,” “Whisper,” “Wink,” Eyeful, “Titter,” “Flirt,” and “Giggles.” Harrison’s publications had the same sort of content as the earlier pin-up magazines, but also included photographs of up-and-coming “cult” beauties like Bettie Page.
In the 1920s and 1930s, another Ziegfeld Follies artist, Rolf Armstrong, began painting glamour portraits for celebrities including Great Garbo, Katherine Hepburn, and Marlene Dietrich. His covers for the girl magazine “Pictorial Review” helped catapult the magazine to success, selling more than two-million copies per issue. Armstrong became a best-selling calendar artist for Brown & Bigelow in the 1930s, and even painted advertisements for RCA.
The 1920s is the also the decade when American pulp magazines hit the market, filled with thrilling stories in the genres of detective, adventure, crime, Western, horror, and sci-fi. Naturally, the covers of these magazines featured sexy pin-up girls in perilous situations; these were rendered by such artists as Earle K. Bergey, Enoch Bolles, Peter Driben, George Quintana, Arthur Sarnoff, and William Fulton Soare. Pulp magazines were popular until the 1950s, when paperback pulp novels took over.
While pin-up art was widespread in 1920s, mostly American men kept it out of sight from polite or mixed company. These pictures would only be pinned up in clandestine “man cave” spots like garages, military barracks, clubhouses, locker rooms, or dorms. The introduction of a new men’s magazine in 1933, “Esquire,” would change all that.
“Esquire” came out with a commitment to class, printing only the highest caliber of writing, journalism, photography, and art—including pin-up art. Because the pin-ups were published alongside the most esteemed writers of the day, the genre’s stature was elevated in the public eye. In the 1930s, “Esquire” committed to printing at least one artwork by George Petty, who gave the world the mischievous Petty Girl with her full breasts, ridiculously long legs, and translucent but tasteful attire. Millions of images of Petty’s iconic women for “Esquire,” “True” and advertisers like Pepsi spread all over the world by 1956.
Pin-up art grew so popular that, by the mid-1930s, it was being distributed in arcades worldwide through one-cent vending machines on full-color “art cards” that were slightly smaller than standard postcards, also known as “Mutoscope cards.” Teenagers and adults alike collected these cards in a way similar to how boys and men collected baseball cards.
Outside of calendars, magazines, and Mutoscope cards, pin-up art began popping up on a wide assortment of novelty advertising products, including playing cards, ink blotters, cigarette lighters, ashtrays, pens, and even beer glasses, featuring pin-up girls that appeared to undress as you drank. Gambling games known as punchboards found in bars, corner stores, and service stations, also enticed players with pretty pin-ups.
Then, in the October 1940 issue of “Esquire,” two centerfolds were featured, one by Petty and the other by Alberto Vargas. Vargas’ pin-up style was similar to Petty’s in that the women had extremely long limbs, perky breasts, and diaphanous clothing, but his adept watercolor technique as well as the women’s dreamy expressions made his work distinct. Starting in 1941, Esquire released a 12-page calendar of “Varga Girls,” every year for seven years, taking the liberty to drop the “s” from the artist’s name. This was the top-selling calendar worldwide.
When America entered World War II in 1942, pin-up art was not only seen as socially acceptable, but vital and patriotic, as generals Eisenhower and MacArthur insisted. The boys took pin-up art with them in the forms of prints, playing cards, calendars, notepads, and pens to give them something happy to dream about in the trenches. Such images were painted on the noses of their planes and on the backs of leather bomber jackets as good-luck talismans. Servicemen subscribed to “Esquire,” “Yank,” “Life,” and “Look,” which all contained patriotic-themed pin-ups.
Gil Elvgren, who had painted calendar girls for the Louis F. Dow Calendar company starting in the 1930s, didn’t become a sensation until the war. His pin-ups were painted in a creamy, rich, painterly style emulating John Singer Sargent. His rosy-cheeked women captured a youthful innocence and all-American girl sweetness that the soldiers must have been longing for. Elvgren’s specialty was creating all sorts of unintentionally sexy situations where one of his doe-eyed creatures got accidently exposed: an ill-timed breeze or an unfortunate tree branch or mop handle might reveal her lacy panties and garter belt.
Another calendar artist whose popularity exploded in the 1940s was Earl Moran, the creator of Miss Hotcha, who painted women with much more emotional dimension than Elvgren; their expressions could be coy, smiling, longing, pensive, lustful, or sassy. In fact, a 1940 “Life” magazine article on the popularity of calendar art featured mostly Moran’s artwork and a photo of him in his studio.
Eventually, Elvgren joined a group of illustrators known The Sundblom Circle, led by Haddom Sundblom, the creator of the Coca-Cola Santa Claus. There, Elvgren had several followers and colleagues who worked in the same “mayonnaise-paint” style and exploited the “situation” poses including Ed Runci and Al Buell.
Pin-up artist Art Frahm took Elvgren’s situation pose one step further, coming up with little narratives where the woman would mysteriously find her panties around her ankles. Vaughn Bass, meanwhile, was actually hired by Dow Calendars to repurpose many of the original Elvgren’s with new clothes and backgrounds, so few of Elvgren’s 1930s paintings exist now without overpaint.
Women illustrators, too, became pin-up art stars during this era, particularly Zoë Mozert, who often modeled for her own calendar images using a mirror. Joyce Ballantyne, a member of the Sundblom Circle who came up with the Coppertone ad of the dog tugging at the little girl’s bathing suit, was often compared to Elvgren. Pearl Frush, who made lush gouaches for calendars, is said to have been on the level of Alberto Vargas.
In the late 1940s, Vargas and “Esquire” had a falling out, so Al Moore, one of the Sundblom Circle, was hired in his stead. Moore’s perky co-eds, however, were not nearly as popular as the Varga Girls. “Esquire,” however, had a whole stable of talented pin-up artists on hand, including Fritz Willis, Joe DeMers, Ernest Chiriaka, Thornton Utz, Frederick Varady, Eddie Chan, Euclid Shook, and Ben-Hur Baz.
After the war, “True” attempted to emulate “Esquire” in tone and coverage. Then in 1953, Hugh Hefner introduced his magazine, “Playboy,” with high-quality journalism and sexy pin-up paintings by Vargas and others. Hollywood starlets, too, were tremendously popular subjects for pin-up art, including Betty Grable, the star of 1942 film “Pin-Up Girl”; Lana Turner, known as “The Sweater Girl”; Ann Sheridan, called “The Oomph Girl”; Rita Hayworth; and Joan Caufield, star of the 1950 film “The Petty Girl.”
Other important artists of the pin-up era include Billy DeVorss, Edward D’Ancona, Bill Medcalf, Arthur Sarnoff, and Sundblom Circle’s Walt Otto, who specialized in wholesome farm girls. Mayo Olmstead and Fritz Willis were perhaps the last standing pin-ups artists when color pin-up photography took over calendars and men’s magazines in the 1970s. Willis’ women were much more sophisticated and self-aware than the earlier innocents. His worldly ladies would be wearing revealing lingerie and perhaps subtly touching their breasts, with some sort suggestive item in the frame like ripe fruit, a bottle of wine, or a pack of cigarettes.