Sidewall: Bachelor's Wall Paper. Designed by Charles Dana Gibson, 1902. Gift of Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Before Betty and Veronica, There Was the Gibson Girl

One simply cannot ignore her sultry eyes, knowing smile and beauty. Bachelor’s Wall Paper features the charming Gibson Girl, the fictional New Woman illustrated by Charles Dana Gibson at the turn of the nineteenth century. The Gibson Girl was America’s first commercial female icon. She was the idyllic American woman: full of grace and class, with just the right amount of confidence and charm. Her stories appeared in magazine illustrations, and her image exploded on the commercial market. Fans could show their devotion by owning her image on their china, matchsafe, pillow covers, a flask, or a souvenir spoon.

The Gibson Girl is a controversial figure among feminists today. She was esteemed as a New Woman, educated and interested in public affairs, but she wore a corset and was against suffrage. Her activities set her apart from Victorian conventions. The Gibson Girl could drink and smoke, play sports alongside men, and she could even go to college if she chose. As the Bachelor’s Wall Paper suggests, she was also an object of desire. In Gibson’s illustrations, she can be seen tantalizing and flirting with men. In a courtship, the Gibson Girl was in control while the men skittishly tried to impress her.

The Bachelor’s Wall Paper depicts three women. Part of the Gibson Girls appeal was that there were many varieties, all with their own personality. One reviewer claimed that there were seven categories: the Beauty, the Athlete, the Flirt, the Sentimental Girl, the Girl with a mind of her own, the Ambitious Girl, or the Charmer.  Women could choose which Gibson Girl to be or perhaps choose a mix of a few. She was a mere commodity but so desirable that Americans did whatever they could to make her real. Acting like her, looking like her, and replicating her image over and over again. The wallpaper was originally published in Life magazine in 1902, and then manufactured in 1904 by M.H. Birge and Sons Co.

Shannon Murphy is a school and family programs educator at Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum. She holds a BFA from the Rhode Island School of Design and an MA in Art History from the City College of New York.
 

Museum Number: 
1971-58-3-a,b