The face of Holly Hobbie

Long before the high-end franchise of American Girl existed, there was Holly Hobbie, the merchandising phenomenon that offered something for everyone. From rag dolls to limited edition figurines, from craft kits to lunch boxes, from stationery to fine china, the profile of a pioneer girl in a blue sunbonnet and patchwork pinafore adorned products in virtually all aisles of every downtown department store and suburban five-and-dime during the 1970s.

Who is the artist behind spirited and eccentric figure? She is Holly Hobbie, whose eponymous character became a trademark known to three out of four women in the U.S. at the peak of her popularity.

In her illustrated memoir, “The Art of Holly Hobbie: Drawing on Affection,” Hobbie writes that in 1967 she and her husband were living in “student poverty” when a friend suggested she submit some drawings to the American Greetings Corporation. She considered herself “a high-minded art student” who preferred handmade over mass-produced items, but took a shot anyway, expecting rejection. She was surprised when an art director called two days later and offered her a contract. The line was so successful that the blue girl character became AGC’s first licensing program, to be followed by such familiar names as Strawberry Shortcake, Rainbow Brite, and the Care Bears. This bridging of craft and art, talent and success, authenticity and popularity spans Holly Hobbie’s career.

Hobbie’s out-of-print memoir, published in 1986 by Random House, itself is now collectible, fetching around $100 or more on used books sites, depending on condition. Kerra Davis’s article “The Perfect Hobbie” from a 2001 issue of American Country Collectibles, notes “Few people realize that over the years more than four hundred Holly Hobbie items were manufactured. A lot of them are still around; by now, they’re all very collectible, and in most cases you can find them at prices so reasonable it’s easy to start a collection and keep it growing.”

Collector Karen Burgoon maintains the website She reports the site has received more than three million visitors since May 2007, whom she describes as “genuine, down-to-earth, everyday people who reflect upon simpler times and a simpler lifestyle, and who love the nostalgia that Holly Hobbie brings out in her artwork.” Featuring a 60-page price guide, the site lists more than 100 licensees, including Aladdin, Butterick, Coca-Cola, Colorforms, Imperial Wallpaper Mill, Knickerbocker, Lenox, Mattel, Milton Bradley, and Syroco.

On the confusion between character and artist, Holly Hobbie writes, “I never thought there was anything cute, or catchy, or unusual about my married name,” even though to many consumers it seemed “the name had come into being as the felicitous brainchild of a marketing wizard rather than the more mysterious wizardry of sheer happenstance.”

The cards, plaques, decorative plates, and ceramic figurines in AGC’s first lines featured memorable catch phrases such as “To the house of a friend the way is never long,” “Start each day in a happy way,” “Thoughtfulness starts in a warm, loving heart,”  “What’s stitched with love will never tear,” and “Happy is the home that welcomes a friend.”

Readers might be surprised to find a more nuanced sensibility in Hobbies’ memoir. Her watercolors shimmer with reflection and light, suggesting layers of being, “the live surface of things.” Rife with detail, densely textured, her art reflects “a certain madness for textures and patterns.” We see in her work an almost Victorian worship of ornamentation, at times so fervent it becomes timeless.

Family life made an indelible mark on Hobbie’s career. She says her first pictures featured “otherworldly” characters in large sunbonnets that obscured their faces, partially because her first daughter was so young that girlhood was not yet an everyday inspiration. Some later paintings portray her three children, Brett, Jocelyn, and Nathaniel. (Brett died tragically at age 27 of Hodgkin’s disease. Jocelyn and Nathaniel illustrate and write children’s picture books together, published by Little, Brown, Inc.)

Holly Hobbie was not the first to depict pioneer children in American arts and crafts, and she will not be the last, but she tapped into something archetypal in her unique creations. She paved the way for many more recent commercial phenomena based on original art, including Mary Engelbreit and Warren Kimble. Like Beatrix Potter a continent and a century away, she draws on her immediate environment with affection to inspire enduring characters and landscapes. With the passage of time we’ll see her assume her place among favorite illustrators such as Wanda Gag and Garth Williams. Many paragraphs in “The Art of Holly Hobbie” reveal the intelligence behind the craft, including the following:

“When I get going on a painting, I enter a kind of work trance, as I think of it. That’s necessary, but it can also lead to a state of temporary blindness, in which I can overwork a small painting to death — the life of it smothered by labor. It is essential for me to get away from a painting in order to see what I’m doing. When I can’t leave something alone, it usually means I’ve already ruined it. That’s torture for me as well as for my art: you must know when to stop. That is very satisfying; the feeling that you have stopped at the right time — when the painting is finished.”

Who could have predicted that the first few sketches an artist named Holly Hobbie sent in to a greeting card company more than 40 years ago would result in an iconic image still widely visible today? Whether she conjures up images of Laura and Mary from the “Little House on the Prairie” television show or the original books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, or the natural simplicity of faceless Amish dolls, Holly Hobbie touches a chord in the collective unconscious. Much imitated since, the original Holly Hobbie characters endure thanks to the individuality and artistry of their creator. Always pushing the balance of life and art, home and work, Hobbie’s ongoing art has inspired, comforted, and educated generations. ?

James Cihlar is the author of the poetry book “Undoing,” published by Little Pear Press in 2008. James Cihlar also collects Roseville and McCoy pottery, mid-century dishes and lamps, books, and regional art.

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