Tom Lamb (full name Thomas Babbit Lamb, 1896-1988)doesn’t show up in major studies of American illustrated books like Barbara Bader’s American Picture Books from Noah’s Ark to the Beast Within (1976) or Leonard Marcus’s Minders of Make-Believe (2008). Lamb’s picture books don’t turn up either in major exhibition catalogues like the 1996 Myth, Magic and Mystery by Michael Hearn, Trinkett Clark, and H. Nichols B. Clark. None of this is very surprising because he wasn’t a prolific book illustrator.
His picture books were done as a free-lancer for the Chicago publisher P.F. Volland. The company hired many notable talents, such as Lucille and Holling C. Holling, Johnny Gruelle, creator of Raggedy Ann, Maginel Wright Enright Barney, sister of Frank Lloyd Wright, and Hillary Knight’s mother, Katherine Sturges, but very few became canonical figures in the picture book genre. Like a number of Volland illustrators, Tom Lamb’s artistic practice was not limited to children’s books and spilled over into other lucrative forms of commercial media. Eventually Lamb struck out in a new direction after World War II that was, in a curious way, foreshadowed by his illustrations for The Jolly Kid Alphabet.
Art and physiology fascinated the teenaged Lamb, who hoped to become a physician until it became clear his family couldn’t afford medical school. At age fourteen, he was working in a textile design business on weekdays, studying figure drawing and painting evenings at the Art Students League, and trading medical drawings with a plastic surgeon for anatomy lessons on weekends. He started his own textile design firm when he was seventeen. Lord & Taylor, Macy’s and Sak’s Fifth Avenue sold his bedspreads, draperies, and linens in the 1920s, the decades he was also trying his hand at picture book illustration. The success of Runaway Rhymes (1931) won him a contract with Good Housekeeping to draw cartoons for young readers for the magazine and his Kiddyland series was so popular that the brand expanded to include soaps, talcum powder, handkerchiefs, and other accessories for children like this Mother Goose tin to the right.
The 1940s saw a radical change in Lamb’s design philosophy which resulted in him undertaking new kinds of artistic projects. World War II awakened his patriotism and determined to help the war effort, he designed a line of Victory Napkins and Adolf the Pig bank to help sell war bonds. The bright yellow piggy had a caricatured haircut and mustache, and “Save for Victory. Make Him Squeal” was hand written around the slot. Whenever a coin was dropped in, the device inside made a noise. Watching the returning disabled veterans making do with inadequate crutches, Lamb’s interest in human physiology was channeled in a new direction. For the rest of his career, he strove to improvement of the design of handles for a range of tools from cutlery to surgical instruments, wedgelocks to sports equipment. His pioneering attempts at functional design was the subject of a 1948 show on at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and of a New Yorker profile of May 29, 1954 by E. J. Kahn junior. Affectionately dubbed “Tom Lamb the Handle Man, he is now considered a founder of the Universal Design movement to honor his passion to help the differently abled relieve pressure on their hands.
All this activity looks back to The Jolly Kid Alphabet, an oblong book of thick cardboard pages hinged with white linen. Lamb signed the individual illustrations with a “T. L.” monogram and a second, larger one with a leaping lamb appears on the back cover. The text is an alliterative alphabet acted out by highly energetic animated letters interacting with merry animals. When the illustrations are carefully inspected, the letters’ hands are posed in ways that reflect how dynamic those five fingers attached to the palm, connected to the wrist and arm can be. Below D, precariously balanced on the terrier’s front paws, trims the terrier’s whiskers, his left hand firmly but gently steadying the dog’s muzzle, his right hand wielding the scissors. A rides the alligator, the reins in his right hand.
For a finale, A, B, and C use their hands and feet to create a living sculpture