Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Tom Henderson and William Steig: Making an Extra Table

Have you ever walked into a packed restaurant and impressed the maître d′ so much with your very presence that the wait staff set up an extra table just for you? Perhaps not, but we'd all like to be treated that way and certainly many of us feel we deserve to be. Two cartoonists creating ads for competing issuers of travelers checks in the 1950s tapped into our need to feel pampered, specifically when seeking seating in popular restaurants. The two gags allow us to compare how two different cartoonists handled a very similar scenario.

The cartoonists are Tom Henderson who created an ad for American Express Travelers Cheques in 1954 and William Steig who did the same for First National City Bank Travelers Checks in 1959. Steig may or may not have ever seen the Henderson ad—he himself worked on the American Express advertising campaign in 1952—although even if he had seen it he might not have recalled it. In any event, Steig is regarded by many as one of the twentieth century's greatest cartoonists, while Henderson, to be blunt, is not. Henderson is certainly competent though. The first surprise then is that Henderson has come up with a much funnier gag, placing the small extra table on the top of a larger table in the restaurant. It's preposterous but funny. The caption, said by the wife, is "See, I told you they'd find us a table when they saw your American Express Travelers Cheques!" So it's the man who carries the travelers checks, don't you know?

Still, there's something missing from the Henderson gag, and that's a reaction. Even the couple whose table has been commandeered don't seem to mind the imposition. Everybody's happy. That may be what the client wanted, but the lack of conflict doesn't make for a great cartoon.
"See, I told you they'd find us a table when they saw your American Express Travelers Cheques!"
Tom Henderson
July 1, 1954

In contrast, look at what Steig has done. His ad for First National City Bank doesn't even have a gag or a caption, but what it does have are interesting characters. Each figure is an individual with a personality and a point of view. The couple is delighted with their special treatment. The maître d′ is pleased to have such well-financed guests. The seated woman wonders what this couple has done to get a prime table closer to the entertainment than she has. The patrons still waiting to be seated are understandably somewhat cross. If I could hang the art from just one of these ads on my wall, of course it would be this one.
the nicest things happen to people who carry
First National City Bank Travelers Checks
William Steig
The New Yorker, March 7, 1959, page 49
(and August 8, 1959, page 51)

Note:  A word of advice: when you are informed that there will be a forty-five minute wait for your table, don't try saying something like "Do you have any idea who I am or what blog I write?" It doesn't work.

I would love to hear from anyone with original art by either of the cartoonists in this post.

Quick Links to the Attempted Bloggery Archives:

Tom Henderson

William Steig

Travelers Checks


Attempted Bloggery's High Priority Index


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