Posted on Sep 10, 2013 in All Blog Posts

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When a child carried a Tom Lamb hankie, little did he know the “hand” behind the handkerchief was that of an artist and award winning industrial designer.  Who would guess from these naïve and charming images that Lamb:

  • Was a Fellow of the Industrial Designers Society of America
  • Designed handles for kitchen utensils, cutlery & surgical instruments, luggage and more, winning numerous awards
  • Had a one man show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1948 devoted to the Lamb Handle
  • Designed a pulsing relaxation chair, studied the effects of fatigue, & designed a new handle for crutches

Lamb’s work is a perfect example of “more to the hankie than meets the eye.”   According to various biographies, Thomas Babbit Lamb (1896-1988) wanted to be a doctor, but had to drop out of school due to financial hardship.  Apprenticing himself to a plastic surgeon, Lamb did medical drawings in exchange for anatomy lessons.  At night, he studied figure drawing and painting at the Art Students League of New York.  He also worked in a textile design shop and studied merchandising at Columbia.

lamb-image002At seventeen he opened his own textile design firm, and soon his fabrics were featured in Lord & Taylor, Macy’s and Saks Fifth Avenue.  In 1924 he began illustrating children’s books and signed a contract with Good Housekeeping to illustrate a series of Kiddyland cartoons.

A century ahead of his time in terms of “branding” and “line extension”  Lamb developed a line of Kiddyland soaps, talcum powder, and of course, textiles. (yes, that means hankies!)   He even designed a Kiddiegram for Western Union that was endorsed by Shirley Temple.

 

During WWII, Lamb designed a line of Victory napkins, as well as a piggy bank “Adolph the Pig” satirizing Adolf Hitler to encourage people to save to buy war bonds.  The bank had a voice box, and a slogan “Save for Victory and Make Him Squeal.”  lamb-image003

After the war, Lamb saw how injured veterans struggled with clumsy and uncomfortable crutches that forced the hands to absorb most of the person’s weight.  He got to work and designed a more ergonomically efficient device, the Lamb Lim Rest Crutch.  The patents he received for designing the Lim Rest were later applied to luggage, sporting equipment, cookware, medical equipment and more.  Designer of the Wedge-Lock and Universal handle, he became known at the Handle Man, producing a line of cutlery for Cutco and cookwear for Wear-Ever that were (no pun intended) cutting edge for their time.

The handkerchief world was fortunate to have Lamb’s deft hand apply his magic to these tiny cloth keepsakes.  Note the detail and realism of his early illustrations.

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I consider this next piece a transition hankie.  Although Daddy Duck and his chicks are drawn realistically, the background and borders are très moderne, clean and simple, with a dollop of fun and pinch of  circus.

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This next fanciful hankie may just be my favorite. Yes, it’s raggedy around the edges, but note the subject matter – a milkman!!!  Most people can’t remember when they last saw a milkman at their back door, and anyone born after 1960 has probably never seen a milkman except in the movies.  Note his vehicle – a horse drawn cart!  Once again, these hankies provide a view into a not-so-distant past that is now forever lost to us.

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 lamb-image009 The pony has a personality all his own, and the cheery milkman smiles in response to the robin’s morning song. (What would a hankie of today depict in terms of lifestyle?   A gaggle of folks glued to cellphones, with headphones aborting the robin’s song.  The design is superb.  The quatrefoil draws our eye into the image anchored by our little man in bright red pants.  The tiny squiggly border, is just plain fun.  Although this hankie epitomizes wabi-sabi, I don’t care.   I love it.

 

 lamb-image010 As Lamb transitions from realism to a more abstract style, the squiggly border line appears once more to outline the hare, making his edges appear plush and soft.The crisp checkerboard background further emphasizes the clean modern aesthetic. Note the subtext as the slow-but-steady tortoise is #1, while the carefree but careless rabbit is #2, and indeed, we know who will finish second in this race.

 

 lamb-image011 The dancing elephant and his ice skating pals pack maximum punch with a minimum of lines.  Bold splashes of color and strong background diagonals combine with the forward lean of the mice to underscore a feeling of action.

Compare and contrast two elephant illustrations from Lamb, one realistic, one stylized.  If you didn’t know better, you might assume two different artists created these hankies.  What we’re viewing is an artist in transition, streamlining his artistic process.

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If you focus on the appendages – the trunk and the limbs, you’ll discover more at work here than merely eliminating extraneous detail.  The trunk of the first pachyderm ends in nostrils, whereas the second trunk ends in a playful curlicue.  The gray elephants legs are of equal length, all ending in large toenails.  The “modern” the elephant has been anthropomorphized, his front legs shortening into arms, and his feet morphing  into hands with mittens.

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Correspondingly,  the mice have morphed from little rodents with thick tails, to jolly companions with short forearms, long legs and claws concealed in friendly mittens.

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Animal friends sport hats and ties, while a few even partake in pipes and cigars!

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Hip, Sleek and Sassy

lamb-image018 This hankie looks like it belongs to a hip sophisticated working girl, rather than the wardrobe of a child.  Crisp,  bold graphics set it apart from the typical children’s handkerchief of its day.  I’m sure the original owner loved it as much as we do, with its strong splashes of color and geometric graphics.  The inclusion of a warm fuzzy terrier adds just the right touch of “friendly” to make it appealing to a child.

 

 lamb-image019 Here’s another hankie that packs enough zing to tantalize both children and adults.  Bright bursts of color in soft pastels and contrasting navy anchor a handsome grid reminiscent of the gallant graphics of Mondrian.  In contrast, a pair of affectionate Scotties are rendered in vibrant blocks of color that echo the innovative silkscreens of Andy Warhol.  If I didn’t know better, I’d say Warhol himself added those Scotties forty years after this hankie was first produced. This hankie solidifies Lamb as a ground breaker when it came to images, whether on an artist’s canvas or a child’s hankie.

Remember, Lamb was a serious industrial designer who worked at a time when many of the Bauhaus artists were at their peak – Charles and Ray Eames, Eero Saarinen, Le Corbusier, Mies van der Rohe, and Marcel Bruer, to name a few.  Just as Lamb worked to create more ergonomically comfortable crutch for soldiers returning from WWII, so too, Charles and Ray Eames designed splints and stretchers made from bent plywood during this post war period.  These designers applied the principles of taste and style to everything they touched, whether it was for utilitarian purposes or fashion.

Bertoia Diamond Lounge Chair Eames Molded Plywood Chair
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What at first appears to be a random sampling of Tom Lamb handkerchiefs, when studied chronologically, provides a road map of changes occurring in society.  We move from simpler times, with ducks and bunnies, to transition to an era of contemporary innovation. No longer the purview of galleries and museums, art emerged in the everyday world for man to enjoy.    Whether in the handle of a skillet, the shape of a chair, or the pattern in a textile, engineers sought to strip away the superfluous to showcase the essence of design.  Had I only been exposed to one handkerchief, I never could have experienced this transition in his work, which is why it’s fun to sometimes collect deeply in one area, rather than broadly.  Ten random children’s hankies as opposed to ten Tom Lamb hankies would tell a very different story.

Lamb created an series of children’s handkerchiefs coated with bold splashes of primary colors to tantalize the eye and delight the senses. They maintain a perfect balance between minimalist modern, and abundant playground, with images that sing “Welcome to the toy chest!”  This Christmas teddy bear is the essence of smart and snappy with his wild striped pants and fringed epaulettes. (Note the clever call back in the soldier’s guard box.)

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Polished little drummer boys ra-pa-pa-pum, while prancing lady soldiers proffer a sly wink.  Lamb really had fun with this one.

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This out-of-control jockey has dropped his reins, and madly quacks orders while his cap goes flying.

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lamb-image026 No detail is lost to Lamb, right down to the silly horseshoe prints on the jockey’s shirt.That polka dot pony has our eyes spinning, but the judicious use of white space allows our gaze to rest and float to the borders, where indeed, we  find a pup taking refuge from the bold and busy graphics. Note the clever mix of patterns depicting different species of trees  – hip as you can get, yet these hankies are sixty years old.

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Indeed these tiny harbingers of history hold stories galore about a most ingenious man who took his work, but obviously not himself, seriously.  Who supported his country and returning servicemen, hoping to make their lives more comfortable.   Who made homemakers chores “easier to handle.”  Who made children worthy of great design, and offered fresh perspectives on the world of play.   Perhaps Lamb’s imagery even inspired a future designer, daydreaming of a magical future, while absentmindedly fingering his hankie.   Thank you Mr.  Lamb for sharing your talent with young and old alike, and for leaving a legacy of wonder and fun.

 

Bonus: The Softest Lamb

Book illustrations in pastel watercolors showcase Lamb’s talent for brevity and brilliance.  A feather light sprite dances on the delicate curl of a leaf.  In contrast, a little boy atop a double decker bus experiences the grand canyon majesty of New York’s imposing skyscrapers at sunset.

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A tiny tot in a sailor suit dances with his shadow, while an older lad hears the ocean in a shell, and daydreams of schooners and skiffs.

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10 Comments

  1. 10-29-2013

    Love your commentary about Lamb! Learning about his life and history was super interesting. It really puts the details in his work.

    I’ve seen and had many of the older ones. The “newer” ones are marvelous.
    Thanks for sharing!!

  2. 10-30-2013

    Wonderful!!

  3. 11-5-2014

    I found a tom lamb “Circus favorites” hankie with an elephant, a lion, a bear, and a seal on it. It is red green yellow and blue. And it has his signature and a copyright (c) on one of the corners. There are really no other identifying marks on it. I am unable to find any information about this specific hanky online. Can you help?

    • 11-6-2014

      I know the hankie you’re talking about. I’m not sure what more I can tell you than it’s a Tom Lamb children’s hankie. Whether it was created for a specific event or manufacturer, I don’t know. It’s a real challenge to find background information on these little gems.

  4. 12-27-2016

    Hello, I still need the FRIDAY HANKIE and the single dog,the latter being hard to find.I have all the days of the week,but not FRIDAY. thank you,Monique Knowlton

    • 1-6-2017

      As time goes on they’re all getting harder to find, but perhaps and intrepid reader will find a Friday for you. I’ll keep my eyes peels as well.

  5. 3-9-2017

    I just bought one and I had never heard of him before. The woman I bought him from told me I should look him up and I am glad I did. I already loved the hanky and now I love it more. Its the one with the birds playing baseball and the rabbit looking on.

    • 3-9-2017

      He was talented and enterprising in so many areas. I know the handkerchief you’re referring to. It’s delightful.

  6. 3-18-2017

    While cleaning out the old homestead ranch (in the family for over 100 years) I found a Tom Lamb box with 4 small white hankies still with the little bow tied on them. They have little embroidered moon’s (?) each with a little clown sitting on top and a mouse dangling from the moon face. They are very cute but I have no idea what year they might have been made, or their value. But they are clearly very old. Have you seen any like this before? Maybe you have some addition information on them. I appreciate your assistance.

    • 3-31-2017

      They sound adorable and no, I have never seen any like them. You’re making me salivate! I’m afraid I don’t have an answer for you as to their value ,as price often fluctuates with popularity, as evidenced by watching Antiques Road Show. Perhaps one of our readers will know more and share with us.

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