the laboratory of Cassius Marcellus Coolidge

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For more than a century, any promenade down a seaside boardwalk has required a stop at an apparently nameless apparatus: a painted wooden façade featuring a colorful character in an outlandish situation with a hole where its head should be. A tourist playfully inserting his or her head into the cartoonish scene is then recorded for posterity by a professional photographer. The genre has its favored iterations, from the weightlifting hulk to the bathing beauty, the swimmer perilously clenched in the mouth of a shark to the novice aviator nervously clutching the controls of an airplane. As one of the omnipresent features of visual mass culture in American life since the end of the nineteenth century, these façades offer the possibility of radical transformation in the guise of carefree recreation, a chance for the working-class beachgoer to become, safely and fleetingly, someone very different. As with any element of quotidian experience that seems always to have existed, the photo-caricature or comic foreground (two names given to the innovation by its inventor) does in fact have a genealogy—a complex one that winds its way through the rise of modern culture. Comic foregrounds were but one of a series of contributions to mass culture by the polymathic Cassius Marcellus Coolidge (1844–1934), who also gave the world the now-canonical “dogs playing poker” paintings and a comic operetta about a mosquito invasion in New Jersey.

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