Long before isms, ologies and otics. Before the Chicago Bauhaus, Yale, RISD, Cranbrook and Cal Arts. Before commercial art was called visual communications, the correspondence school was the principal American academy of art and an early training ground for American graphic designers. Scores of advertisements, like the famous "Draw Me!" matchbook cover, offered willing aspirants the big chance to earn "$65, $80 and more a week" in "a pleasant, profitable Art career." Although the ads often shared space at the back of cheesy pulp magazines with offers to learn, well, brain surgery at home, they offered a legitimate way for anyone with a modicum of talent, limited means and an existing job to train in their spare time for a new profession. Let's call it the precursor of "distance learning."
During the late teens and early twenties, when advertising began a meteoric rise and commercial artists and letterers were in demand, correspondence schools were founded to train illustrators and designers. The most notable included The International Correspondence Schools in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Washington School of Art in Washington, D.C., The Lockwood Art Lessons in Kalamazoo, Michigan, The New York School of Design in New York City, Art Instruction, Inc. in Minneapolis, Minnesota and The Frank Holme School of Illustration in Chicago, Illinois. The leader, however, was The Federal School of Commercial Designing founded in 1919. The Federal School's headquarters occupied a three story high, block long building in Minneapolis; had branch offices in New York City and Chicago; boasted over seventy-five advisors and full-time faculty members, was larger than any of the other schools; claimed over 3000 home study students annually enrolled and offered "a well-rounded, practical preparation for a profession" that was recognized by the Home Study Institute and the Midland National Bank of Minneapolis.
Above: "Draw Me" advertisements for art schools
The Federal School issued an opulent 64-page catalog in 1927 in which it made the challenge:
"What would you give to be able to draw professionally? Do you long for the ability to make splendid pictures, such as you see daily in advertisements, attractive story illustrations, richly colored magazines covers?" Profusely illustrated with photos of artists and examples of their work the Federal School lured prospective students to the practice of commercial art by invoking the glories of advertising, which the catalog declared was "the newest art, the youngest great creative force, in the modern business world."
The Federal correspondence method ensured students a place in that lucrative world through "the conscientious individual attention of the Federal faculty" which included teachers in advertising, fashion and animal illustration, booklet and catalog construction, general commercial art and posters. Among the famous faculty; poster designer C. Matlock Price, "Painter with the Pen" Franklin Booth, Saturday Evening Post cover artist, Frank E. Schoonover, and Good Housekeeping cover artist and advertising luminary Coles Philips, did national work that commanded the top fees of the day and were models for the artists of tomorrow.
Hyperbole was invariably used to attract candidates. The Draw Me! Ads on matchbooks and in magazines, which began in the 1930s and were continued into the 1960s, promoting Art Instruction Inc., offered "Your big chance.… An easy-to-try way to win FREE art training!" while the ubiquitous "Art For Pleasure and Profit" ads published during 1930s through the 1940s showing an illustration of a smock-clad artist drawing a scantily clad model promoting the Washington School of Art, promised that one could "learn to draw at home in spare time" and make big bucks as a result. The International Correspondence Schools guaranteed a whopping "366 percent increased income" and a "1000 percent interest" on the investment made in its Sign Lettering Course, but this and other come-ons actually masked the serious nature of the well-rounded courses. In the 1920s and 1930s resident art schools charged an average of $300 annually as compared to an average of $75 to $100 for the correspondence school and entailed anywhere between one and four years of study during which time students were often unable to earn steady incomes, home study provided a real service. As the Federal School catalog boasted "the cost for tuition of such schools will average much higher than the tuition of the Federal School — to say nothing of your living expenses." The home study course further offered the benefit of measuring progress by the student's own ability to advance. The Washington School of Art proudly noted in its 1928 catalog that "We take great pains with backward students." And the International Correspondence School's 1929 catalog reassured its more challenged aspirants: "Don't hesitate to enroll because you lack an education.… Courses include punctuation and a 25-cent pocket dictionary will give you the correct spelling of all words you will likely have occasion to letter." Even women, who were not encouraged by the resident schools, were singled out as beneficiaries of a correspondence education: "Yes, you read it right," declared the Federal School's catalog. "It's true. Woman are constantly taking a larger place in the modern commercial world.… Buyers of commercial art will just as readily buy from women as from men.…"
A standard correspondence course included a dozen or so text-lessons and workbooks that taught practical lessons in drawing, composition, lettering, typography and more. The Federal School and Art Instruction Inc. both offered a unique twelve lesson course — what they called "divisions" — presented in a series of surprisingly clear, entertaining and profusely illustrated booklets, illustrated with some of the most fashionable and award-winning work of the day. Each division included step-by-step introductions to a variety of skills, crafts and analyses, such as Federal's "blocking in" with pencil and crayon in Division One, lettering — historical and modern — in Division Four, retouching photographs in Division Seven, artistic covers and title pages for booklets, catalogs and circulars in Division Eleven and reproduction methods in Division Twelve. Schematic diagrams enabled the student to work start work immediately. And a foreword to each division booklet proposed methods for studying, such as how to acquire a firm understanding of the principles, how to do the practice exercises and ultimately how to prepare the work to be submitted for criticism.
Lesson plan for a drawing school, located in Minneapolis, Minnesota
Individuality was extolled. "You are in a class by yourself," asserted the International Correspondence Schools' 1928 catalog, Show Cards and Signs. "The instructor attends to you alone; you are encouraged, counseled and guided at every step." This was accomplished through frequent reviews of assignments designed to keep the student on a forward track. Training manuals, workbooks, lesson charts and exercises were prepared by staff members based on study guidelines established by the luminary faculty, who were really only nominal teachers and rarely set foot on the school's premises. An exception was Frederic Goudy, who in the early teens was already a veteran type designer and a lettering instructor at the Frank Holme School in Chicago, which counted type designer Oswald Cooper as one of its graduates. The average instructor, however, was not famous, but a skilled boardman, letterer, or advertising artist recruited from the local art service agencies. These instructors were hired either full-time or part-time to evaluate the assignments and write the detailed reports which criticized rendering or conceptual skills; as a rule they did not develop the curriculum, but could offer students personal tips through their critiques, such as Federal instructor and newspaper illustrator C.L. Bartholomew's shortcut for drying wet paint with the lit end of a cigar. Teachers might be assigned an exclusive group of students or share them among other instructors. The student never spoke to or met the instructor, but mail relationships were nurtured to provide the student with a mentor. Students were given as much time as necessary to complete a project or particular phase of instruction. G.H. Lockwood, who edited The Student's Art Magazine and ran Lockwood's Art Lessons, personally critiqued all work submitted by his students, such as a drawing by an aspiring cartoonist to whom he candidly responded: "First I would entirely eliminate the lettering…it is what I would call a strictly bum job. The general rendering itself in [sic] so far ahead of so many of the drawings received at this office that I haven't the heart to be severe with you, nor the desire either.… My main criticism on this is in the 'action' or lack of action.… The sum total of the result is a drawing without power or forcefulness or attractiveness, for 'action' lends attraction to a composition better than most any other one thing."
All these programs issued diplomas to students who completed the course. But if for any reason the student was "not absolutely and unqualifiedly satisfied with the results of his or her study, provided written application for such refund is made within thirty days from the date the student completes the course in accordance with the rules of the school," as the Federal School promised, the full tuition would be refunded. According to the schools' own literature, such instances were rare because the schools enrolled students found their calling, as in this testimonial for International Correspondence School: "Your course has done for me what it will do for any one else if they enroll and study. I now have my own shop.… The last week in June and first week in July I made $100…I've had my I.C.S. diploma framed and feel very proud of it." The vast majority of these students turned to freelance careers or were absorbed by the local agencies, sign shops, printers and type shops. With the notable exception of Oz Cooper I have not found any others as nationally famous, nor do any of the catalogs tout well-known alumni.
Correspondence schools were operating as early as the 1890s, but the 1920s through the 1950s was its heyday. The Federal School ceased operation in the '50s around the same time that The Famous Artists School in Westport, Connecticut was founded, in 1947. The Famous Artists School began its full page advertising campaign in national magazines which showed its renown illustration faculty, including Norman Rockwell, Stevan Dohanos, Coby Whitmore, Albert Dorne and others (the so-called Westport School of American illustration), sitting around a table. The Famous Artist School, which focused exclusively on illustration, had this faculty develop classes, while part-time instructors reviewed and critiqued the student work. The Famous Artist School merged with Cortines Learning International in 1981 and still operates today, but the correspondence art school movement was overshadowed in the late 1960s, replaced today by distance learning programs as a "direct way of turning [a] liking for drawing into money."
The New York School of Design