Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Parades of Dazzle Camouflaged Floats

Ship Camouflage on Parade Float (c1918)
Above In the closing years of World War I, the American public's interest in camouflage (especially dazzle camouflage) was all but boundless. Examples of camouflage were included in nearly every parade, such as this float that features a dazzle-painted ship (as seen from the rear), surrounded by waves of papier maché. See also other photographs of camouflage-themed parade floats, as noted in an earlier post. We've since found descriptions of others.


CITY TANK IN LOAN PARADE in The Tacoma Times (Tacoma WA), April 6, 1918, p. 8—

One of the novel features of Saturday's Liberty Parade was a miniature "tank" furnished by the city streets department. The tank was built from a new caterpillar tractor just purchased by the city. Although the caterpillar tread of the city machine does not go over the top of the body, as it does in the battle tanks, the machine was camouflaged by scenic designers so that it bore a startling resemblance to the new war terrors. It was armed with a half dozen fierce-looking guns. Commissioner [of Public Works Charles D.] Atkins announced that he would guide the city tank through the streets.


CAMOUFLAGED TANKS PARADE ST. LOUIS in the Oklahoma City Times, April 10, 1919, p. 4—

St. Louis, April 10—Twenty camouflaged tanks, similar to those used at the front, paraded through the business section today as part of a reception in honor of Major General Leonard Wood, commander of the central department of the army, who is in St, Louis in the interest of the coming Victory loan campaign. The tanks were operated by returned soldiers.


BATTLESHIP FLOAT OF MARINE ELECTRICAL WORKERS IN PARADE in The Boston Globe, September 3, 1918, p. 7 (see news photograph below)—

One of the most striking features of the parade was the float of the Marine Electrical Workers of America—the Navy Yard local union. This was a model of a battleship, about 50 feet long and 20 feet high, with wireless cracking and guns shooting confetti.

Another attractive float was that of the Painters' Association from the Navy Yard, showing a camouflaged torpedo boat destroyer model, over which was hung the inscription, "This Is How We Fool the Kaiser's U-Boats."

Dazzle Ship Float in Boston Parade (1918)

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Boston Harbor Camouflage

Above Cartoon by Wallace Goldsmith (1873-1945). It accompanied the news feature quoted below.


Anon, CAMOUFLAGE LESSONS IN BOSTON HARBOR, in The Boston Globe, Wednesday, July 10, 1918, p. 3—

Lessons in camouflage are of daily occurrence in Boston Harbor nowadays.

Like a fat lady hustling home, the ferry boat churned its way across the harbor.

A gentleman in a checkered suit and wearing a fuzzy face tottered uneasily against the railing.

He gazed abstractly at the harbor shipping. Suddenly a look of consternation came into his eyes. These he rubbed vigorously with a large red fist—once, twice and yet a third time. He gave his head a vision-clearing shake. “No good!” he exclaimed. “it’s still there.” Turning about with a frightened expression he nervously plucked a fellow-voyager by the sleeve and with trembling voice cried, “Say, old pal, do you see what I see?”

“Dunno,” replied “Pal.” “I been used to seein’ a lot o’ things in my time, but if it’s that there ship with the futurist paintin’ on her that you’re alludin’ to, why you can set your mind at rest. We’re seein’ the same thing. It’s real an’ you needn’t be expectin’ to see no pink elephants wander’ into your field o’ vision. 

“That there weird art work is camouflage calculated to fool them Germans.”

“O,” ejaculated the fuzzy-faced one in a relieved tone, “that crazy lookin’ ship sure ought to scare that Kaiser all right when he gets his lamps onto it.”

“‘Tain’t to scare the Kaiser. Them wavy lines an’ splotches is supposed to look like waves when he gets to sea, and it’s calculated that the U-boats can’t see her cause the ocean’s got a lot more waves floppin’ round. An’ if a sub tries to get her all its got to shoot at is the steamer’s smoke, an’ out there in the ocean I reckon that’s like shootin’ at the wide, wide world.”

“She sure is hid some.”

“Well, we live and learn,” said he of the checkered suit, in a relieved tone. “All you got to do to hide things is to paint ‘em like the things around ‘em, and there you are, or, rather, there it ain’t.”

“Yep, you got the idea now,” said Pal. “I been studyin’ this thing for some time. I’ve got a little house out here a piece, and there’s trees out back of it. I’ve been thinkin’ I’d paint trees on the front of the house, and then it’d look like nothin’ but woods was there.

“And when the bill collector that’s been pesterin’ me comes out next time he’ll look astonished and prob’ly say, ‘Gosh hang it! I could a swore Bill Jones lived right here, and here I am lost in the woods.’

“Also, I’ve a little flip, and I like to go out speedin’ now and then, but these here park cops have got my number, and they’re all the time holdin’ me up.

“I’m goin’ to fool ‘em. I’m goin’ to paint flowers all over the whiz cart an’ when the park cop sets his eyes on to her he’ll begin cussin’ the park dept for plantin’ gardens in the middle of the road.

“By the time he realizes that the garden’s movin’ I’ll be past him and so far away he’ll think he’s only had a bad dream.”

At this juncture the ferry reached her slip and the conversation terminated in the noise and flurry of the hurrying throng.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

USS West Galoc in Freshly Painted Camouflage

Above Photographs of the two sides of the USS West Galoc (port and starboard), with its newly applied dazzle camouflage. These were probably taken in August 1918, concurrent with the publication of the newspaper story below. NH 99391 and NH 106230.


Anon, EARLY SERVICE SEEN FOR LA-BUILT SHIP. Los Angeles Herald. No 252, August 22, 1918—

The [USS] West Galoc, the 8800-ton vessel constructed, equipped and manned in Los Angeles harbor, today was formally in the possession of the government, ready for service wherever the Shipping Board desired to dispatch her. The vessel, with its coat of camouflage, was turned over to the government after all tests had been completed and the boat found to be perfect. The vessel will have a crew of about 100, practically all of the men having received their training at the station at San Pedro. The men from the station who went aboard the vessel expressed themselves as delighted at the prospect of immediate service.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Ship Camouflage, Indians and Sunset Magazine

Cover by Harold Von Schmidt (1918)
Sunset magazine was founded in 1898. Eight years later its offices were destroyed by the San Francisco earthquake. In its literary and artistic heydey, which was more or less concurrent with World War I, it was one of the country's finest periodicals. It offered top quality writing, both fiction and nonfiction, with covers and interior images by some of the best illustrators. 

Some of its most memorable covers were created by Maynard Dixon, who was associated with the well-known cluster of artists at Taos NM. As we've explained in an earlier post, Dixon was a member of the American Camouflage Western Division in California, and two of his fellow artists and friends—William Penhallow Henderson and Bro Julius Olson Nordfeldt—were ship camoufleurs in San Francisco during the war. 

Yesterday, we made yet another discovery while browsing around in old issues of Sunset: The Pacific Monthly. On the cover of the December 1918 issue, quietly hidden for all these years, is a magnificent illustration of a dazzle-painted ship (shown above) by Harold Von Schmidt. A native of California, Von Schmidt was also connected to Taos, and often contributed artwork to Sunset magazine. What a great find. Please share with others.

Five months earlier, in its July issue, the same magazine had published an unsigned column about Native Americans, the Southwest, and wartime camouflage. Here's the article—

Modern camouflage, the out-door art first practiced by the French and now so effectively developed in the war zone, is, contrary to general belief, an ancient American institution. This fact was proved recently by the driver of a camouflaged Kissel Kar while on a tour through the Indian reservations of the West. They discovered that apart from its modern application, there is little new about the war except its name.

Naturally the weirdly striped automobile created a great deal of interest among the red men, who listened attentively to the explanations of the purpose of the futuristic application of paint. It was noticed, however, that certain of the older Indians seemed to look upon the bizarre creation with unusual passiveness. Then, when some of them finally spoke, it became clear that this startling apparition on wheels embodied an idea that had become outworn with the advance of civilization among the Indian tribes.

As these statements became more frequent, the tourists began to search for data that would prove the American Indian to be the original camoufleur. They learned, among other things, that paint on an Indian’s face and body, as well as on his teepee and other personal possessions, was originally used to secure protective coloring, after the species of camouflage instinctively employed by so many members of the animal kingdom.

One wizened squaw, who had lived through a long period of conflict between her people and the early white men, furnished, through an interpreter, an interesting account of how the Indian children of bygone generations were taught to become skillful in disguises. They learned how to use leaves and flowers and other natural products of the forest and field in their hair and clothing so that they could creep through the woods unseen. They learned to blend their bodies with almost any surroundings in which they found themselves, for protection as well as for the successful stalking of game or enemies.

It was a custom, when a young Indian aspired to the estate of warrior, to test him in his ability to successfully camouflage himself. The tourists were told that one demonstration required was that the ambitious youth approach as closely as possible the assembled warriors without being seen. The skill with which the young buck masked himself, blending his body into the foliage of the woods, probably helped determine his standing as a scout or fighter.

Camouflage—by whatever name it originally went—is no longer practiced by the American Indian. Today it is the pale face who employs this ancient means of protection on an enormous scale. And today, through the selective draft, the young American Indian in khaki is brought into contact, on the fields of France, with the modern development of the primitive art of his fathers.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Lady Camoufleurs Make Camouflage on NY Streets

On this page are two World War I government photographs, showing the contributions of the Camouflage Reserve Corps of the National League for Women's Service. In the photo above they are applying a disruptive camouflage scheme to a War Savings Stamp booth at Broadway and 43rd Street in New York. August 1918. NARA 165-WW-599G-041. At the bottom of this page, they are painting a War Savings Stamp theatre in Times Square, New York, in the same month. NARA 165-WW-599G-016. It had been decided that painting disruptive camouflage schemes on buildings and vehicles was an effective means of attracting a crowd for fundraising and recruiting events. 
The first event was described in considerable detail in a news article, reproduced in full below.
Anon, LADY CAMOUFLEURS WORK IN TIMES SQ.: But Their Overalls Give Nary a Thrill to That Blasé Region; PROTECT WSS STAND: Twelve of 'Em Climb Ladders and Paint Right Into the Dusk in the New York Sun, August 21, 1918, p. 2—

Twelve lady artists from Greenwich Village, who are serving their country as captains, lieutenants, sergeants, corporals and privates of the Camouflage Reserve Corps of the National League for Women’s Service [NLWS], passed yesterday afternoon painting a futuristic, or cubistic, mince pie nightmare on the little Thrft Stamp stand in Times Square, so that if a German submarine sails up Broadway or one of Fritz’s Zeppelins comes along dropping bombs on the revellers of the Great White Way the camouflaged stand will just melt away into the surrounding landscape of subway holes and theatrical billboards and the Thrift Stamp cashbox won’t be disturbed.

The twelve ladies were assisted by two Beaux Arts men, members of the shipping board, A[lon] Bement of Columbia University and Artist [Henry] Davenport, who came over from Boston to help boss the job.

Worked to Beat the Moon
The fourteen toiled manfully to finish the chef d’oeuvre before nightfall, because as Captain Myra Hanford of the Camouflage Corps [CC] remarked in a pause of her task of holding the chalk with which the design was marked, the moon was at the full and moonlight nights were just the time the Huns took to make their raid. And with Eddie Cantor of the Follies and Frances Victory of the “Eyes of Youth” and a lot of other talent coming to open the drive for $25,000,000 the CC of the NLWS would never forgive itself if it left that stand unprotected, a target for the Huns.

They toiled manfully, as before stated; lithely the overalled limbs of the ladies skipped up and down the ladders; merrily the paint brushes flirted with the rough boards of the stand. And just as the excitement was at its height along came a painter, just the common garden variety of painter, with a red nose and a pipe and a pail of beer in his hand, and cocked an eye at his lady competitors and spake thus to his mate, an electrician with a coil of wire over his grimy shoulder:

“Them wimmin don’t know how to handle a brush. They pecks at the boards like a canary bird. You wanna hold the brush wit’ a free sort of grasp and make broad strokes.”

“They’re probably workin’ by the piece,” mused the electrician. “Say, ain’t war what Sherman said it was? Wimmin has to put on overalls and climb ladders in Times Square to make the world safe for democracy. Pretty tough.”

On the whole, though, Times Square didn’t pay much attention to the busy band of lady painters. So blase has a suffrage campaign and a year of war students made the Great White Way that a woman in overalls, who would have been mobbed ten years ago, was worth scarcely a passing glance.

A few men stopped and gazed with expressions which said: Good Lord! what is this world coming to? or, If my wife ever does such a thing she’ll hear from me; or, Bully for the nervy dames; or, What’s it all about, anyway, according to their natures; and a few women examined their emancipated sisters with eyes that expressed amusement, admiration, disdain or inanity, all according to their natures; but that was all.

The WSS press agent who prophesied that the police reserves would have to be called out to handle the crowds was sadly disappointed. The crowd at no time was more than one hundred, even counting the two stray dogs that hung around tasting the paint brushes.

The stand is a dinky little affair which some of those zephyrs that whiz around Times Square will probably lift right off of its legs some day, but there’s one thing about it, it represents subway folk without paying for it. For half a dozen husky workmen from the subway excavations around there put it up, in Mr. [Theodore] Shonts’s time, too, and what is more they brought some of Mr. Shonts’s lumber to do it with.

The lumber was covered with posters and bills and things—no, there wasn’t any of Mr. Shonts’s poetry on it—but three nice young soldiers and a sailor and a fat WSS press agent worked hours scraping those posters off. One of Marjorie Rambeau’s eyes and several of the nether limbs of the Dolly Sisters still remained when, early in the afternoon, the twelve members of the Camouflage Corps, in natty khaki suits and caps, arrived with their paint pots and brushes.

There was still time for a lot of scraping, for the CC had to dress. Camouflaged by a rickety screen they performed this operation in a corner of the stand, with the populace gazing hungrily at the screen and waiting for what might come forth.

McMillan, Hand Me a Brush
Various visions came forth and crawled down the ladder. As a matter of fact, not all wore overalls. Private [Helen] Harrison was extremely efficient in a real pair, the kind with straps going over the shoulders and pockets for tools, neat fitting to the legs; but Corporal [Ellen] McMillan, who is youthful and curly haired, was brazenly feminine in a pale blue smock with pink embroidery. But her knickers were sufficiently mannish. Lieut. [Louise] Larned, who was the first to mount the ladder and paint, stuck to her brief khaki skirt. One or two wore artists’ smocks of gray, and one donned a kitchen apron.

Still there was a general effect of overalled feminine limbs clambering up and down. Also the camouflagers called each other by their last names without any handles—“Harrison, are you doing the blue or shall I?” “McMillan, hand me a brush”—and so forth. It had a businesslike sound.

The shades of night had fallen when the stand finally bloomed forth in its startling dress of blue and yellow and white and black, done in highly futuristic patches according to the design drawn by the Shipping Board representatives. And the twelve camouflagers took off their overalls and aprons and picked up their paint pails and marched off to their well earned dinners, musing proudly on the part their work will have in the salesmen’s drive which opens tomorrow, when every membersof the national salesmen’s organization now in New York will start in on a week’s voluntary service service for Uncle Sam and the War Savings Stamps.

Captain. Charles H. McKinney of the Twenty-sixth police precinct is extremely pround of the camouflaged stand. He, it will be remembered, is the knight of the Women Police Reserves, and a champion of the cause of women. He said it was a source of gratification to him that his district, which produced the first women police reserves, also had the distinction of possessing one of the first works of art of the lady camouflagers done in Uncle Sam’s name.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Ship Camouflage Cartoon | William Ferguson

Above William Ferguson cartoon (detail) from THIS CURIOUS WORLD series, in the Healdsburg Tribune (No 267), September 23, 1933. Below it was the following text—

The word "camouflage” Is Incorrectly used In speaking of the weird painting used on ships during the war. Officially, the practice was called "dazzle painting,” and its purpose was to cause miscalculations when enemy gunners attempted to torpedo the ship. Large bow waves were sometimes painted on the hull to give the appearance of terrific speed.


J.H. Richardson, SPEED IS WATCHWORD AT HARBOR SHIPYARDS. Los Angeles Herald (No 228), July 25, 1918, p. 22 [excerpt]—

…A few hundred feet away, at one of the “fitting out” wharves, was a vessel practically completed. Men were swung from the sides of the ship painting the hull in camouflage colors. Black stripes, big spots of blue, specks of white and dabs of red, as if it were the canvas of a futuristic artist.…

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Frank Lloyd Wright & William Penhallow Henderson

Frank Lloyd Wright and Mason City (2016)
Until recently, we were unaware of the link between architect Frank Lloyd Wright and an admired but lesser-known painter named William Penhallow Henderson (1877-1943).

Most people think of the latter as an artist who was closely tied to artists who settled in Taos NM around the turn of the century. But he was also a capable architect, muralist and furniture designer, in a style that was in keeping with the American Arts and Crafts Movement.

Henderson was born in Massachusetts, but grew up in the Midwest. In the beginning years of the 20th century, he lived and taught in Chicago, at which time Wright was living there. In 1914, while Wright was completing the Midway Gardens on the city’s southside, he commissioned Henderson to design a mural for that project. But when Wright (apparently) objected to the end result, Henderson backed out and the mural was soon painted over. While remaining in Chicago, he designed the costumes and scenery in 1915 for a theatrical production of Alice in Wonderland by the Chicago Fine Arts Theatre.

For health reasons, Henderson and his wife relocated to Santa Fe in 1916. The following year, soon after the US entered World War I, a new system of disruptive ship camouflage was adopted by the British Admiralty and, soon after, the French and Americans did the same. In 1918, Henderson was appointed to serve as a camouflage artist in San Francisco.
USS Western Star (1918) in dazzle camouflage

There he was part of a team of civilian artists who painted dazzle camouflage schemes on merchant ships. As we have blogged previously, the artist in charge of that particular team was Edgar Walter (1877-1938). But Maynard Dixon was also involved, as were (Swedish-born) Bro Julius Olson Nordfeldt, A. Sheldon Pennoyer, and others.

When Henderson returned to Santa Fe with Nordfeldt, his friend and fellow camoufleur, a brief article appeared in the Albuquerque Morning Journal, on December 22, 1918, p. 2, with the headline CAMOUFLEURS IN SANTA FE

William Penhallow Henderson, the noted artist, who has served the shipbuilding board on the Pacific coast as camoufleur, has returned to Santa Fe, with O. Nordfeldt, and etcher and artist of fame, who with Mr. Henderson had charge of the camouflage department at San Francisco. They perfected this art to such a point that the camouflage inspectors in the east compared that of the eastern shipyards with that at San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego as standard. Mr. Nordfeldt will remain in Santa Fe over the winter. The two artists brought with them models of camouflaged ships which will be placed on exhibit in the new museum [New Mexico Museum of Art] and will illustrate a museum night talk.

An earlier article about the camouflage efforts of West Coast artists, titled SEEKS TO MAKE ARMY INVISIBLE, appeared in The Daily Ardmoreite (Ardmore OK) on July 11, 1917, p. 1—

San Francisco, July 11—The western division of the American Camouflage [Corps], an organization of artists which has for its object the recruiting of men who can assist in rendering the forces of the United States army and navy invisible to the enemy, was organized here [at the California School of Fine Arts] last night by artists and scene painters.

By the use of color combinations in small squares, map-like patches and other methods, United States battleships have been rendered more nearly invisible than those of any other nation, the members said today…

A month later later, yet another article on SAN FRANCISCO ARCHITECTS AND ARTISTS AS CAMOUFLEURS appeared in Western Architect and Engineer August 1917, p. 58, about which we posted an earlier blog.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Camouflage Artist | Genevieve Cowles

Poster © Roy R. Behrens (2017)
Anon, TO TELL OF CAMOUFLAGE OF AMERICAN VESSELS: Miss Genevieve Cowles Will Speak at YWCA Tomorrow Night at 8:15 in The Times Dispatch (Richmond VA), February 11, 1919, p. 3—

Miss Genevieve Cowles of the Women’s Reserve Camouflage Corps of the National League for Women’s Service will speak at the YWCA tomorrow night at 8:15 on “Marine Camouflage, the Art That Saved the Ship.” Miss Cowles was trained under William Andrew Mackay, head camoufleur of the United States Shipping Board, and has proved a capable worker. She was pledged to secrecy during the duration of the war.


Anon, NEW YORK ARTIST TO DESCRIBE CAMOUFLAGE in Hartford Courant (Hartford CT). March 7, 1919, p. 10—

The annual art lecture to be given at the Congregational Church Monday evening at 8 o’clock, by the Currents Events Club, will be free to the public. Miss Genevieve Cowles, a well-known artist of New York, will speak on “Army and Navy Camouflage.” Miss Cowles is a mumber of the Women’s Reserve Camouflage Corps under the National League for Women’s Service in New York, and has recently returned from France.


Cartoon caption [signed ERH], A FREE TIP FOR THE ARMY: WHY NOT TRY WOMEN CAMOUFLEURS? in The Ogden Standard (Ogden UT), December 3, 1917, p. 11—

Why don’t some of the armies hire women as camoufleurs, anyhow? They’ve been doing it all their lives. Think of the rouge, the switches and the powder puff. Then ponder over the pads and braces.

Why, as we gather it, half the art of being an up-to-date young woman is camouflage.

Of course there are men, too, like John D. [Rockefeller] who wear wigs; and other brothers who disguise themselves (absent method) as sick patients to help the fourth man in the game to get out for the evening.

Old stuff, this camouflaging.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Camouflage Artist | Carol Sax from Ottumwa IA

Above The top image is a colored lithographic print of a World War I dazzle camouflaged merchant ship. These plans were printed in multiples and distributed to various harbors around the country, They were used, as described below, as on-site reference diagrams as the ships were being painted. This particular copy (in the collection of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum) is oddly signed by Baltimore artist Griffith Bailey Coale, suggesting that he designed it. He may or may not have, probably not. As a camouflage artist, he was not attached to the US Navy's Camouflage Design Subsection in Washington DC, where the plans were originated. Instead, he and Carol Sax were part of the Emergency Fleet Corporation, whose artists were responsible for applying designs that had been developed by the artists at the subsection. Several incomplete sets have survived, most notably at the Fleet Library at the Rhode Island School of Design. In each complete set, there are more than 450 dfferent designs.

Below that is a wooden model of the same ship, covered with more or less the same design. These ship models (about one foot in length) were prepared first, then tested for effectiveness in a special periscope-equipped viewing theatre. Based on those test results, the scheme was either abandoned, or modified and then passed on to the drafting room, where the colored diagram was prepared.


Carol Mayer Sax (1885-1961) was an American artist, theatrical designer and teacher who served as a ship camouflage designer during World War I. Born and raised in Ottumwa IA, he spent much of his professional life as a teacher and theatre designer in Baltimore MD, Lexington KY, and New York. His father, Jacob B. Sax (1853-1922) had immigrated to the US from Germany, where he became the proprietor of a major clothing store in Iowa, the J.B. Sax Company in Ottumwa. 

Sax's mother Estella (or Stella) Mayer Sax (1864-1928) (born Rosenfield) grew up in Rock Island IL. Described in retrospect as a “wealthy socialite,” she was a prominent member of the Ottumwa Women’s Club, and in 1903 was the city's delegate to a meeting of the Iowa Federation of Women’s Clubs in Des Moines. She “was involved in other civic and charitable activities and was known for her collection of art, and [her] love of travel.” In a article in the Ottumwa Courier (December 15, 1945, p. 11), it was announced that the family mansion had been given to the Trinity Episcopal Church, which is in the same Fifth Street Bluff Historic District. Following the death of the parents, the huge home was maintained for several years by Carol Sax and his sister “as a virtual museum and memorial to their parents who had filled the home with art treasures, collections of antiques and rare furnishings. The garden, too, had been maintained as one of the city’s showplaces."

After completing high school, Carol Sax studied art at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Art Students League in New York, the National Academy of Design, and Columbia University. In the fall of 1912, he returned to Iowa to deliver a talk at the Southern Iowa Normal School (a school for teacher training in nearby Bloomfield) on the value of drawing, and to urge that subject to be taught in public schools “more fully or dropped entirely.” The text of his talk was reprinted in the Ottumwa Courier (August 27, 1912, p. 4).

Denis Broughton (1900) Photograph of Ruth St. Denis

In 1916, while working independently as a designer in Baltimore, Sax was one of three founders of the Vagabond Players, one of the country’s oldest, continuous acting arenas, associated with the Little Theatre Movement. It was Sax who designed the Vagabond Theatre interior, on West Center Street near Monument Square in Baltimore. Meanwhile, while working professionally, he was praised for the sets and costumes he designed for Ruth St. Denis, an early proponent of Modern Dance, co-founder of the American Denishawn School of Dance, and a teacher of Martha Graham.

In the fall of 1915, while still living in Baltimore, Sax started an informal workshop in applied (or commercial) art, in which his students (functioning as informal interns) designed and constructed theatre components for actual stage productions. The success of that workshop apparently led to an offer to teach at the Maryland Institute of Art. In the words of a Baltimore news article (quoted in an issue of the Ottumwa Daily Review, April 10, 1916, p. 3)—

There was a feeling among the pupils [in Baltimore] that in graduating they suffered a disadvantage in trying to take commercial positions without having any distinctly commercial training. Understanding this difficulty on the part of the pupils and feeling that there existed a [rationale] for it, Mr. Sax started his commercial art class, at first quite separate from the Maryland Institute. A studio was rented [in] November a year ago [1915] and Mr. Sax, to give the class a start, turned over to it his personal commissions, which, he declared, was no sacrifice, as he didn’t have time to do them himself anyway.

From November to April of the first season the pupils handled commissions amounting in all to $2,000, a pretty good starter.

This year [1916] the class, having got a start, [was taken over by] the Maryland Institute. The former studio was [abandoned and the class is now taught] in a big room on the first floor of the Institute Building.


Later that year, the Ottumwa Courier noted (September 12, 1916, p. 7) that "The Maryland Institute is the largest art school in the country, having an enrollment of 1,400 pupils, and Mr. Sax has 300 in his classes.”


Baltimore’s Vagabond Theatre opened in November 1916 with an inaugural program that included three one-act plays, one of which (an esoteric experiment called The Artist) was written by celebrated Baltimore journalist H.L. Mencken. In the months before the opening, as Carol Sax was painting the interior of the Vagabond Theatre, a local artist who worked with him was a muralist named Griffith Bailey Coale (1890-1950), who had studied at the Maryland Institute of Art, and at European museums and art schools. Coale’s participation is curious because (like Sax) he too would later work as a camouflage artist in the closing years of WWI. Both men were contracted by the Emergency Fleet Corporation, which oversaw the application of dazzle camouflage schemes to American merchant ships. Among other camouflage artists who worked as camoufleurs in the Baltimore shipyards were James H. Daugherty, W.S. Gephart, Ralph Boyer, Henry G. Pierce and Jesse Mason. 

Another of the founders of the Vagabond Players was Constance d’Arcy Mackay (1887-1966), whose family was from St Paul MN, and who popularized the Little Theatre Movement by her influential book in 1917. It is entirely speculation that she may have been related to a prominent New York interior designer named William Andrew Mackay (1876-1939), who had created murals in 1904 for the Minnesota House of Representatives Statehouse in St Paul. Later, during WWI, Mackay established a camouflage school in his New York studio, and was hired by the Emergency Fleet Corporation to oversee merchant ship camouflage at the New York-area shipyard. A substantial number of the artists who contributed to WWI ship camouflage (including Coale and some of those listed above) were apparently trained by Mackay, of whom Sax was probably one. As for another possible link between theatre innovator Constance d’Arcy Mackay and camoufleur William Andrew Mackay, it may be significant that the latter’s father, Frank Findley Mackay (1832-1923), was a well-known stage actor, acting teacher, theatre enthusiast, and owner of the Chestnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia. Another possible link may be through Charles Donald Mackay (1867-1935), brother of William Andrew Mackay, who was a stage and silent film actor. 

While not directly relevant to camouflage, it is fascinating nevertheless that, as Carol Sax was preparing the Vagabond Theatre for its opening, another person who worked with him was a physics professor named Robert Williams Wood (1868-1955). Wood was an accomplished American physicist, and a pioneering contributor to the study of ultra-violet light and infra-red, He was living in Baltimore because he had been teaching at Johns Hopkins University since 1903. Wood served in the US Army during WWI, and even if not directly involved in camouflage, he was greatly interested in theatrical lighting, stage magic, and the widest range of illusions. In addition, Wood was notoriously inclined toward practical jokes (not always harmless) and amusing but simple humorous rhymes. Among non-scientists today, he is most often remembered as the author and illustrator of a children’s book about spurious resemblances, titled How To Tell the Birds from the Flowers and Other Wood-Cuts: A Manual of Flornithology for Beginners, in which he used mock-mimicry (in drawings and verse) to confuse a Pansy with a Chimpansy, an Antelope with a Cantaloupe, and a Parrot with a Carrot.

When WWI ended in November 1918, Carol Sax had been working as a camouflage artist for only a few months. Soon after, when he returned to Iowa to visit, an article was published in the Des Moines Register about his experience as a camoufleur. The following is the complete text from that

IOWAN AIDED US AS CAMOUFLEUR in Des Moines Register. February 2, 1919, p. 30—

OTTUMWA, IA, Feb. 1—C.M. Sax, an Ottumwa boy who was one of the 246 artists of the country salaried by the Emergency Fleet Corporation as an official camoufleur has laid down his brush for a time with the coming of peace and has been visiting at his home here. Mr. Sax is art instructor in the Maryland Institute at Baltimore and chair of the art division, Baltimore Admen’s Club.

His particular duty was camouflaging Uncle Sam’s transports and cargo carriers so that these ocean liners could evade the German sub. Recent figures given out show that camouflage of ships played one of the biggest parts in the defeat of submarines. So effective was the “dazzle” system of camouflage used by the Americans that of the 1,240 ships painted in this manner only nine were sunk by subs. The percentage of sinkings among uncamouflaged vessels is said to have been nearly four times as great.

“At the outset,” says Mr. Sax, “painters were secured and foremen employed to mark off lines from the designs furnished in a purely mechanical way. This was effective only when the designs had been drawn to the scale of a given ship. However, when designs had to be adapted to other ships of differing types and sizes, as was invariably the case, it was necessary to have the supervision of a camoufleur throughly conversant with the principles of camouflage. 

"In some instances the vessels were not camouflaged, but merely repainted in weird color schemes. Without the scientifically artistic eye, the very angle that should have been covered might have been left undone, and shadow effects placed where there should have been light.

"It was found that no design could be used without some adaptation on two different types of ships, even though they be of about the same size. Hence it was necessary to have camoufleurs on the job at all times to determine these adaptations. Sailors often would assist the artists with a zeal not displayed by less interested employees.

"Camoufleurs also had their troubles, especially when the work was first taken up. When the scheme finally was accepted, however, orders came in rushes. Consequently it was up to the camoufleurs to get them out in a hurry. Often times a ship would come into port, and while it was being loaded or unloaded as the case might be, artists had to veil it with a coat of disguising designs. Ordinarily it took from one to six days to ‘do’ a ship.

"In the beginning camoufleurs experienced some difficulty in convincing proud ship captains that at times neatly kept brass fittings must be marred by great streaks of paint. To leave any parts undone meant the annulling of the whole camouflage scheme. It was the purpose to break up straight lines or any distinguishing angles about the ship’s structure so that from the periscope it would be unable to determine the course of the ship. Many of the designs caused the ship to have two bows or sterns.

"When naval officers were skeptical about the effect of camouflage they would be taken to the camouflage theater [in William Andrew Mackay’s studio] in New York City, where from improvised periscopes they would attempt to observe the course of models which had been camouflaged. Their inability to determine the course quickly convinced them.”


At the end of WWI, Carol Sax returned to his position at the Maryland Institute of Art. A few years later he moved to the University of Kentucky at Lexington, where he served as the Head of the Art Department from 1921 to 1929. Around 1924, he once again founded a “little theatre,” called the Romany Theatre (the name alludes to vagabonds and gypsies) in Lexington. This became possible when an African-American Baptist church relocated, and its small ramshackle building (on the edge of the university campus) became vacant. The purpose of the Romany Theatre was “the presentation of plays on the basis of art with the element of commercial profit left out, and its players are both local and imported” (as reported in The Key, Vol XLII No 1, February 1925, pp. 25-26). In 1928, a new director was appointed, and it was renamed the Guignol Theatre.

Initially, the outside of the newly founded Romany Theatre was “a dreary sight…sickly, greenish gray in hue, a drab, ugly shack.” As a promotional gimmick, Sax and his students came up with a plan of “inviting the student body and townspeople to a painting party, the purpose of which was to be the brightening of the Romany’s exterior.” Earlier, in WWI news reports, dazzle-camouflaged ships (such as those that Sax and Coale had worked on) had been lampooned as cubist nightmares, sea-going easter eggs, a Russian toyshop gone made—and even the delirium tremens. At the end of the Romany Theatre’s painting party, the building’s exterior was “adorned wth gaily colored splotches of paint, campus caricatures, and football scores…” It reminded some people of a dazzle-camouflaged ship, and indeed it was described in a magazine as “a nightmare, a riot of color, resembling nothing so much as the palette of an artist with delirium tremens."

In contrast to the outside, the building’s interior (of which a photograph survives) was anything but chaotic. Presumably designed by Sax, it was “a soothing symphony of exquisite blended color harmonies. The wall of the toy foyer are decorated with beautifully patterned Russian designs, and the entire interior carries out the gypsy motif in tambourine lights, mural decorations and curtains." 

Romany Theatre painting party

Romany Theatre interior and stage

In 1922, while Carol Sax was still at the University of Kentucky, his father died. His father Jacob B. Sax, a wealthy Ottumwa clothing store merchant, was praised in the press at the time of his death as a “bank trustee and official, promoter of civic enterprises and one of the leaders in charitable and philanthropic efforts…[a person who] was active in every form of civic interest.”  Six years later, when Carol Sax’s mother died, she too was remembered as having been remarkably generous in her contributions to the community. It was recalled that she was active in the group that organized the public library, years in advance of the opening of the city’s Carnegie Library in 1902. The civic activities of Carol Sax’s parents appear to have encouraged his own. Throughout his professional life, he was frequently featured in Ottumwa newspaper articles, describing the occasional visits he made, during which he encouraged local artists, sponsored art exhibitions, and gave talks on the virtues of studying art. 

One of his last visits took place in 1941, when he was slated to discuss “Art and the Theatre” to a public audience at the city’s community art center. As reported in an article in the Ottumwa Courier (October 16, 1941, p. 7), the walls of the gallery in which Sax’s talk was held were lined with works of abstract art. Sax began by talking about his career in the theatre, but at some point an audience member asked, “What is that conglomeration behind you?” His talk then became a discussion of how to understand abstract art, portions of which were reprinted in the news story: “Abstract art has value,” said Sax, “if it contributes something in the way of aesthetic appreciation. Too many people look at abstract art and try to find representation there. It isn’t present. It isn’t supposed to be. Abstract art is a treatment of form, color, line, space."


In 1929, Sax left the University of Kentucky, and relocated to New York. He then joined another experimental theatre, in this case an American stock company, located in Paris on the Champs Élysées. But the governmental red tape was frustrating and the productions were not of sufficient appeal to French audiences, in part because they only used American actors, performing in mostly American plays. He remained for only a season, then returned to New York, where he once again worked as a theatre designer. 
Another opportunity to live outside of the US came in the fall of 1934, when he was named the managing producer of the Manchester Repertory Theatre in Manchester, England. But that too was short-lived, and he soon returned to New York, where he resumed his professional work in theatre design and production.

Carol Sax died in New York on September 28, 1961, at age 76.

I am grateful to the staff at the Ottumwa Public Library, where I was able to find information about Carol M. Sax in their genealogy research files.—RB