Tony Sarg (1880-1942) is widely known as “America’a Puppet Master“, a multi-talented creative genius and exceptional visual thinker who’s mainly remembered for his unique Marionette shows, his giant balloons made for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and for designing a series of mechanically operated Christmas window displays for Macy’s in the 1930s. He was also widely respected as a toy, fabric, wallpaper and interior designer, and a pioneer in film animation – but among all this creative works my favorites are his endlessly funny, witty, surprising illustration series depicting various iconic British/London and New York scenes, sites and social activities in the early 1900s and 20s.
He was born in Guatemala – his father was a German diplomat – and spent his childhood in Darmstadt, Germany. In 1905 he relocated to England where he worked as an illustrator in London. He took up marionettes as a hobby in his teenage years but it was in London that his real fascination began after seeing the show of the famous puppeteer company of Thomas Holden.
The Underground Electric Railways Company of London (the precursor of today’s London Underground) commissioned him to make illustrations for their 1914 calendar – his 13 drawings depict madly lively slices of busy London and neighbourhood, packed with tiny, scurrying figures and thousands of elaborate, funny details. Many people find them reminiscent of Richard Scarry‘s books and English artist Martin Handford’s Where’s Wally? (aka Where’s Waldo?) series – personally I think they have more in common with Dutch artist Jan van Haasteren‘s work, especially humor-wise.
Humours of London, 1914
In 1915 Tony Sarg moved with his wife (an American woman, Bertha Eleanor McGowen) to the United States, first settling in New York City where he had his studio in the famous Flatiron Building. Soon he began producing an touring puppet shows (Rip Van Winkle, Don Quixote, Treasure Island, Ali Baba, Alice in Wonderland, Sinbad the Sailor, Robinson Crusoe) throughout the US, and in 1921 he wrote his book, The Tony Sarg Marionette Book. Around that era, only little information existed on old-world marionette technique as most puppeteers guarded their craft as secret material. His book was one of the first publications to reveal technical information about marionettes and helped a lot to popularize puppetry in America, with his know-hows making it possible for children to participate in puppetry as a home or school activity.
In 1927 he designed the legendary inaugural Thanksgiving Day parade balloon for Macy’s Department Store, followed by new balloons every year and a series of animated Christmas windows for Macy’s that set a trend around the country.
While being busy with his many business ventures he also found time to make illustrations of the 20s roaring NY, capturing moments and scenes of the city’s life in the same vein as he did with his British series. His illustrations appeared in the New York Times and were published in 1926 in a book titled Up & Down New York. Some of the sites – like the Waldorf Astoria, the EL station at Greely Square, the Aquarium – doesn’t exist anymore but many of them look exactly the same 100 years later – well, except the vehicles and the clothing of the citizens running around in the scenes…
Up&Down New York
In the early 1920s he relocated to Nantucket where he became an active member of the Art Colony and the local social life. He opened the Tony Sarg’s Curiosity Shop and exhibited his works regularly at the Easy Street Gallery.
In 1939, his last show, Robin Hood, struggled with financial difficulties and finally his business went bankrupt. Tony Sarg died in 1942, three weeks after an emergency appendectomy.
The illustrations from Humours of London and Up&Down New York – digitally cleaned and colors restored – are available as print and puzzles in my store.