Have you ever wanted a more efficient way of putting postage stamps on envelopes? Or a napkin that wiped your face while you ate? How about a method of remembering to mail your spouse’s letters? One revolutionary genius created contraptions to meet these and other objectives: Jewish-American cartoonist Rube Goldberg.
These weren’t real inventions, but cartoons in 20th-century newspapers and magazines.
Perhaps they weren’t so efficient — consider their improbable instructions. To put a single postage stamp on an envelope, your boss had to sneeze, a slumbering dog had to wake up, and a stenographer had to think it was raining outside and pick up an umbrella — just three of 17 steps.
Such contraptions made Goldberg synonymous with cartooning by the time of his death in 1970 at age 87. Several decades later, in 1995, his self-wiping napkin made it onto a US postage stamp.
There have been homages to his gadgetry in films from “Modern Times” to “Raiders of the Lost Ark” — even an international Rube Goldberg machine contest overseen by his granddaughter Jennifer George, with smaller contests across the US.
Goldberg’s influence has made it across the globe. In Israel, Haifa’s Technion has held an annual Rube Goldberg machine contest for international high school students for the last three years. This year, the contest’s theme celebrates Israel’s 70th birthday.
The cartoonist’s work is now on display in his home city of San Francisco with a unique exhibit, “The Art of Rube Goldberg,” at the Contemporary Jewish Museum through July 8.
This is the only California appearance for the exhibit, which debuted last year with granddaughter George helping to organize it. The first comprehensive look at the cartoonist’s career since his death, it includes original drawings and preparatory sketches that have never been exhibited before.
Viewers can also see Goldberg’s Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoons — which spurred an anti-Semitic reaction.
Goldberg is also part of a companion exhibit at the CJM through July 29: “Contraption: Rediscovering California Jewish Artists,” which highlights 16 Jewish artists over the past 150 years who addressed the concept of the machine. The exhibit features five original Goldberg drawings that have not been previously displayed.
“Rube Goldberg is an example of the kind of artist we like to bring to the museum and public,” said CJM chief curator Renny Pritikin, who co-curated the “Contraption” exhibit and noted the appropriateness of tech-friendly San Francisco as a Goldberg venue.
“[His work] would not have come to San Francisco if not for us. It’s a specific way we’re serving the community, to celebrate a San Francisco Jewish cultural icon,” Pritikin said.
An eye-witness to a San Fran tech boom
Goldberg was born in San Francisco — as Reuben Garrett Lucius Goldberg — in 1883 to Max and Hannah (Cohn) Goldberg. Just four of the Goldbergs’ seven children survived to adulthood. Their father was a Prussian Jewish immigrant who served as sheriff of San Francisco County in the 1890s. At the time, San Francisco had the second-largest Jewish population in the US behind New York, according to George.
Goldberg’s hometown influenced him through “the beginning of the rapid acceleration of technology, things like transportation in San Francisco, the famous cable car,” said Paul Tumey, who co-edited two books on Goldberg and is awaiting the publication of a third.
“His very first published humor cartoon depicted an old man coming into a bus in San Francisco, getting hit by a streetcar,” Tumey said.
But his father frowned upon art as a career, and the younger Goldberg studied engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, and pursued it professionally. This had the opposite effect to his father’s plans.
“Goldberg’s satire of his college professors and his brief period as a mining engineer working with explosives, stampers, sumps, and sluices certainly provided fertile raw material,” explained comics historian Daniel Yezbick, a professor of English and communications at St. Louis Community College at Wildwood.
Goldberg left for a job drawing sports cartoons for the San Francisco Chronicle. He then followed his dream to New York City.
“It was where you had to go,” Tumey said, noting that Goldberg’s contemporary West Coast cartoonists did the same thing.
The Mark Twain of comics
Success did not come immediately, and according to Tumey, Goldberg’s colleagues suggested that to get ahead, he change his last name to disguise his Judaism.
As quoted in American magazine in 1922, Goldberg realized “it was idiotic to even consider such a thing; that I would be ashamed of it all the remainder of my life; and that, if a man’s achievements are no bigger than the sound of his name, it doesn’t much matter what his name may be.”
Goldberg kept his name, which became a household word thanks to his inventions.
His first invention cartoon “very likely” appeared in 1912, Tumey said, and while “[he] wasn’t creating anything really all that new,” he did provide “his own spin,” with “drawings that were parodies of engineering diagrams … And Rube was good at it, of course … He did this the rest of his life.”
Goldberg became the nation’s first millionaire cartoonist — earning the equivalent of $2 million in 1915 — and branched out into other fields that helped him achieve this. His advertising art pitched products from gasoline to cigarettes. He tinkered with animated films that, had he continued them, might have made him “another Walt Disney,” Tumey said.
In 1930, he wrote the first Three Stooges film, “Soup to Nuts,” which featured one of his contraptions. All of this made him a celebrity who befriended fellow Jewish-American stars like Groucho Marx and the Gershwin brothers. He also became a husband and father, marrying Irma Seeman and raising two boys with her, Thomas and George.
“He was known throughout, I would say, the first three decades of the 20th century as the star humor cartoonist in America,” Tumey said, calling him “Will Rogers or Mark Twain on the comics page,” and “an observational humorist, in the way Seinfeld is an observational comedian.”
“Goldberg would do cartoons about crazy hats, or how there were so many feet on the subway, you couldn’t walk,” Tumey said.
As a humor cartoonist from 1909 to 1939, Goldberg had to come up with a different idea every day, Tumey said, “sometimes two or three [cartoons], sometimes a few dozen.” He said that Goldberg devoted the most time to his inventions: 20 to 30 hours for each one — 10 times longer than any of his other cartoons.
“I think we all want to know how things work,” his granddaughter George said of the inventions’ impact. “No matter what line of work you’re in, there’s a type of chain reaction to events. I don’t care if you’re a coder, a writer, an artist, a plumber — one thing has to precede another.”
“[Seeing] all these absurd everyday items together in a chain-reaction model gets you to latch on to the process,” George said.
“Rube didn’t care if it worked,” she said — although, she noted, “He was trained as an engineer. They typically worked if you could actually gather the elements.” But “he wanted most of all that you’d laugh.”
“They are funny because they are ridiculous, but they are also captivating because they are imaginative and idealized representations of the ‘know-how’ and resourcefulness that we need and value for survival and progress,” Yezbick said.
“Perhaps that’s why the Goldberg invention is still celebrated by science and engineering students, as well as more aesthetically driven artists and intellectuals,” he said.
Turning to a darker palette
Starting on November 1, 1938, Goldberg switched his focus from humor cartoons to political cartoons. While he continued drawing humor cartoons, he would be a political cartoonist until his retirement in 1964.
Some of his political cartoons touched on national issues, such as the New Deal. Others illustrated international topics, including a cartoon of two men, representing “Jews” and “Arabs,” traveling in the desert on parallel paths that did not intersect. The caption read, “When will they find a meeting point?”
Goldberg also drew anti-Nazi and anti-Stalin cartoons, Pritikin noted, saying, “As a Jew, he was strongly anti-totalitarian.”
But Goldberg faced an anti-Semitic backlash that resulted in a poignant postscript to his earlier decision not to change his name.
During WWII, Goldberg received hate mail with “shameful language,” Tumey said, “according to his granddaughter Jennifer, with human feces in the mail … I don’t think people were pillorying him because of the content of the cartoons, I think it was because he was Jewish … In light of this, horrible news surfaced about what happened to Jewish people in Europe.”
Goldberg called his sons, Thomas and George, into his office. Noting that they would be going away to college, he asked them to change their last name, under the pretext of not wanting them to stand in his shadow. Thomas, the older son, chose his brother’s name for his new last name, becoming Thomas George. His brother followed suit, becoming George George.
“There were anti-Semitic threats to the family,” said Jennifer George, who is George George’s daughter. “That’s what inspired the name change, even though it was something my father and his brother only learned later. He would not send them off to college scared, with a name that would intentionally bring them harm.”
Regarding her father’s unconventional new name, she said, “It suited him very well.”
George George went on to write “My Dinner With Andre,” as well as for Bonanza, Gunsmoke and The Rifleman. Thomas George became a successful abstract artist.
Jennifer George is a well-known jewelry maker whose two children are pursuing art. She seeks to preserve her grandfather’s legacy — not only through the traveling exhibit currently at the CJM.
Later this year, the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh will unveil a separate exhibit emphasizing kid-friendly aspects of Goldberg’s work. A feature film is in development, on the heels of a children’s book George published last year, “Rube Goldberg’s Simple Normal Humdrum School Day.”
“This is all stuff I think Rube would do today if he were alive — riffing on driverless cars, virtual assistants,” George said. “In the meantime, we’re pushing the needle forward without him.”
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