Cool Things - Hardware Store Painting
The reputation of small towns suffered throughout much of the 20th century. Particularly during the 1910s and 1920s, intellectuals belittled small towns for what they perceived as narrow-mindedness and uniformity. World wars drew young people away to urban areas; their flight was lamented in such popular songs as "How You Gonna' Keep 'Em Down On The Farm (After They've Seen Paree?)."
Mr. Carol Johnson painted this scene of the interior of his family's hardware store in Alta Vista, Kansas. Johnson was a commercial illustrator who lived on the East coast for many decades but always claimed to be a Midwesterner at heart. This delightfully detailed painting depicts his love for the small town life he left behind.
Wolgast Hardware served town dwellers as well as area farmers for about fifty years beginning in the 1920s. Located on Main Street, the store was operated by Johnson's uncle, Lawrence Wolgast. Johnson was living in Connecticut when he created the painting from a salesman's snapshot. Although largely true to the photograph, the painting does incorporate a clerk and customer modeled after two of Johnson's neighbors. Wolgast Hardware closed in the 1970s and the building was torn down.
Johnson lived and worked in New York and Connecticut for over 50 years, illustrating for magazines and advertising agencies. He always flew a Kansas flag in his backyard. This painting was included in his professional portfolio and featured in a 1982 calendar. It is oil on cardboard, and was painted in 1955.
Johnson painted this work after World War II, at a time when small town life was in the decline. After years of rural flight, though, cities and their suburbs began to look tired and worn to many people. Some small towns started to experience a renaissance in the 1980s, when a poll indicated most Americans believed the ideal place to live was in the country.
Depopulation of rural areas continues today, and there are worries that small town living is an endangered lifestyle. Johnson's work is both an exceptional document of his family's business and a testament to a way of life. It is in the collections of the Kansas Museum of History.
Entry: Cool Things - Hardware Store Painting
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: March 2001
Date Modified: December 2014
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.