The sociological landscape at the beginning of the 20th century was pretty mundane, all things considered. The last thing on the minds of people around the world was – war. The beginnings of World War One were so sudden that for most nations, it was entirely unexpected.
Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated on June 28th, 1914. Only one month later, Germany declared war on Serbia, and a week after that, Russia, Belgium, France, Great Britain had joined the conflict. The aftermath of the quote-unquote great war left people frustrated, particularly because the whole thing seemed so…unnecessary.
Before The Addams Family
Nearly 16 million people died because of global greed and ego. This pathetic excuse for all-out annihilation left people disillusioned, so much so that they would be referred to as “The Lost Generation”. World War One changed the impression of war from an unfortunate, but the ultimately noble pursuit to a dishonorable horror show. This ignited a national conversation often filled with overt pessimism.
Disenchantment about the direction of the world was so prevalent that the name “World War One” was coined by an English journalist in 1918, nearly twenty-one years before the beginning of World War II. Why? Because he believed that there was no possible way that the great war could ever be the last. He was, of course, right.
A strong distrust of world leaders and the aristocracy manifested itself into a widespread cynicism. This social paradigm reflected itself in the works of writers like Ernest Hemingway who experienced world war one firsthand. Take for example this excerpt from A Farewell to Arms…
“If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”
From Romanticism to Modernism
Hemingway’s writing perfectly captures the transition from Romanticism to Modernism in the American consciousness. This transition post-war was a rejection of tradition and focused on looking inward with a critical eye.
Modernism not only reared its head into writing but also architecture. For example, the Victorian mansion. A symbol of excess wealth was now abandoned for its association with the super-wealthy and replaced with something much more utilitarian.
Economic Collapse Created The Addams Family
A little over a decade later and America would face one of its largest financial crashes. The great depression shook families across the country, it devastated households and left nearly 15 million Americans unemployed, which was close to a quarter of the country’s population. Victorian houses across the country were either condemned shells of their past glory or turned into workhouses for the poor.
If you were a private business owner in the upper middle class, then there was a high probability that your business would be shut down due to a lack of income within the year. If you were part of the elite upper class, your business would take a hit, but you could live on without much incident. Banks got away with murder and by the time the government decided to intervene with federal programs to alleviate the unemployment rate, it was too late.
The New Yorker Magazine was first published in 1925 and throughout the great depression, its inner content was apathetic to the market crash. The publication focused on the city’s art scene and rarely on politics. To quote The New Yorker themselves, famous illustrator Peter Arno…
“portrayed the Depression, when he portrayed it at all, as a mild joke.”
Three years into the great depression, enter a twenty-year-old cartoonist. Despite his youth, he had just published his first illustration in the New Yorker. His name? Charles Addams.
Charles or Chas Addams was born in Westfield, New Jersey, and developed an eye for the macabre. Addams broke into and explored the abandoned Victorian homes around his neighborhood. He’d spend time in the local cemetery, admiring the rows of historic graves. Addams wasn’t your average kid playing hopscotch.
When he was old enough to start working, he joined the layout department of True Detective Magazine, where he would retouch photos of corpses, removing the blood from them. Addams would complain about his job saying…
“A lot of those corpses were more interesting the way they were.”
Addams grew up through America’s transitional period and saw the physical and psychological changes happening right before his eyes. He had a boundless passion for drawing which eventually brought him to the New Yorker. Around 1935 Addams started submitting cartoons regularly to the magazine, finally debuting a certain fearsome family in 1938.
What inspired The Addams Family?
The family was mostly nameless and would only appear 150 times out of his 1300 published works. They were centered around a maternal figure who was quite reminiscent of Maila Nurmi’s Vampira, a young girl who was the spitting image of her mother, a younger boy in stripes, a witch-like grandmother, a Boris Karloff like butler, a balding ghoulish uncle, and a dapper-beady-eyed man with a pencil-thin mustache.
This would be the foundation for The Addams Family, though they wouldn’t earn their iconic names until the 1960’s television series.
Who is in The Addams Family?
- Gomez Addams
- Morticia Addams
- Pugsley Addams
- Wednesday Addams
- Uncle Fester
- Cousin Itt
- Kitty Kat
Who created The Addams Family?
This family in the comic reflected the morbid humor of Charles Addams and even aspects of Addams’ life. For example, Morticia was inspired by his ex-wife.
The Addams Family house would be inspired by the abandoned Victorian mansions across the United States. These creepy gaggle of ghouls were a satirical inversion of the ideal 20th-century American family. The Addams Family mansion would stylistically operate as a constant reminder of a horrible era long past. Their wealth was just as much a mystery as they themselves.
Charles Addams designed The Addams Family to poke fun at the upper crust of America and to make them look like a strange group of ghouls that were far beyond the comprehension of the everyman. Not to say that The Addams Family weren’t also kind and loving.
Gomez and Morticia raised their children calmly, usually encouraging their dangerous hi-jinks. The heads of the household never fought and were always portrayed in a constant state of infatuation.
They co-parented their children in a time when the wife was expected to do all of the child-raising and the father to remain aloof. The dark humor embedded in each comic juxtaposed the niceties of society. Over time, the characters would evolve and take on lives of their own.
In a strange way, The Addams Family encapsulates these moments of American history. The introduction of irony and cynicism as common, the ridiculousness of the super-wealthy, and the clinging to romantic values that were once at the heart of every American.
To address unabashedly political and timely topics under the nose of The New Yorker’s editorial board was a bold move in of itself. The Addams Family became a placeholder for the average American’s growing cynicism, dealing with it that cynicism with humor and tact.
The Addams Family Across Generations
The Addams Family as a property has evolved since the passing of Charles Addams in 1988 and though it may not be used any longer to comment on the sociopolitical landscape of America, it remains a beloved property, finding new life in every generation. One way or another, you’ve been introduced to their clan of creepy kooks.
Whether you grew up reading the original New Yorker comics, watching the first black and white live-action TV show, the animated series, or seeing them for the first time on the big screen, this fictional family in an odd way has become a touchstone for American households.
Whether you’re part of the Lost Generation, a Baby Boomer, Gen X, Y, or whatever… you’ll recognize the classic Addams Family theme song every time you hear it. Why? Because The Addams Family is as American as Apple Pie and Baseball. And we could all use a little family right now.